NDARC Technical Report No. 183 (2004)
This report presents the results from the first year of a 2-year study to commence monitoring party drug trends in Victoria. A feasibility trial of this research was conducted in 2000 and 2001 in NSW, QLD and SA, and in 2002 the study was conducted in those jurisdictions. 2003 marks the first time that the study was conducted on a national level, with the addition of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and Victoria.
The demographic characteristics and patterns of drug use among the sample of party drug users, their perceptions of the benefits and harms associated with party drug use, and their criminal behaviour are presented, as are the price, purity and availability of the various party drugs. These findings are triangulated with information from key informants and secondary indicator data sources to minimise the biases and weaknesses inherent to each one and provide an understanding of the current party drug markets in Melbourne, Victoria. 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 regular ecstasy users tend to be in their mid-twenties, with a high-school education (and a significant proportion also having completed courses after school) and either employed or full-time students.
Patterns of drug use among PDU
Polydrug use was the norm among the participants, a trend that was confirmed by the key informants. The PDU sample reported lifetime use of a median of eleven drug types and recent use of seven. The majority of the sample reported either ecstasy or cannabis as the main drug of choice. Bingeing was reported by nearly two-thirds of the sample and unsurprisingly for this sample, ecstasy was the most commonly used drug during a binge, followed by crystal meth, cannabis and alcohol.
Nearly half of the sample reported having ever injected a drug and over a quarter reported recent injection of a drug (most commonly, speed, heroin, crystal meth and ecstasy). This finding is inconsistent with the key informant reports, the vast majority of who believed that IDU was very rare, if occurring at all. This finding may provide evidence of an intersection between the party drug and more traditional IDU markets (consisting of primary heroin and speed users) which has not previously been apparent. This requires further investigation.
The regular ecstasy users and key informants reported a wide range of patterns of ecstasy use. Ecstasy was typically used for the first time during the late teenage years, and current frequency of use ranged from once a month to more than every second day. There was also a range in the quantities reported by the participants as typically being used, from half a tablet to fifteen in a single episode. Over half of the sample reported typically taking one or more ecstasy pills per session of use. There was also considerable variation in the quantities of ecstasy pills reported as being used during a ‘heavy’ session, from one to thirty, with over half of the sample reporting using three or more pills. Unsurprisingly, ecstasy was the drug most commonly used by this sample during a binge, with half of the sample reporting having recently done so. Further, most of the participants reported typically using other drugs in combination with ecstasy (most commonly alcohol, speed and cannabis) and during the come down period (most commonly cannabis, tobacco and alcohol).
Ecstasy was reported by both PDU and KI to cost approximately $30, a price that was also reported as stable over the previous six months. The purity of ecstasy was reported to be variable, although it is readily available. According to a number of key informants, the normalisation and commercialisation of a number of scenes where party drug use has traditionally occurred has resulted in increasing numbers of people and younger users entering the scenes and being exposed to party drug use.
All of the PDU perceived there to be benefits associated with ecstasy use: the most common benefits concerned enhanced mood, communication and sociability. The majority of the PDU also perceived there to be risks associated with ecstasy use, the most commonly mentioned being general psychological harms, cognitive impairment and depression.
The majority of the sample reported lifetime and recent use of methamphetamine powder (speed) and the majority reported lifetime use of crystal meth, with approximately two-thirds reporting recent use. Base had been less widely used with about half of the sample reporting lifetime use and just over a quarter reporting recent use. Consistent with these findings, only a small proportion of the PDU sample reported speed as their main drug of choice, fewer reported crystal meth and only one reported base as their main drug of choice.
As with ecstasy, there was considerable variability in the reported frequency of methamphetamine use. However, the majority of those that had used speed recently had done so fortnightly or less, with crystal meth and base typically being used less frequently (once a month or less often). There was also considerable variability in reports of quantities used during typical and heavy episodes.
Although the majority of the sample reported lifetime use of cocaine, only a small proportion reported recent use. Further, those that did report recent use tended to have used cocaine infrequently in the six months preceding the interview, with the majority using once a month or less. These findings are consistent with the key informant reports.
GHB had only ever been used by a third of the sample and recently used by under a fifth. Due to the small numbers, it is difficult to draw any strong conclusions from the PDU reports. However, GHB is a relatively cheap drug (modal price of $3 per millilitre), its purity was reported by half of those able to comment as being high and it is considered to be readily available.
The majority of the sample reported lifetime use of LSD and just under half reported recent use. The majority of the sample reported using LSD once a month or less. Seventeen percent of participants that reported bingeing recently had used LSD when doing so.
The majority of the sample reported lifetime use of ketamine although only half of the sample reported recent use. The majority of recent ketamine users reported infrequent use (once a month or less). Ketamine is most often snorted and was used by nearly a quarter of those that recently binged.
Criminal and police activity
The participants had little contact with police and few engaged in crime apart from dealing. A small minority of the sample had previous contact with the criminal justice system and again, only a small minority had experience with drug treatment. Police activity was reported by the PDU sample to have been stable over the preceding six months, and not to have made it more difficult for them to score drugs.
The findings in this report provide a summary of trends in ecstasy and other ‘party drug’ use detected in Melbourne, Victoria in 2003 through conduct of the first year of the two-year PDI study. The findings demonstrate that there exists in Melbourne a population of regular ecstasy and other party drug users and provide valuable information about the patterns of party drug use, the harms associated with such use, the criminal behaviour of party drug users, as well as information about the drug markets in terms of the price, purity and availability of the various party drugs. However, as has been demonstrated by the core IDRS study, greater precision in trend monitoring in this area will be achieved through the routine collection and analysis of such information.
The findings from this first year are interesting, and suggest other areas for further research, such as an investigation of the injecting practices of PDU, the potential intersection between traditional IDU and PDU populations and markets, and ways of expanding existing harm minimisation education, particularly to novice PDU. Research with this apparently heterogenous population may also benefit from the expansion of recruitment and data collection methods, such as web-based surveys.
Given the significant demonstrated potential for health and other harms associated with party drug misuse, there is an imperative for broadening existing drug trend monitoring systems to facilitate a more sensitive mechanism for detecting trends in this area. The greatest opportunity for achieving this is by extending current monitoring methods to new sentinel groups and settings. With increasing community interest in the patterns and characteristics of party drug use, the Victorian PDI represents a timely move to gather information about these local markets.
Citation: Johnston, J., Laslett, A.M., Jenkinson, R., Miller, P. and Fry, C. (2004) Victorian Party Drug Trends 2003: Findings from the Party Drug Initiative (PDI), Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.