NT Drug Trends 2011: Findings from the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS)

image - IDRS Logo 280 17
Author: Paul Rysavy, Chris Moon

Resource Type: Drug Trends Jurisdictional Reports

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report presents the 2011 Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) results for the Northern Territory (NT). This is the eleventh year this study has been conducted in the NT. The IDRS is coordinated by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at the University of New South Wales. It is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.

The IDRS analyses data from a survey of people who inject drugs (PWID, referred to in this report as participants or respondents), a survey of key experts (KE) and secondary illicit drug-related indicator data in order to monitor the price, purity and availability of a range of illicit drugs. The IDRS also identifies emerging drug trends through comparison of results obtained in previous years.

Demographic characteristics of the survey respondents
As in previous years, the 2011 sample of PWID was predominantly male (70%). The mean age was 42 years and 87% of the respondents were unemployed or on a pension at the time of interview. Eight percent reported full-time employment, down from 12% in 2010. The percentage of respondents who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander increased to 28% in 2011. Ninety percent reported heterosexual status while 6% identified as bisexual and 3% as gay or lesbian. Year 10 was again the mean for years of education although 46% reported some form of post-secondary education. Reported participation in treatment dropped to 4% of the sample (12% in 2010) and 44% reported prior prison history.

The demographic profile of the IDRS sample is similar to that surveyed in previous years.

Patterns of drug use
Recent drug use refers to use in the six months preceding the IDRS interview. As in 2010, any form of morphine (either prescribed or not prescribed) was the drug recently used by the largest proportion of the population (81%), followed by cannabis (71%), any form of benzodiazepines (61%) and any form of methamphetamine (55%).

Morphine was again the drug injected most often in the last month (68% of the sample), with 68% of the sample also reporting morphine as the most recent drug injected. In 2010, 83% of the sample reported morphine as the drug most often injected in the last month and 79% reported morphine as the last drug injected. Illicitly obtained morphine was again the most commonly used illicit drug in the past six months (by 72% of the sample), followed closely by cannabis (71% of the sample).

Some form of methamphetamine was again the drug most likely to be the first drug injected (by 52% of the sample) although only 19% of the sample identified any form of methamphetamine as the most recent drug injected. Methamphetamine powder (“speed powder” or “speed”) was again the form most frequently used by PWID in the previous six months (43%), followed by crystal methamphetamine (“crystal”, “ice” or “shabu”) at 28%, methamphetamine base (“base”) at 12% and methamphetamine liquid at 4%.

In 2011, 9% of the sample reported recent heroin use, an increase from the 5% who reported recent heroin use 0f 2010. Seventy-four percent reported heroin use at some time in their lives. Thirty-four percent of the sample (35% in 2010) reported recent use of any form of methadone (including prescribed and non-prescribed methadone liquid and Physeptone). Thirteen percent of the sample reported recent use of either prescribed or non-prescribed Subutex (buprenorphine) while 19% reported recent use of Suboxone (buprenorphine-naloxone). Thirty-two percent of the sample reported recent injection of oxycodone (33% in 2010) and 52% reported recent use of over-the-counter (OTC) codeine, an increase from the 35% who reported recent OTC codeine use in 2010.

Recent use of any form of benzodiazepine increased to 61% of the sample (52% in 2010 and 55% in 2009), with 36% of the sample reporting recent use of non-prescribed Alprazolam. Only one participant reported recent use of cocaine (4% in 2010) and recent hallucinogenic use was also infrequent, reported by 7% of the sample (4% in 2010).

Recent alcohol use was reported by 63% of the sample (57% in 2010) and daily use of tobacco was reported by 97% of the sample (90% in 2010).

Heroin
Nine percent of the sample reported recent heroin use (5% in 2010), on a median of 21 days. Any form of heroin, including homebake, was recently used by 11% of the sample (9% in 2010) on a median of 12 days. Eleven percent of the sample also reported recently injecting heroin (5% in 2010). In 2011, white or off-white heroin powder was the form most frequently used whereas in 2010 homebake was the form most often used.

Consistent with previous years, few participants were able to comment upon heroin price, purity and availability. Two respondents commented upon the price of a cap of heroin (median of $80) and two upon the price of a gram of heroin (median of $550). The reported median price of a cap of heroin in 2011 is equal to that reported in 2009. One respondent reported high purity, two considered purity to be low and one reported fluctuating purity Two of the four respondents who commented upon current heroin availability considered that it was easy while the other two rated current availability as difficult.

Methamphetamine
Fifty-five percent of the sample reported recent use of any form of methamphetamine, which includes speed powder, ice, base and liquid. This is a notable increase from 36% who reported recent use of any form of methamphetamine in 2010 and equal to the proportion of the sample who reported recent use of any form of methamphetamine in 2009. Speed powder was again the form most frequently used (by 43% of the sample compared to 25% in 2010), followed by ice (28% compared to 18% in 2010), base (12% compared to 6% in 2010) and liquid (4% compared to 2% in 2010).

Over half the sample (51%) reported recent injection of any form of methamphetamine, an increase from the 34% who reported recent injection in 2010 and equal to the 2009 result. Twenty-four percent of the sample reported recent injection of ice (16% in 2010) and 13% reported recently smoking ice (3% in 2010).

In 2011 the median price of both points (one tenth of a gram) and half-weights of speed powder did not differ to prices reported in 2010, with the median price of points at $100 and the median price of a half-weight at $250. The median price for a gram of speed powder was $400, a decrease from the 2010 median price of $450. The cost of ice reduced to a median of $1,000 a gram from $1,350 in 2010 and points reduced to a median of $150 compared to $200 in 2010. The median price of a gram of base increased to $700 from $250 in 2010 and there was a concomitant increase in the median price of points ($150 in 2011 compared to $100 in 2010). More respondents considered the price of speed powder and ice to be increasing (rather than decreasing, stable or fluctuating) whereas of the few who commented upon base methamphetamine price movements, most considered price to be stable.

Eighty percent of those able to comment considered that speed powder was currently either easy or very easy to obtain, a notable increase from the 42% who rated powder current availability as easy or very easy in 2010. As with speed powder, there was an increase in the proportion of respondents who rated very easy or easy availability of ice, from 64% in 2010 to 77% in 2011. Of the few respondents who commented upon base methamphetamine availability, 60% rated availability as very easy or easy while 40% rated availability as difficult.

Cocaine
Reported use of cocaine continued to decline. In 2011, only 1% (one participant) reported recent use as compared to 4% in 2010 and 12% in 2009.

As in 2010, no participants were able to comment upon cocaine price, purity or availability. KE comments confirmed very low levels of availability and use with one police officer KE suggesting that cocaine was mainly used by a select group of individuals.

Cannabis
After morphine, cannabis was again the second most frequently used drug. Seventy-one percent of the sample reported recent use and this was a lower proportion than in recent years: 72% in 2010, 78% in 2009, 83% in 2007 and 84% in 2006. Hydroponic cannabis was again the form most commonly and most often used and a pattern of daily use remained most common. Cannabis was smoked by participants on a median of 90 days, a result similar to that obtained in recent years.

In 2011 the median price of a gram of hydroponically grown cannabis remained stable at $30 while the median price of a gram of bush cannabis halved to $15. The median price of an ounce of hydro also remained stable at $450 while the median price of an ounce of bush cannabis reduced from $300 in 2010 to $210 in 2011. There were far fewer purchasers of bush cannabis than of hydro. The majority of respondents considered that the price of both hydro and bush cannabis had remained stable.

Current hydro availability was considered easy or very easy by 95% of respondents, an increase from the 83% who had rated hydro availability as easy or very easy in 2010. Fifty-seven percent of respondents rated current availability of bush cannabis as easy (55% in 2010) while only 7% rated availability of bush cannabis as very easy (18% in 2010). KE comments highlighted a scarcity of bush cannabis.

Fifty-one percent of respondents rated current potency of hydro as high, the same percentage as rated this form of cannabis as possessing high potency in 2007 and 2008 and almost identical to the 53% who rated hydro as being of high potency in 2010. Only 2% rated hydro potency as low (5% in 2010). The majority (71%) of respondents rated bush cannabis potency as medium (58% in 2010).

Cannabis was purchased mainly from friends and source venue was mainly a friend’s home.

Methadone
Eleven percent of the sample reported recent use of illicit methadone liquid in the preceding six months, the same proportion as in 2010, while only 3% reported recent use of licit methadone liquid (6% in 2010). Twenty-seven percent of the sample reported recent use of illicit Physeptone (26% in 2010). Only 5% reported recent use of licit Physeptone, as compared to 8% in 2010. Those who recently used illicit methadone did so on a median of 5 days, as compared to 2 days in 2010.

The median price of a millilitre of methadone syrup was again one dollar, as it has been since 2006. The median price of 10mg Physeptone tablets was $20 and the median price of 5mg Physeptone tablets was $10, the same median prices as in 2010 and 2009. The 2011 cost of 1ml of methadone syrup ($1) and 1mg of Physeptone ($2) was consistent with 2010 and 2009 costs. Sixty-seven percent of respondents considered that illicit methadone prices were increasing while the remainder considered that prices had remained stable
Fifty-seven percent of respondents rated current availability of illicit methadone as difficult, a reduction from the 75% who rated availability as difficult in 2010. As has been the case since 2006, no respondents considered current availability to be very easy although almost a third (29%) considered current availability to be easy. Few participants commented upon changes in availability over the past six months, with the majority noting stable availability.

Morphine
Recent use of any form of morphine (both licit and illicit) decreased to 81% of the sample (91% in 2010), a similar level to that seen between 2005 and 2007. Illicit morphine continued to be the form most often used. Median days of use remained stable (daily) and there was an increase in median days injected (from 155 days in 2010 to 180 days in 2011).

MS Contin 100mg was again the morphine form most frequently purchased by the IDRS sample and the median price remained stable at $80. Kapanol 100mg continued to be the form next most frequently purchased, with a median price of $80 (also $80 in 2008, 2009 and 2010). As was the case in 2010 and 2009, the majority of respondents (54%) rated illicit morphine as currently easy to obtain. Sixty percent of respondents considered that illicit morphine availability had remained stable over the preceding six months, an increase from the 46% who rated availability as stable in 2010.

Oxycodone
Thirty-two percent of respondents reported use of some form of oxycodone in the six months preceding the interview, almost identical to the 33% who reported recent oxycodone use in 2010. Recent use of illicit oxycodone increased from 22% of the sample in 2010 to 26% in 2011 while recent use of licit oxycodone reduced from 12% of the sample in 2010 to 8% in 2011. As in 2010, over a quarter of the sample reported injection of any form of oxycodone in the preceding six months.

The median price of 80mg illicit oxycodone was $70 ($80 in 2010 and $60 in 2009) although this price needs to be considered in the context of very few participants responding to the questions regarding price. Three quarters of those who did respond considered price to have remained stable over the preceding six months. Respondents varied in their views regarding current availability; half considered availability to be easy or very easy while the other half considered availability to be difficult or very difficult.

Subutex (buprenorphine)
Recent use of illicit Subutex was reported by 8% of the sample, the same proportion that reported recent use in 2010. The percentage of the sample that injected illicit Subutex in the past six months (5%), median days used (6 days) and median days injected (8 days) largely mirrored the 2010 results.

The median price for 8mg of Subutex was $23, the same median price as reported in 2010. Only seven participants commented upon current availability, with five participants rating current availability as difficult, one rating it as easy and one rating current availability as very difficult.

Suboxone
Fourteen percent of the sample had recently used illicit Suboxone (15% in 2010) on a median of 2 days. Three percent of the sample had recently injected illicit Suboxone, on a median of 2 days. Two participants reported purchasing illicit 8mg Suboxone (one for $30 and the other for $70) and no participants reported purchasing 2mg Suboxone. In 2010, the median price for 8mg Suboxone was $20. Three of the five participants who commented upon current availability rated it as difficult while the other two respondents rated current availability as very difficult.

Over-the-counter codeine
Fifty-two percent of the sample reported recent use of over-the–counter (OTC) codeine in the previous six months, a notably higher proportion than the 35% who reported recent OTC codeine use in 2010 and 2009. As in 2010, only one respondent reported injecting OTC codeine although median days injected increased from 10 days in 2010 to 72 days in 2011. Nurofen Plus was again the most commonly used OTC brand of codeine.

Benzodiazepines
Sixty-one percent of the sample had recently used any form of benzodiazepines, an increase from the 52% who reported recent use in 2010. Recent injection of benzodiazepines remained stable, at about one-fifth of the sample. Median days used increased to 37 days from 33 days in 2010. As in 2010, licit benzodiazepines were the form recently used by most respondents (30% of the sample). In 2011, Alprazolam was investigated separately and results showed that 36% of respondents reported recent use of illicit Alprazolam whereas 13% reported recent use of licit Alprazolam. Twenty percent of the sample reported recent injection of illicit Alprazolam while only 3% reported recent injection of licit Alprazolam.

Ecstasy, LSD, Seroquel, inhalants, tobacco and alcohol
Recent ecstasy use continued to decline in 2011, with 9% reporting use within the past six months (10% in 2010 and 20% in 2009) and no respondents reporting injection of the substance (4% in 2010 and 10% in 2009). Weekly or less was the only pattern of ecstasy use reported. Recent use of hallucinogens by participants remained low at 7% of the sample, but this still represented an increase from the 4% who reported recent use in 2010. As in the past two years, no respondents reported injection of the drug and median days of use remained low at 3 days. Two respondents reported recent use illicit Seroquel and three reported recent use of licit Seroquel. In 2011, no participants reported recent inhalant use (one in 2010).

Ninety-seven percent of the sample reported daily use of tobacco (90% in 2010). Sixty-three percent of the sample reported recent alcohol use (57% in 2010), with weekly or less the main pattern of use reported.

Health
Two participants had overdosed on heroin in the past 12 months. Eight participants had overdosed on a drug other than heroin in the past year: four from benzodiazepines, two from morphine and two from other opiates.

Four percent of participants reported current engagement in drug treatment (12% in 2010). NT Department of Health data demonstrated an increase from 2010 in closed episodes of treatment for heroin, methamphetamine, cannabis and morphine and a decrease from 2010 in closed treatment episodes for cocaine, ecstasy and benzodiazepines. Cannabis, followed by morphine and methamphetamine, again accounted for the majority of treatment episodes.

NT drug-related hospital admissions continued to remain lower than the national rates. The latest data (2008/09) show an increase in NT hospital admissions for opiates, methamphetamine and cannabis. There were no cocaine-related hospital admissions and opiate-related admissions were the highest of the other three drug categories.

Three percent of participants had used a needle after someone else and 18% reported use of other injecting equipment after someone else. With the exception of sharing spoons/mixing containers, there was a low rate of using injecting equipment after someone else. Twenty-eight percent of participants had re-used their own needle at least once. Ninety-five percent of participants had sourced needles from an NSP and 92% had last injected in a private home.

Notifications of new cases of hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System have increased from 2010 rates. There were six HIV notifications in 2010 (the latest data available) compared to 16 in 2009. The finger-prick survey carried out in Darwin and Alice Springs again did not identify any individuals with HIV antibodies in the most recent (2010) sample while HCV antibody prevalence increased to 47% (29% in 2009).

As in previous years, scarring/bruising (reported by 45% of participants) and difficulty injecting (reported by 37% of participants) were the main injection-related problems in the month prior to interview. Morphine was again the main drug (82%) attributed to a “dirty hit”.

Twenty-seven percent of the IDRS sample reported having experienced a mental health problem in the six months prior to interview and, as in previous years, depression was the main mental health problem, followed by anxiety. Of those who reported a mental health problem, 73% had attended a mental health professional for the reported mental health problem and 90% of these had been prescribed medication. Sixty-three percent of this group (n=12) had been prescribed an anti-depressant, 35% (n=6) were prescribed a benzodiazepine and 23% (n=4) had been prescribed an anti-psychotic. Almost one-quarter of those who completed the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) reported a very high level of psychological distress over the four weeks prior to interview.

Fifty-five percent of the IDRS sample had driven a car within the six months prior to interview and of those, 15% had driven under the influence of alcohol during this period. Of the group who had driven under the influence of alcohol, 38% reported driving over the legal blood alcohol limit, on a median of 12 occasions. Seventy-six percent of drivers reported that within the six months prior to interview they had driven under the influence of illicit drugs, on a median of 50 (range 1 to 200) times, within a median of 30 minutes after taking the drugs. Morphine (66%) and cannabis (39%) were the drugs most commonly consumed by drivers, followed by speed powder (15%), benzodiazepines (10%), ice (7%), base methamphetamine (2%), methadone (2%) and heroin (2%).

Law enforcement and criminal behaviour
Thirty-one percent of the IDRS sample reported having committed at least one crime in the month prior to interview and, as in 2010, dealing (20%) was the most frequently reported crime, followed by property crime (14%). The pattern of types of crimes committed has remained stable over the years, with dealing and property crime most common and low reported rates of fraud and violent crime.

One-quarter of the sample had been arrested within 12 months of the interview. Twenty-nine percent had been arrested for drug possession or use, 25% for property crime, 8% for fraud, 8% for breach of AVO, 4% for dealing/trafficking, 4% for driving offences and 4% for violent crime.

In 2009/10 (the most recent data available from the Australian Crime Commission) there was one arrest for heroin possession and three heroin seizures, which amounted to two grams. In 2008/09 there had been no arrests but two seizures, amounting to 641 grams.

There was one cocaine provider arrest in 2009/10 (none in 2008/09), and one seizure which amounted to 13 grams (six seizures amounting to 235 grams in 2008/09).

The combined number of arrests for ATS consumers and providers in 2009/10 decreased to 157 arrests from 175 in 2008/09. The number of ATS seizures decreased from 183 in 2008/09 to 167 seizures in 2009/10, with a weight of 6,344 grams compared to 38,937 grams in 2008/09.

In 2009/10 there were a total of 597 arrests for both cannabis consumer and providers, identical to the combined number of consumer and provider arrests in 2008/09. There were 764 cannabis seizures in 2009/10, amounting to approximately 740 kilograms compared to 1,087 seizures amounting to 131 kilograms in 2008/09.

NT Department of Justice data show that in 2010/11 there were 679 infringement notices issued for possessing cannabis compared to 559 in 2009/10.