Illicit Drug Use on the Rise

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission data reveals that Victoria is the nation’s amphetamine capital with more ice, speed, MDMA and other stimulants seized here last year than any other state. It is an issue that I raised in the Parliament prior to the release of the latest data.

Australia’s approach to the challenge of illicit drug use has broadly fallen into four phases. The first phase was a response to the outbreak of HIV AIDS. In an endeavour to reduce injury while not stigmatising the inflicted, a policy of harm reduction was adopted.  Drug use was seen as a legitimate lifestyle choice.

The policy drift away from prevention was reversed by the Howard Government in 1998. Implementing a tough-on-drugs program, the government placed greater emphasis on the reduction of illicit drug supply and prevention through education, diversion and treatment programs.

The implementation of a balanced model, more akin to the Swedish approach, drew local critics who regarded addicts as victims. Since the Howard era, drug policy in practice returned to the earlier harm reduction model. While prevention is given lip-service, the emphasis remains on decreasing the injury to individuals rather than tackling the supply and the use of illicit drugs as such.

A fourth phase has hopefully replaced the third following widespread community concern about the ice epidemic. The National Ice Taskforce, established by the Abbott Gvernment in 2015, found that more than 200,000 Australians were using the crystalline form of methamphetamine, commonly known as ice, in 2013 compared to fewer than 100,000 in 2007. It found that the distress that the ice causes to individuals, families, communities and frontline workers is disproportionate to that caused by other drugs. It proposed both primary prevention and effective treatment.

Looking at these four phases, what has been the impact of the previous various approaches?

First, illicit drug use increased from 39.3% of people aged 14 years and older in 1995 to 46% in 1998. In 2001 it had fallen back to 37.7%, rising to 38.1% in 2004. But, since 2007, it has climbed again, to 41.8%.

Secondly, the death rates from opiate overdose for persons aged 15 to 54 increased from 36.6 deaths per million in 1988 to 101.9 in 1991. From 1999 to 2004 they fell back to 31.3 deaths per million. In 2004 there were 320 overdose deaths. By 2011, the number had risen to 715.

Thirdly, hepatitis C infections also increased significantly, to a peak of 14,000 new cases in 1999, before falling in the following years.

Fourthly, the use of methamphetamines has escalated to alarming levels over the past decade. We know that, for some people, tragically, ice can trigger psychological disturbances or violent or aggressive behaviour. Long-term use may damage the brain and cause impaired attention, memory and motor skills.

The use of these drugs has largely replicated the approaches that have been taken over the past few decades. When the policy has been one which has been lax on drug use, adverse consequences have gone up and when there has been a tougher approach, particularly on prevention and supply, use has gone down.

Evidence reveals that Australia’s recent approach is far from world’s best practice and is failing many individuals and families. Therefore, a renewed emphasis on education, prevention and early treatment and rehabilitation is warranted.