pills pill testing

If the headlines are anything to go by, Australia is in the grips of a drug epidemic, with pill overdoses killing off our kids at an alarming rate. You could set your watch based on reactions to the latest suspected overdose: police double down on “say no to drugs” messaging while NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian buries her head even further in the sand and continues to rule out pill testing, even as the young victims’ family, the majority of voters, her own MPs and Sunrise’s David Koch turn against her.

But while the endless debate about MDMA overdoses inflames passions, and drives newspaper headlines, it tells a far from complete story about drug deaths in Australia. Crikey breaks down the facts and figures on which drugs are the most dangerous. 

What drugs are we taking?

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National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016

  • In Australia, the biggest population-wide data set on drug use patterns is the National Household Survey which has been conducted every two to three years since 1985. This is based on 23,772 respondents and was last conducted in 2016.
  • According to this report, the most commonly used illegal drugs in the 12 months prior to the interviews were cannabis (10%), cocaine (2.5%), ecstasy (MDMA, 2.2%) and meth/amphetamines (1.4%).
  • Misuse of pain killers and opioids was more commonly used (3.6%) than anything other than cannabis. 
  • By contrast, 26% of respondents had “consumed alcohol at levels placing them at risk of harm on a single occasion, at least monthly”, 17% consumed alcohol at levels that risk alcohol related disease or injury, and 15% had consumed 11 or more standard drinks at least once in the previous 12 months.

Who’s actually taking them?

National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016

  • People in their 20s are still the most likely group to have used illicit drugs, but the percentage is dropping (from 35% in 2001 to 28% in 2016). 
  • MDMA use was higher than average for those aged 14-19 years (3%) and 20-29 years (7%).
  • The largest per cent change was among people aged 60 or older — mainly misusing pharmaceuticals — for whom recent illicit drug use increased from 3.9% in 2001 to 6.9% in 2016. People in their 50s increased from 6.7% to 11.7% over the same period.
  • People in their 50s and people aged 60 or older were mainly using cannabis (7.2% and 4.5% respectively).
  • The report concludes that overall, there was no significant change in use of any illicit drug but changes were evident among certain age groups.

Which drugs are actually killing us?

  • Prescription drugs cause the highest numbers of drug induced deaths.
  • Across the whole population, Australians under 35 years of age have lower rates of drug induced death when compared to 1999, while Australians 45 and over, generally have higher rates.
  • According to the ABS, in 2016 the most likely person to suffer a drug induced death in Australia would be a middle aged male, living outside of a capital city, misusing prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines or oxycodone in combination. It was considered to most likely be accidental.
  • Again, for contrast, there were 1366 registered alcohol-induced deaths in 2017, mostly effecting men in their early 60s. There were an additional 2820 deaths where alcohol was mentioned as a contributory cause of death. A total of 4,186 registered deaths were alcohol related. 
  • In 2015, an estimated 5785 Australians aged 15 and over died from alcohol-attributable causes in 2015.

Use of MDMA

Source: Australia Institute of Health and Welfare

  • Between 2010 and 2016, recent use of ecstasy has generally declined across Australia (3% in 2010 to 2.2% in 2016). 
  • Between 2013 and 2016, lifetime use of ecstasy increased for people in their 40s and 50s but decreased for people in their 20s. 
  • Since 2001, recent use has generally decreased among the younger age group but remained similar over the same period for people aged 30 and over.


How could the media be better reporting on drug deaths? Send your thoughts to boss@crikey.com.au

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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