The Drug Problem

Drugs in Australia. Is it a Problem?

Presented by the Economics Students Society of Australia 2019
Created by Thao-Mi Bui, Sao Yang Hew, Nick Henderson, Miguel Ayala, Klinsmann Lee, Gabriel Chenkov-Shaw and Yun Zou
Drug Hospitilizations over the Years
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Each of the dots represent a person who has been hospitilised in Victoria from illicit drugs
What has contributed to increased illicit drug use?
Mental Health and Anxiety

The rise of mental health issues has been suggested as a key contributor to increasingly prevalent drug use. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has noted individuals with mental disorders are five times more likely than those without to misuse substances. However, although it seems intuitive that having mental health issues would go hand in hand with higher rates of drug use, the causal link remains tenuous. If mental health issues do induce drug use, it is alarming that mental health conditions are on the rise in Australia, with 10.4% of Australian’s having both an anxiety and depression condition. This was an increase from 2014 of 1.5% which may assist in explaining Australia’s increasing drug related hospitalisations trend. Alarmingly, 24.6% of females aged 15-24 reported anxiety related conditions which presented a vast increase from 2014’s 18.9%. It is difficult to determine exactly why drug related hospitalisations have ascended but the uncurbed frequency of mental health conditions provides a plausible part of the explanation.

Drug Price Range
United States (AUD)
Australia (AUD)
Marijauna (per bud, varying quality)
15 - 80
15 - 50
Methamphetamine (per gram)
30 - 95
250 - 550
Cocaine (per gram)
95 - 235
200 - 600
Heroine (per gram)
15 - 30
200 - 700
MDMA (per pill, about 50-150mg)
8 - 40
15 - 45
Ketamine (per gram)
95 - 155
100 - 250
LSD (per dose, about 20-80mg)
6 - 13
5 - 50
Psilocybin Mushrooms (one "trip", about 1/8 ounce)
31 - 63
35 - 53
The sheer availability of drugs in Australia is a leading factor in drug related hospitalisations. Although Australia has notoriously high prices for drugs with cocaine fetching $311 per gram when the mean global price is only $127, its accessibility drives demand. Australia has an abnormally high demand for illicit drugs with reports that it accounted for 11% of global dark net sales of illicit drugs. To illustrate how astronomical this volume is, the US ordered 3 times more, yet is 16 times the populace. This prevalence of illicit drug use, regardless of whether it leads to a hospitalisation or not, highlights the ease with which they can be obtained. The ratio of drug use per capita is closer to one than most nations, which also renders a profitable circumstance to produce drugs locally.

The ever-increasing accessibility of illicit drugs has been aided in part by technological changes. Whereas drug users used to obtain through a physical exchange, individuals can now transact anonymously through the dark web, making an almost risk-free drug deal for both suppliers and consumers. Nevertheless, internet transactions remain only a fraction of the transactions, with most users still obtaining substances from physical social networks, highlighting the sophistication of dealer networks.
Rural and Metro Divide
Copious statistics demonstrate the disproportionately higher rate of drug use in rural areas. At a glance, a 2013 report highlighted that in remote areas, over 18% of people aged over 14 use illicit drugs whilst in major cities, this number is only 14.8%. Most alarmingly, 4.5% of youths in rural Australia have used methamphetamine whilst major cities present a lesser proportion at 1.8%. Such a discrepancy is caused by an array of calamitous reasons such as the fact that these areas are also associated with lower educational attainment, unemployment, isolation, sparse law enforcement, and lower availability of treatment. Most importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, of whom 70 per cent live in rural Australia, were 1.7 times more likely to have used illicit drugs recently compared to the general population. Interestingly, hospitalisations in urban areas have still remained higher than their rural counterparts but it still highlights how severely disadvantaged populations can be at risk of drug misuse.
What is Australia Doing about it?
With only 9403 unique drug offenders on the record between July 2018 to June 2019, compared to 40,000 accessing government funded treatment services annually, it is clear Victoria has been moving in the right direction by stepping away from law-enforcement strategies and investing in increasingly more treatment and harm-reduction services. Despite this, heroin deaths are higher in Victoria than they have been in two decades. Overdoses often result from a cocktail of drugs, many of which are legal, such as sleeping pills, antidepressants and alcohol. And hospitalisations due to illicit drugs have been on the rise for years. In light of this, more remains to be done to address the root of the problem. We need more investment in prevention.
Safe Injecting Rooms

Victoria has opened a safe injecting room in North Richmond, which provides a degree of harm reduction to those already hooked and who live in the area. While the introduction of one of these rooms does nothing to confront the structural issue of drug addiction, it is a step in the right direction, with over 1,000 overdoses being prevented since its introduction. While the room has also alienated a number of local residents, it has increasingly brought the broader drug issue into public discourse, as have fledgling attempts to initiate pill-testing facilities at music festivals.

While both the introduction of a supervised injecting rooms and testing facilities at festivals represents sound attempts to address the issue, one room or a couple of booths do little for overdose cases in Brimbank or Mildura. Rural Australia has seen an explosion in ice use in particular, and the success of an inner-city containment program will not necessarily translate to other issues across the state.
injecting room richmond
Melbourne's First Injecting Room in North Richmond opened in 2018. Photo courtesy of the ABC
Treatment Services

For non-emergency cases who have longer-standing issues with substance abuse, the options are similar to those with other health issues - they can go through the bureaucracy of the public health system, or they can pay in full to be treated at a private clinic. In terms of public services, a number of treatment functions are employed to ensure the best outcome: intake and assessment, recovery coordination, counselling, withdrawal and rehabilitation. The private system follows a similar path, with a hefty payment allowing addicts to skip the waiting lists and access better facilities.

As opposed to the large portion of the world that considers drug issues a criminal offence rather than a medical condition, this setup is not bad. Patients who are treated as sick rather than bad have had far better outcomes than those who are places into the jail system, which arguably reinforce some behaviours that landed people there in the first place.

In 2017, the government allocated a further $53 million to alcohol and drug rehabilitation beds, both in adult and youth residential withdrawal facilities. This, combined with an increased number of private programs available to those ready to make the transition to sobriety, provides a better situation for addicts than there has been in the past. That being said, waitlists in the public system are still long and infrastructure still needs improvement. We still have a system in place where those with money can purchase far better treatment than those without.

View the distribution around Victoria

Every increase in gradient represents approximately 200 people admitted per year for illicit drug use

Hospitilizations for Illicit Drugs in 2016

What more could Australia do?

While the government and private sector have stepped and provided an increased amount of infrastructure to deal with Victoria’s drug problem, this only acts on one side of the issue - that of harm reduction. In order to address the situation at a structural level, we must address the opposing issue of prevention. In other words we must ask a simple question: why are more people using in the first place? Effective prevention measures are not found in isolation. They work in combination with each other to enable a community to grow that frowns upon harmful use. They de-stigmatize the use of drugs while also ensuring use is not normalised in any way.

Prevention works by boosting protective factors which eliminate the exposure and appeal of drugs to those at risk, specifically teenagers and young adults. This can include universal programs which educate young people about the dangers of drug use, and targeted programs which specifically address the needs of people deemed at-risk. These programs need not necessarily mention drugs in particular, they may simply be instructions on how to manage the natural stress associated with growing up. Happy people are far less likely to turn to drugs in the first place, and this may well be an essential component in long-term prevention.

The key takeaway here is that we must combine prevention through education with the already existing measures of harm reduction. If young students only receive a lecture from a teacher or a parent on the dangers of drug use, this will have a far lower chance of success than if they can also go home to an environment that is drug free, and eventually out to parties, festivals and parks where they are not widely used.

The bottom line is that drug use may be best prevented by building communities where it is not normalised. The policing of illicit importations has failed to a large extent, such that the only option we have to ensure drugs are removed from our streets is to create an environment in which demand is simply not there. If we can provide our young people with a healthy outlook on life, and the tools to cope with both the age-old and uniquely modern stresses that may have driven drug use in the first place, this is perhaps our best chance to minimise use in the long run.
Annual 2018 $1.7 Billion Drug Policy Expenditure Breakdown (in AUD $Millions)
Read our other articles on what other countries are doing