Wastewater reveals record high drug consumption

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

29/10/2020 3:58:05 PM

New Australian data shows a spike in overall drug use at the height of the pandemic, but opioid use is down.

Wastewater plant
Using an instrument to separate different chemicals in the wastewater, researchers were able to determine drug concentrations.

It seems many of the fears for peoples’ health and safety during the pandemic have been justified.
The latest data from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program has confirmed an increase in legal and illicit drug use across the country.
The findings, released by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) on 29 October, are based on samples from April and June, estimated to cover around 56% of the population.
Capital cities saw a significant spike in cocaine, cannabis and nicotine use, while regional sites recorded high consumption of methylamphetamine (ice) and heroin.
But there was record low consumption of alcohol and oxycodone in capital cities, and record low consumption of fentanyl.
Both capital city and regional sites saw a decline in the population-weighted average consumption of alcohol, MDMA, oxycodone and fentanyl from December 2019 to April 2020.
Addiction specialist GP Dr Simon Holliday told newsGP the drop in opioid use was likely influenced by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) tightening of prescription opioids.
‘We know that while most of the opioids are probably used as directed, some figures suggest something like 25% of people prescribed prescription opioids do abuse them and probably 13% … are dependent on them,’ he said.
‘The fact that the health system is pumping out less pharmaceutical opioids will be reflected in some of these figures.’
From December 2019 to April 2020, however, the population-weighted average consumption of heroin increased in both capital city and regional sites, as did nicotine and cocaine use in capital cities, and methylamphetamine and cannabis in regional sites.
Despite concerns alcohol consumption would increase during lockdowns, the data shows a national drop in April, with cities recording their lowest ever levels.
Dr Holliday said the finding is ‘interesting’, given the expansion of alcohol-delivery services. He says lack of social interaction may have played a role.
‘It’s a very primal thing for humans to want to be with other humans … and alcohol is very much used as part of social interaction. If we deprive ourselves of our social interaction, a lot of people don’t have those sort of environments to do their drinking,’ he said.
Alcohol and nicotine remained the most commonly consumed drugs, and methylamphetamine the most common illicit drug.
In total, 55 wastewater treatment plants took part in the testing program, monitoring consumption of 13 substances.
ACIC chief executive Michael Phelan said that while some illicit drug prices had been driven up by the pandemic, price had not been a reliable indicator of consumption levels, showing the ‘resilience and variety’ of regional drug markets in Australia.
‘Even in locations where considerable price increases have been reported, consumption of some drugs has increased,’ he said.
‘Operational activity in which the ACIC has been involved with its partners indicates that many serious and organised crime groups in the major drug markets continued to operate on a “business as usual” basis throughout the pandemic, importing, manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs.’
But rather than focusing on the so-called war on drugs, Dr Holliday hopes the ACIC data will be put to use in developing better policy and regulation to improve community health outcomes.
‘We need evidence-based policy and I think ongoing studies like this will contribute … if we can convince the decision-makers to wean themselves off moral outrage and appealing to people’s prejudices and fears,’ he said.
‘They are very powerful drivers of policy at the moment.
‘We also need media to try and make science relevant to people, and make people see that there are issues and problems that they’ve got to address – not just be titillated by confected outrage, demonising certain groups and getting tough on crime with the war on drugs.
‘We need, hopefully, better informed political debates so we have a culture where science and evidence does help us work towards a better society.’
Highest estimated drug consumption by state and territory
South Australia

  • Methylamphetamine, capital city and regional sites
  • Cannabis, regional
  • Fentanyl, capital city and regional sites
New South Wales
  • Cocaine, capital city and regional sites
  • Mephedrone (mostly detected below the level at which it could be reliably quantified)
Northern Territory
  • MDMA, capital city
  • Nicotine, capital city and regional sites
  • Alcohol, capital city and regional sites
  • MDMA, regional
  • MDA, capital city and regional
  • Heroin, capital city and regional sites
  • Oxycodone, regional
  • Cannabis, capital city
  • Oxycodone, capital city
Western Australia
  • Methylone (mostly detected below the level at which it could be reliably quantified) 
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