New South Wales Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drug Initiative (PDI)

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Author: B. White, L. Degenhardt, C. Breen

Resource Type: Technical Reports

NDARC Technical Report No. 182 (2004)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report presents the results of an ongoing study which monitors party drug markets in NSW. The 2003 sample provides data for the fourth year on trends in party drug markets. Data collected in 2002 and a feasibility trial of this methodology conducted in 2000 and 2001 are also included. Trends of the demographic characteristics and patterns of drug use among party drug users, their criminal behaviour, and perceived party drug-related harms are presented. The implications of the results and the nature and characteristics of party drug markets are discussed.

Demographic characteristics of party drug users (PDU)
The 2003 results indicate that party drug users, a population defined in this study by the regular use of tablets sold as ‘ecstasy’ (at least six days of use in the six months preceding interview), tend to be young, relatively well-educated, and likely to be employed or engaged in full time study. Less than one third reported engaging in crime, most of which is infrequent and accounted for by drug dealing. Seven participants were currently in treatment for a drug-related problem, and three participants had previously been incarcerated. Demographic characteristics of party drug users interviewed have changed little since 2000.

Patterns of drug use among PDU
Participants could be characterised as extensive polydrug users, half of whom nominated ecstasy as their favourite or preferred drug. On average, participants had used ten drugs in their lifetime and had used seven in the preceding six months. Almost all reported lifetime use of alcohol, cannabis, tobacco and methamphetamine powder (speed).

The prevalence and frequency of use of other party drugs such as ketamine, GHB and MDA stabilised in 2003 which may suggest that while substantial minorities continue to report recent and lifetime use of these drugs, there are relatively few regular users who have access to these drugs. They may not be as widely or consistently available as ecstasy and therefore the use of these drugs may be opportunistic in nature. This is reflected in the relatively low frequency of use of these drugs with most recent users report using less than monthly.

Ecstasy
Participants in the 2003 sample first used ecstasy at a median age of 18 and typically commenced monthly use when they were 19 years old. The reported frequency of use ranged from once a month to three times a week. Over half (59%) used ecstasy between weekly and monthly, 30% between fortnightly and weekly and 11% had used ecstasy more than once a week in the preceding six months. A third (35%) of participants reported they had binged (used continuously for more than 48 hours without sleep) on ecstasy and half (51%) had taken four or more tablets in a single use episode in the preceding six months. Most (74%) reported typically using more than one tablet per occasion of use. Consistent with previous years, participants primarily administered ecstasy orally. Although 13% reported having injected the drug at some time, no one reported that injection was their preferred route of ecstasy administration.

The use of other drugs in conjunction with ecstasy was commonly reported including alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, speed and ketamine. Most participants also used a similar range of drugs to ease the ‘come down’ or recovery period following acute ecstasy intoxication, including cannabis, tobacco and alcohol.
Price, purity and availability of ecstasy

The median price paid for a single ecstasy tablet has remained stable at $35 since 2001 and most participants reported that the price has remained stable during the six months preceding interview. Most participants pay for ecstasy through employment or are given ecstasy by friends. The majority report ‘scoring’ from friends and dealers and the most frequently reported purchase location was a friends’ home.

There is little consistency regarding users subjective reports of the purity of ecstasy and KI reports reflect this inconsistency. The median purity of seizures of tablets containing MDMA/ phenethylamines analysed by both AFP and NSW police have decreased slightly in recent years.

Tablets sold as ecstasy have remained readily available in Sydney since 2000; the great majority of users have consistently described the drug as ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to obtain across time.

Imported tablets are more likely to contain MDMA than locally manufactured imitation tablets that contain methamphetamine. The number and weight of customs seizures of ecstasy seized at the border has increased in recent years suggesting either changes in activity, improvements in detection or more ecstasy being imported into the country or a combination of these factors. The supply of imported MDMA tablets does not appear to match demand, and the market for imitation pills remains, however, NSW police reported that the ratio of methamphetamine tablets sold as MDMA to MDMA tablets actually containing MDMA decreased in 2001-02. This may have indicated an increase in imported MDMA, some manufacture of local MDMA or that tablets containing methamphetamine are being sold as such.

Prior to 2002-03 there were no confirmed detections of MDMA producing laboratories (Australian Crime Commission, 2003). However there have been seizures of the precursors required to manufacture MDMA and in the 2002 and 2003 calendar years NSW Police reported seven ecstasy clandestine laboratories detected in NSW. This suggests that there are local manufactures of ecstasy attempting to compete with importers of the drug.

Methamphetamine
Almost all (97%) participants in 2003 reported having used methamphetamine powder (speed) at some time and a large proportion (79%) reported using speed in the six months preceding interview. Most recent users reported using speed less than once a month with snorting and swallowing being the most common routes of administration. Lifetime and recent use of speed has remained stable across sampling years although frequency of use decreased again in 2003. One possible explanation for the reduced frequency in use is the continued increase in prevalence of methamphetamine base (base) and crystal methamphetamine (crystal) use.

Approximately two thirds (63%) of the 2003 sample reported lifetime base use and 42% had used base in the preceding six months. The majority of recent users reported using less than once a month and the most common route of administration was swallowing. Since 2000, prevalence of lifetime and recent use of base has increased although 2003 rates were comparable to 2002. Median number of days of base used has fluctuated over time.

Over half the sample (56%) reported having used crystal at some time and a similar proportion (48%) reported using in the preceding six months. Prevalence of lifetime and recent crystal use has increased over time with a substantial rise, particularly in recent use, since 2002. Comparable to other forms of methamphetamine, the majority of recent users used less than month although data suggest median days of use has increased over time. In contrast to the other forms, the most common route of crystal administration was smoking. Clearly, there are risks associated with this route of administration. Crystal was also more likely to be used in conjunction with ecstasy in 2003 (10%) compared to 2002 (1%) and more likely to have been used during a binge episode of use; 37% of those who had recently binged used crystal in 2003 compared to 11% in 2002.

The price of speed was commented on by over half (57%) of the sample with $55 for one gram the most common purchase. Half (49%) agreed the price speed had remained stable. One quarter of the sample (24%) reported on the current price of base. A ‘point’ (0.1 of a gram) was the most commonly purchased amount for which a median of $40 was paid. Most reported the price of base had remained stable (41%) or decreased (21%) although one third (35%) were unable to comment. Slightly less participants were able to comment on the current price of crystal (21%) with a ‘point’ of crystal the most frequently purchased amount for $50. Almost half (46%) of those who commented did not know whether the price of crystal had changed in the preceding six months, consistent with the relatively recent use of this drug.

Most reported the availability of speed was ‘very easy’ to ‘moderately easy’ to obtain. However, while reports that speed was ‘very easy’ to obtain decreased since 2002, reports of both (31%) base and crystal (46%) being ‘very easy’ to obtain increased. The ease of obtaining all forms of methamphetamine was reported to have remained ‘stable’ over the preceding six months by the majority of those who commented.

Cocaine
The prevalence of lifetime cocaine use remained stable across sampling years, with the majority of participants reporting having used cocaine at some time. However, proportions of PDU that reported recent cocaine use decreased in 2003 with less than half the sample reporting use in the preceding six months. Further, the median number of days used decreased to two, with three quarters of recent users reported using less than once a month. Snorting was the most common route of administration.

One third (31%) of the sample commonly purchased a gram of cocaine for a median of $200, with most (62%) reporting the price had remained stable. Of those who commented (n=34), most (59%) reported that cocaine was currently ‘moderately easy’ to obtain and two thirds (65%) believed the availability had remained ‘stable’.

Ketamine
The prevalence of ketamine use stabilised in 2003, although use has increased since 2000 with similar proportions of the 2003 sample reporting both lifetime (59%) and recent (49%) ketamine use. Frequency of ketamine use by the majority of recent users was monthly which is comparable to previous years. Snorting was the most common reported route of administration. One quarter (28%) commented on the current price of ketamine. A gram was purchased for $150. The majority (50%) reported the price as ‘stable’ although one third (36%) were unable to comment.

The majority of participants who commented reported that ketamine was ‘very easy’ (19%), ‘easy’ (39%) or ‘moderately easy’ (19%) to obtain and over half reported that the availability of ketamine had remained stable (56%).

GHB
One third (33%) of the 2003 sample reported having used GHB at some time in their life, while a fifth (21%) had used the drug in the preceding six months. While the prevalence of GHB use has increased over time, proportions reporting both lifetime and recent use in 2003 were comparable to the 2002 sample. The majority of recent users reported less than monthly use, with median days used comparable between sampling years.

Only a small proportion (12%) of participants in 2003 were able to comment on GHB price and availability so these data must be interpreted with caution. GHB was commonly purchased in a ‘vial’ for a median of $35. Most (42%) reported the price of GHB had remained ‘stable’ although the same proportion were unable to comment on price changes which is consistent with participants’ relatively limited experience with this drug. All those commenting reported the availability of GHB as ‘very easy’, ‘easy’ or ‘moderately easy’ to obtain, with most reporting the ease of obtaining GHB had remained ‘stable’ (42%) or had become ‘easier’ (33%).

LSD
Lifetime and recent use of LSD has decreased over time with two thirds (67%) of the 2003 sample reporting having ever used LSD and a quarter (27%) reporting use in the six months prior to interview. Frequency of use has also decreased, with most recent users reporting less than monthly use. Users typically use one tab per occasion of use and this has remained stable across sampling years. All recent users reported swallowing the drug.

One fifth (22%) of the sample reported the current price of LSD to be $15 a tab and most reported the price to be stable (68%). Reports of the availability of LSD varied with one third (32%) reporting LSD ‘moderately easy’ to obtain. Two thirds (64%) reported that the availability of LSD had remained stable.

MDA
Approximately one third of participants in 2003 had used MDA recently. The proportion of participants who report having ever used MDA has increased overtime although prevalence of both lifetime and recent use in 2003 was comparable to 2002. Frequency of use has remained relatively stable at less than monthly across sampling years.

One fifth (21%) of the sample reported the current price of MDA as $45 per cap and most reported the price had remained stable during the preceding six months. User reports of current availability were less consistent although most thought availability had remained stable over the preceding six months.

Patterns of other drug use
Comparable to previous years, almost all party drug users report consuming alcohol on a median of two days a week. Similarly, most of the 2003 sample reported recent cannabis use, the majority of who reported a median of two days of use per week. Tobacco use was common with just over half reporting daily use. Also comparable to previous years, half the 2003 sample had used benzodiazepines at some time. Those who reported recent benzodiazepine use did so less than once a month. A small number of the 2003 sample reported the recent use of antidepressants, two of whom used for reasons other than depression. The use of inhalants such as amyl nitrate and nitrous oxide appear to have remained stable across time.

Criminal and Police Activity
Relatively few of the ecstasy users interviewed were involved in criminal activity apart from dealing drugs. Less than one third (28%) reported dealing in the month preceding interview and most of them reported doing so less than once a week. Reports of criminal activity to fund the purchase of ecstasy have decreased over time. Small numbers were arrested and very few report a history of incarceration.

There was a marked decrease in the proportion of ecstasy users sampled who perceive recent increases in police activity. However, of those who did report an increase, the majority reported increase police presence in nightclubs, dance parties and raves. KI reports were consistent with this.
The majority of all four samples of ecstasy users reported that police activity had not made it more difficult for them to obtain drugs

Conclusion
There is increasing evidence that the use of ecstasy is widespread and that the market has increased or stabilised in recent years. The results of general population surveys (showing an increased prevalence of use over time), increases in arrests for possession or dealing ecstasy, increases in calls to telephone help lines about ecstasy, and reports from regular users, suggest that over time, this group is increasing in size and that ecstasy is being used more heavily. The PDI survey data show that regular ecstasy users score from a range of people and use in a wide variety of locations. All this information suggests that despite Australia's continued effort to reduce both the importation and local manufacture of ecstasy, it has remained readily available in Sydney since 2000. Continued monitoring of the market for ecstasy will ensure policymakers are well placed to respond to changes in the market or to the nature and extent of ecstasy-related harms in a timely fashion.

Implications
There is evidence to suggest that ecstasy (MDMA) may be neurotoxic to serotonergic neurons in the brain, which are involved in mood regulation and memory function (Boot et al., 2000, Hegadoren et al., 1999). The long term consequences of ecstasy use are not as well understood. Results from the PDI suggest that there is the potential to reduce the harm associated with party drug use is this population. The challenge of harm reduction strategies is to incorporate messages that are credible and acceptable to the population.

The vast majority of ecstasy users perceive a wide range psychological, neurological and physical harms related to their use of the drug yet they continue to use in ways that may be considered harmful. Substantial proportions report recently bingeing on ecstasy and using large amounts of alcohol in conjunction with ecstasy. Both these patterns of behaviours are likely to increase the risks associated with ecstasy use and should perhaps be considered by health educators as harmful behaviour worth targeting.

Although many users were able to identify harms related to the use of ecstasy and other party drugs, there were some users that did not know the risks associated with use. As party drug users are also polydrug users, it is important to provide accurate information to this group regarding combinations of specific party drugs and their effects. The provision of evidence-based information to reduce the harm associated with the use (and poly use) of these drugs may help to avoid some of these harms. Further research may be required to provide a better understanding of harms associated with specific drug combinations. In addition it is important to acknowledge that users may be using specific combinations of drugs to enhance effects or decrease the side effects of others. Some users of speed, ketamine, GHB and amyl reported the benefit of these drugs was the ability to enhance effects or decrease the side effects of other drugs. Some KI also made comments consistent with this. It is a challenge to provide effective harm reduction messages to this group, acknowledging their awareness of these drugs and associated effects while also communicating strategies to limit harm.

The content of ‘ecstasy’ tablets is variable, and this is an issue of concern that could be potentially addressed by the consistent analysis of seizures by law enforcement agencies. Since 1997, the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department, Chemical Drugs Intelligence Team, has maintained a database on drug seizures. Over the last seven years this database has developed into a comprehensive record of drug seizures and trends within Victoria. This database will contain a greater number of seizures from other jurisdictions in the future, but at time of publication data for NSW was not available.

The use of other party drugs such as ketamine, GHB, MDA and LSD appears to be more sporadic. Consistent with a relatively low level of use of these drugs, only small numbers felt confident about commenting on the price, purity and availability of them. Consequently, many people who report the recent use of such drugs may not deliberately seek them out. This use may be more opportunistic and hence, they are unfamiliar with market indicators such as changes in their price, purity and availability. The relatively low rate of exposure to the regular use of these drugs is in itself an indicator of the smaller size of the markets for them. Nevertheless the use of these drugs, however infrequent, is of interest as it may be that the most important factor related to PDUs’ use of these other drugs is the risks associated with the combinations of drugs used, i.e. the polydrug use itself. In addition, although use of ketamine, GHB and MDA stabilised in 2003, there have been increases since 2000 and continued monitoring is required to ascertain if the markets will continue to grow.

The 2003 PDI results highlight the increase in the use of crystal methamphetamine among party drug users. The increases in the proportions that recently used crystal, used crystal in a binge, reported they typically used crystal with ecstasy, increase in the frequency of crystal use and an increase in the proportion that report crystal as ‘very easy’ to obtain, indicate an expanding market for this drug. This highlights issues for research, health and law enforcement. The market for crystal methamphetamine needs to be monitored and routes of administration considered. In particular the harms associated with smoking the drug need to be addressed. Further, small numbers of KI considered that much of the harm experienced by PDU was related to the use of crystal specifically.

Although small numbers report using antidepressants for reasons other than depression each year it is an issue that should be addressed as the reasons for taking antidepressants may be based on myths associated with the effects of these drugs either used in combination with ecstasy or to ease ‘come down’ effects.

The regular ecstasy users interviewed in 2003 reported low levels of criminal activity, with a minority reporting dealing drugs infrequently. Although the nature of this dealing is unclear, anecdotally it was considered to be ‘low level’ in support of their own party drug use. In 2004, questions have been added to the PDI survey to clarify the level of dealing.

Continued monitoring of ecstasy markets will enable the collection and dissemination of information that will allow the implementation of timely policy responses to market developments. Continued monitoring will also enable the regular collection of indicative data relating to the size of the markets for other party drugs, such as GHB and ketamine, and will point to the need for research specific to such drugs. The replication of Party Drugs Initiative (PDI) in 2004 in all jurisdictions across Australia will be a useful addition to current knowledge about party drug markets across the country.

Citation: White, B., Degenhardt, L. and Breen, C. (2004) New South Wales Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drug Initiative (PDI), Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.