Northern Territory Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drugs Initiative (PDI)

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Author: Chris Moon, Jaclyn Newman

Resource Type: Technical Reports

NDARC Technical Report No. 189 (2004)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report presents the results of a study (Party Drug Initiative (PDI) to monitor party drug markets in the Northern Territory. This is the first sample to provide data for future monitoring on trends in the party drug market. 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 results indicate that party drug users, a population defined in this study by the regular use of tablets sold as ‘ecstasy’, tend to be mainly male (70%), young (average age 33), reasonably well educated (average 10 years of education), with more than half (56%) having completed post secondary qualifications, and mostly unemployed (61%). Over a third (36%) had been in prison and 13% were currently utilising drug treatment agencies. Over two thirds had ever injected any drug.

Patterns of polydrug use among PDU
Polydrug use was the norm in the PDU sample and over a third of nominated ecstasy as their drug of choice, followed by methamphetamines. On average, participants had used 10 drug classes in their lifetime and six in the prior six months. Most would use other drugs concurrently with ecstasy, including cannabis, tobacco, methamphetamine powder and alcohol. Most participants also used other drugs to ease the ‘come down’ or aversive recovery period following acute ecstasy intoxication, including, cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, and to a lesser extent other opiates and benzodiazepines.

Over two thirds of participants had used one or more drugs in the previous six months on a continuos basis for 48 hours or more without sleep (bingeing), with the average length of the longest binge being five days.

Ecstasy
On average, participants started to use ecstasy at 24 years old, and started using it regularity at 27 years old. Their recent frequency of use varied from once a month to five times a week, but the median use was 12 days (once a fortnight). Most would use one tablet in an episode, or two tablets in a heavy episode and over half of users binged with ecstasy. A fair proportion of users had recently injected ecstasy (28%), although the most common route of administration was swallowing (94%), with most usually doing this at home (67%).
The average price of ecstasy in tablet form was $50 and a majority or users said this price had been ‘stable’ over the previous six months. Most participants reported paying for ecstasy by receiving it as a gift (79%), government benefits (62%) and through paid employment (55%). A majority of users said they scored ecstasy from a friend (78%) at a friend’s home (62%).

Most participants reported that the current purity of ecstasy was ‘medium’ (40%) and that this had been ‘stable’ (37%) over the past six months. Most users reported the availability of ecstasy as ‘easy’ (28%) to ‘very easy’ (29%) and that this had been ‘stable’ (53%) over the past six months.

At a national level, the average purity of seizures of tablets analysed actually containing MDMA has increase in recent years. Imports (imported tablets) are more likely to contain MDMA and tend to be more highly sought after than locally manufactured imitations that contain methamphetamine, with users willing to pay more for a tablet they believe to be imported. The proportion of the ecstasy market that is sourced by locally produced duplicate tablets has increased markedly since 1997. The Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence recently estimated that up to 80% of tablets sold as ecstasy in Australia are locally manufactured duplicate tablets that contain low-dose methamphetamine, sometimes in combination with another drug such as ketamine, rather than MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), the compound to which the term ‘ecstasy’ originally applied (Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, 2002). Almost all of the tablets actually contain MDMA are likely to have been imported; few clandestine manufacturers in Australia have access to either the necessary precursors or the required expertise to produce true MDMA. The supply of imported MDMA tablets does not appear to match demand, and the market for duplicate pills remains. The number and weight of customs seizures of ecstasy seized at the Australian border has also increased in recent years, suggesting either changes in activity, improvements in detection or more ecstasy being imported or a combination of these factors.

Participants reported a broad range of benefits and risks that they attributed to their ecstasy use. Most users believed there were two benefits with ecstasy use and the most common perceived benefits were social enhancement (59%) and mood/feeling enhancement (53%). The most common perceived risk was to ones physical health (44%).

Methamphetamine
A majority of the PDU sample reported lifetime (89%) and recent (81%) methamphetamine powder use, methamphetamine base and crystal use was smaller but there were still substantial proportions for lifetime (47% and 55%) and recent use (32% and 40%). On average, people started to use powder at 20 years old, base at 23 years old and crystal at 26 years old.

Among the recent users, a quarter had used powder, 15% had used base and 7% had used crystal more than weekly. The majority of recent users had recently injected all forms of methamphetamines (66% powder, 73% base, and 60% crystal), with swallowing being the next most common route of administration (38% powder, 42% base, and 33% crystal). Most speed users report typically using one gram, and two grams of powder in a heavy episode. Most base users report typically using one point, and two and a half points in a heavy episode. Most crystal users report typically using one point, and two points in a heavy episode. Of the recent users for each methamphetamine type, over half binge with powder, over a quarter binge with base and 40% binge with crystal.

Powder and base was most commonly reported to be purchased for a median of $50 per point and crystal purchased for a median of $65 per point. The majority of users of each form of methamphetamine said this price had been ‘stable’ (62% powder, 58% base, 57% crystal) over the previous six months.

With regards to reports of the current purity, most respondents stated that the purity of: powder was ‘low’ (44%) to ‘medium’ (24%), base was ‘medium’ (41%) to ‘high’ (34%) and crystal was ‘high’ (65%). A majority of users informed that the purity of powder and base was ‘fluctuating’ (40% and 38%), and the purity of crystal had been ‘stable’ (54%) in the previous six months.

When reporting on availability, most users stated that powder was ‘easy’ (52%) to ‘very easy’ (24%), base was ‘very easy’ (38%) or ‘moderate’ (28%) and crystal was fairly evenly distributed from ‘very easy’ (24%) to ‘very difficult’ (16%) to obtain. Most stated that the availability of all the types of methamphetamine had been ‘stable’ (48% powder, 53% base, 46% crystal) over the past six months and most respondents scored from their friends (77% powder and crystal, 73% base) at their friend’s home (64% powder, 71% base, 70% crystal).

Participants reported a broad range of benefits and risks which they attributed to their methamphetamine use. Users reported a median of one benefit with powder and crystal use, and two benefits with base use. The most common perceived benefit for all the methamphetamine types was increased energy, motivation, alertness (71% powder, 38% base, 53% crystal) and the most common perceived risk with all methamphetamine types was tot their physical health (40% powder, 27% base, 35% crystal).

LSD
Most participants had used LSD at some time (80%) and a quarter had used it in the previous 6 months. On average, people started to use LSD at 18 years old and a very small proportion would use LSD fortnightly or more (8%). Most respondents would typically use one tab and two tabs in a heavy episode. One third of recent LSD users had recently binged with LSD. A small proportion of recent users had recently injected LSD (12%), with the most common route of administration was swallowing (96%).

LSD was most commonly purchased in tab form for a median of $25 and a majority of those who commented said this price was either ‘fluctuating’ (37%) or ‘stable’ (32%). Most who commented reported the current purity of LSD as ‘fluctuating’ (37%) or ‘medium’ (32%) and stated the purity had been ‘fluctuating’ (53%) over the past six months. A majority of users reported the availability of LSD as ‘easy’ to ‘very easy’ (53%) and stated that this had mostly been ‘stable’ (47%) or ‘more difficult’ (21%) over the past six months.
Participants reported a broad range of benefits and risks that they attributed to their LSD use. Users reported a median of one benefit with LSD use and the most common perceived benefit was mental/spiritual enhancement (37%). The most common perceived risk with using LSD was to ones mental health (38%).

Other party drugs
The prevalence and frequency of use of party drugs other than ecstasy (cocaine, amyl nitrite, nitrous oxide, MDA, Ketamine and GHB) was very low. Half of participants had used cocaine and amyl nitrite, a third had used nitrous oxide, a fifth had used MDA, ketamine and GHB in their lifetime. However recent use of all these other party drugs were under 8%. Sixty percent of MDA users, a third of cocaine and ketamine users and a quarter of GHB users had injected their drugs. The most common route of administration was snorting (n=3) and smoking (n=3) for cocaine, and swallowing for MDA (n=5), ketamine (n=6), and GHB (n=4).

In the past six months GHB was used for a median of eight days, cocaine six days, amyl nitrite four and a half, days nitrous oxide four days, MDA two days and ketamine one day. Typically participants would use one gram of cocaine, four snorts of amyl nitrite, seven bulbs of nitrous oxide, two caps of MDA, one bump of ketamine and 16mls of GHB in an episode. In a heavy use episode, on average participants would use four injections of cocaine, 10 snorts of amyl nitrite, 13 bulbs of nitrous oxide, five caps of MDA, one and a half bumps of ketamine and 17mls of GHB.

A quarter of recent users would binge with GHB and Nitrous oxide, 17% would binge with MDA and 40% would binge with cocaine. No participants used these other party drugs to come down from ecstasy, but 20% would use cocaine, 13% would use amyl nitrite and 17% would use MDA concurrently with ecstasy.
The median prices were reported as: $280 per gram of cocaine, $60 per cap of MDA, and $40 per half gram of ketamine. Most users reported that the price for cocaine had been ‘fluctuating’ or ‘increasing’, and as ‘stable’ for MDA over the previous six months.

Participants reports of the other party drugs purity was as follows: cocaine is ‘medium’ (n=2) and the purity is ‘decreasing’ (n=3), MDA and ketamine are ‘high’ (n=1 and n=3) and the purity is ‘stable’ (n=1 and n=3). Half the participants who commented on the availability of cocaine stated it was ‘moderate to easy’ (n=3) to obtain and this had been ‘stable’ (n=3) over the past six months and the other half stated it was ‘difficult to very difficult’ (n=3) to obtain and that it had become ‘more difficult’ (n=3) over the past six months. It was reported that MDA was ‘difficult’ (n=4) and ketamine ‘very difficult’ (n=1) to obtain, and these had been ‘stable’ (n=3 and n=1) over the previous six months.

Other drugs
Significant proportions of the PDU sample reported the use of other licit and illicit drugs.

Alcohol
A majority of the respondents reported recent alcohol use (78%), starting at a median age of 14 years, using for a median of 27 days in the previous six months, and over a quarter would binge with alcohol. Just over half the sample used ecstasy with alcohol, a quarter use alcohol whilst coming down from ecstasy, a fifth use alcohol with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and one tenth use alcohol when coming down from their drug of choice. The most commonly reported benefit associated with alcohol use was social enhancement (41%), and the most common perceived risk with using alcohol was ones behaviour whilst intoxicated (39%).

Cannabis
Recent cannabis use was reported by almost all of the respondents (95%), starting at a median age of 14 years, using for a median of 180 days in the previous six months, and a 42% would use it to binge. Three quarters of the sample used ecstasy with cannabis, two thirds use cannabis whilst coming down from ecstasy, a third use cannabis with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and a quarter use cannabis when coming down from their drug of choice. The most commonly reported benefit associated with using cannabis was mood/feeling enhancement (78%) and the most common perceived risk was to ones mental health (27%).

Tobacco
A majority of the respondents reported recent tobacco use (84%), starting at a median age for of 13 years, using for a median of 180 days in the previous six months and 5% had used it to binge. Three-quarters used ecstasy with tobacco, half use tobacco whilst coming down from ecstasy, a third use tobacco with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and a quarter use tobacco when coming down from their drug of choice.

Benzodiazepines
Just under half of the respondents reported recent benzodiazepine use (44%), starting at a median age of 21 years, using for a median of 20 days in the previous six months and no one reported bingeing with benzodiazepines. A fifth had recently injected, almost all had swallowed (93%) and one tenth had smoked benzodiazepines. One percent used ecstasy with benzodiazepines, 15% use benzodiazepines whilst coming down from ecstasy, 5% use benzodiazepines with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and 6% use benzodiazepines when coming down from their drug of choice.

Antidepressants
A quarter of the respondents reported recent antidepressant use, starting at a median age of 25 years, using for a median of 20 days in the previous six months and no one reported bingeing with antidepressants. Five percent had recently injected antidepressants. One third of recent users stated they were taking antidepressants for depression, 1% said they were taking it for pain and 1% said they were taking it out of curiosity. Three percent used ecstasy with antidepressants, 4% use antidepressants whilst coming down from ecstasy, 2% use antidepressants with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and 3% use antidepressants when coming down from their drug of choice.

Heroin
One fifth of the respondents reported recent heroin use, starting at a median age of 22 years, using for a median of five days in the previous six months and only one person reported bingeing with heroin. Sixteen percent had recently injected, 4% had smoked, 1% had swallowed and 2% had snorted heroin. Two percent used ecstasy with heroin, 4% use heroin whilst coming down from ecstasy, 3% use heroin with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and 2% use heroin when coming down from their drug of choice.

Other opiates
Just under half of the respondents reported recent other opiate use (43%), starting at a median age of 25 years, using for a median of 40 days in the previous six months and 7 participants reported bingeing with morphine. Forty percent had recently injected, 1% smoked, 21% swallowed and 1% snorted other opiates. Seven percent used ecstasy with other opiates, 16% use other opiates whilst coming down from ecstasy, 4% use other opiates with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and 5% use other opiates when coming down from their drug of choice.

Methadone
A quarter of respondents reported recent methadone use, starting at a median age of 28 years, using for a median of 20 days in the prior six months and no data was collected on bingeing with methadone. One sixth had recently injected methadone. Three percent used ecstasy with methadone, 2% use methadone whilst coming down from ecstasy, 1% use methadone with their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy), and no one used methadone when coming down from their drug of choice.

Buprenorphine
One sixth of the respondents reported recent buprenorphine use, starting at a median age of 32 years, using for a median of seven days in the previous six months and no data was collected on bingeing with buprenorphine. Seven percent had recently injected buprenorphine. One person reported using buprenorphine when coming down from their drug of choice (if it was nominated as something other than ecstasy).

Party drug related harms
Participants reported a broad a range of acute health related side effects due to party drug use in the preceding six months. Participants were asked to specify whether side effects were experienced while under the influence of drugs or while coming down from drugs. Participants responded whether they perceived ecstasy to be related to each side effect and then specified ‘other drugs’ and/or ‘other factors’ associated with each side effect. Participants experienced a median of 16 side effects overall, 13 while under the influence and 11 while coming down from their drug use.

The most common side effect experienced while under the influence of party drugs were trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, profuse sweating, and confusion. The most common side effect experienced while coming down from party drugs were confusion, trouble sleeping, agitation/restlessness, and loss of appetite.

While under the influence of drugs and during comedown, the most commonly attributed side effects attributed to poly drug use were suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and inability to orgasm. Some participants also attributed acute side effects they had experienced to other factors unrelated to drug use.

Participants reported a range of other harms associated with drug use. Recent ecstasy users were most likely to attribute financial or work/study problems to their recent use of the drug. Recent powder users were most likely to nominate work/study and relationship problems. Recent cannabis users were most likely to report legal/police problems related to their use.

Criminal and police activity
One third of the sample committed a median of three types of crime in the month prior to interview with the most common being drug dealing. One fifth had sold drugs once a week or more in the previous month and a third dealt drugs in the past six months to pay for their ecstasy. Up to 14% committed one or more property crime, fraud and violent crimes, and a proportion of each stated this was to pay for their ecstasy. One quarter had been arrested in the previous 12 months prior to interview, with 6% for public order related offences. Over a third had a previous conviction for which they had served a custodial sentence. Two thirds reported that police activity towards party drug users had either increased or remained stable in the prior six months and a majority thought that the police activity had not made it harder to score their drugs.

Citation: Moon, C. and Newman, J. (2004) Northern Territory Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drug Initiative (PDI), Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.