Tasmanian Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drug Initiative (PDI)

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Author: R. Bruno, S. McLean

Resource Type: Technical Reports

NDARC Technical Report No. 186 (2004)

Executive Summary

The Party Drug Initiative (PDI) is an offshoot project of the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS), designed specifically to examine trends in use, price, purity and availability of ecstasy and other ‘party drugs’ across Australia. For the purpose of this study, the term ‘party drug’ is considered to include drugs that are routinely used in the context of entertainment venues such as nightclubs or dance parties / events. These drugs may include ecstasy, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, ketamine, MDA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine) and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate).

In 2000, the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund (NDLERF) funded a two year, two state trial of the feasibility of monitoring emerging trends in the markets for ecstasy and other ‘party drugs’. This used the IDRS methodology of triangulation of information from standardised interviews with people who regularly consume such drugs, a qualitative survey of individuals who have regular first-hand contact with such groups of people, and an examination of existing available data sources or indicators relevant to drug use in each state. Following successful utilisation of this methodology to gather information about trends in use, price, purity, and availability of party drugs, the NDLERF funded a two-year expansion of the project into each Australian jurisdiction. This report represents the first year that this study has been employed in Tasmania.

Demographic characteristics of party drug users (PDU)
One hundred people that used ecstasy and other party drugs at least once per month (PDU) were interviewed in Hobart during July and August 2003. These consumers tended to be young, with three-quarters aged between 18 and 23, and 90% younger than 30. They tended to be relatively well-educated, with substantial proportions either possessing or working toward tertiary qualifications. Participants were typically either employed or engaged in full time study, with just 16% currently unemployed. There were low levels of exposure to drug treatment programs, with 10% involved in drug treatment at the time of interview.

Patterns of drug use among PDU
While half of the participants regarded ecstasy as their drug of choice, and were recruited on the basis of ecstasy use, they could typically be characterised as polydrug users. Most participants had tried an array of different drugs, using a median of nine different classes of drugs at some stage in their lives. PDU participants had used a median of seven different drug classes in the six months prior to interview, and it was typical for multiple drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and methamphetamine to be used in conjunction on an occasion of ecstasy use.

Participants had first used ecstasy at an average of 19 years of age and started to use the drug regularly (at least monthly) by age 20 on average. While there was a wide variation in the frequency of use of ecstasy within the sample, ranging from monthly use to consumption several days a week, half used ecstasy fortnightly or more often, and one-third used weekly or more frequently. Half of the sample usually used more than one tablet of ecstasy in a single episode of use, and 40% had used four or more tablets in a single occasion at least once in the preceding six months. Forty percent of the participants reported that they had ‘binged’ (used drugs continuously for 48 hours or more without sleep) on ecstasy in the preceding six months. Consistent with other studies among this demographic of consumers, participants primarily administered ecstasy orally, although administration through snorting was also common but not as a primary mode of use. While 18% of the sample reported having injected ecstasy at some stage in their lives, 11% had done so in the six months prior to participating and just 5% reported this as their main route of administration of the drug.

The median purchase price for ecstasy was $45 per tablet, although the most common purchase prices are $50 or $40 per tablet. This price appears to have remained stable in recent months. Most participants report paying for ecstasy through paid employment or being given the drug by friends. The majority of both participants and key informants reported that ecstasy was ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ for consumers to obtain, and that this situation had been consistent over recent months. The majority of participants reported purchasing the drug from friends.

Consumer reports on the purity of ecstasy tablets purchased locally suggest that purity varies greatly. There have been limited forensic analyses of ecstasy seized within the state, with single seizures analysed in 2000/01 and 2001/02 revealing 3.4% and 22.9% purity respectively. The three Tasmanian ecstasy seizures analysed during 2002/03 attained a purity of 28.5%, reasonably consistent with seizures made by police within other Australian jurisdictions.

Participants reported a broad range of physical and psychological symptoms which they perceived as related, at least in part, to their use of ecstasy. While the majority of these symptoms were relatively minor, very small proportions reported psychological side effects which caused significant distress, such as panic attacks or suicidal thoughts. Similarly, many participants attributed a range of occupational, relationship or financial problems to their use of ecstasy. Again, these were primarily minor, but a very small proportion reported experiencing major disruptions to functioning, such as loss of employment, the ending of relationships, and the inability to pay for essentials such as food or rent.

Interviews with participants clearly indicated that health messages about the potential risks of ecstasy use (such as dehydration, overhydration or overheating) are being received by consumers of the drug, and that this group are interested and actively investigating harm reduction information. Participants almost exclusively accessed this information from peers, either through consulting individuals that had already used particular drugs of interest or accessing peer-run harm reduction websites.

Methamphetamine use was common among this population of ecstasy consumers. Almost all had ever used some form of the drug, and more than 80% had used some form in the six months prior to interview. The median number of times participants had used any form of methamphetamine in this six-month period was seven times, equating to approximately monthly use of the drug. Methamphetamine was most typically swallowed, although snorting was also a common mode of administration. Methamphetamine powder and crystalline methamphetamine (‘ice’) were the forms most commonly used among this group, although, typically participants only used small amounts of the drug at a time (0.05-0.1 g) and used each form less than once per month.

The price of each form of methamphetamine was regarded as remaining stable in the preceding six months by most participants, at $40 per 0.1 g of powder or ‘base’ methamphetamine, and $50 per 0.1 g of crystalline methamphetamine. The majority of participants reported that it was ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ for them to access all forms of methamphetamine, and that this situation had remained stable in the preceding six months. However, the local availability of crystalline methamphetamine appears to have increased in this time, a finding that is supported by the results of other recent local studies such as the 2003 IDRS.

While almost half of the PDU participants had ever tried cocaine, less than ten percent had used the drug in the six months prior to interview. Typically, when PDU did use cocaine, this was infrequent (only once or twice in the past six months), snorted, and used in small amounts (0.1-0.5 g). Cocaine was reported as costing a median of $270 per gram, with the price generally regarded as fluctuating around this point in the preceding six months. The drug was regarded as being ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to access locally. This appears to have been the situation locally for some time, as the IDRS study in Tasmania has reported similar findings for the past four years, and there have been no seizures of cocaine by Tasmania Police in the past two financial years.

One third of the PDU participants reported ever trying ketamine, and one-quarter had used the drug in the six months prior to interview. Among those that had recently used the drug, this was a relatively infrequent event – in general, three times or less in a six month period – and was used in small amounts, with individuals on average swallowing one ketamine-based tablet or snorting 5 ‘bumps’ of powder. The ketamine accessed locally was reported as being generally high in purity and reasonably easy to access; both being situations that were reported as remaining stable in the preceding six months. Median market prices were approximately $50 for a tablet, and $60 for a ‘vial’ of ketamine powder.

GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) had been tried by ten percent of the regular ecstasy consuming participants, and used by 6% in the six months prior to interview. A close chemical relative of GHB, known as 1,4B (1,4 butanediol), which is metabolised in the body to GHB, had been tried by 2% of the PDU participants and recently used by a single participant. GHB is typically sold in liquid form and swallowed by consumers. Those recently using GHB had typically only used the drug on a single occasion in the past six months. These low levels of use, combined with the low level of experience with the drug among the PDU group, and the lack of recent seizures of GHB, all suggest a low level of availability of GHB locally.

LSD and other psychedelics
Almost two-thirds of the PDU sample had ever tried LSD, and one-quarter had used the drug in the six months prior to participating in the study. More than one-third of the sample had consumed psychedelic mushrooms in the preceding six months, and as such, half of the PDU sample had used some form of psychedelic drug (LSD and/or mushrooms) at least once in the past six months. Participants had used LSD a median of once, and mushrooms a median of three times in the past six months. Most had used psychedelics less than once per month on average in this time.

LSD was available locally both in liquid form and in ‘tabs’, both costing approximately $20 per unit. This price appears to have remained stable in recent months. Participants typically used one to two drops or tabs on an occasion of use. Key informants and PDU participants both reported that LSD was reasonably difficult to access locally, and that it may have become even more difficult to access in recent months.

One-third of the regular ecstasy-using participants reported ever trying MDA, and one-fifth had used the drug in the six months prior to participating in the study. MDA was typically sold locally as a capsule of powder, for $40-50 per capsule, with consumers typically swallowing the capsules or snorting the powder. Most of those that had recently used MDA had done so on three or fewer occasions in the six months prior to being interviewed, and used one-half to one capsule of the drug on a typical occasion of use. MDA appears to be somewhat challenging for consumers to access locally, with one third of the participants reporting on availability suggesting that it was ‘difficult’ or ‘moderately easy’ for them to access respectively. This level of availability appears to have remained stable in recent months.

Patterns of other drug use
Almost all of the regular party drug users surveyed drank alcohol, on a median of two days per week. During occasions of use of ecstasy, three-quarters of the sample typically concurrently consumed alcohol, with two-thirds of these individuals usually consuming more than five standard drinks on such occasions. Ninety percent of the party drug users surveyed had recently used cannabis, on a median of two days per week over the past six months. Two-thirds of the sample used cannabis to help manage the ‘come down’ period following use of ecstasy. Four out of five of the consumers surveyed had smoked tobacco in the six months prior to participating, with half of these smoking on a daily basis. Those people who only smoked occasionally often reported that they usually (but not necessarily exclusively) smoked while using ecstasy. Forty percent of participants reported inhaling amyl nitrate, and one-quarter used nitrous oxide in the previous six months, although most had only done so on less than six days in this time. Fourteen percent of participants had recently used antidepressants, with all but two of these using the drug for the management of depression as prescribed by a medical practitioner.

Criminal and Police Activity
With the exception of provision of drugs, just 5% of the regular ecstasy-consuming participants reported any involvement in criminal activity such as property crime or fraud in the month prior to participating in the study. Three percent of the sample had been imprisoned at some stage in their lives, and 5% had been arrested in the year prior to interview for property crime or drug or alcohol related offences. Dealing of drugs, however, was reported by one-quarter of the PDU sample in the preceding month. While this was typically reported as low-level dealing among friends, most of these individuals had partially funded their own party drug use through such activity. Finally, the majority of participants and key informants noted an increased police presence and interest into party drug use; although this had not yet appeared to have reduced access to these drugs in recent months.

Citation: Bruno, R. and McLean, S. (2004) Tasmanian Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drug Initiative (PDI), Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.