29 November 2001

New research has shown use of heroin in Queensland is decreasing, but more people are turning instead to amphetamines and other drug substances such as cocaine and injected Valium.

University of Queensland researcher based at the Queensland Drug and Alcohol Research and Education Centre (QADREC) Gabrielle Rose said there is a major trend in the state towards the use of a crystalline methamphetamine known popularly as “base,” “ice” or “shabu”.

The findings are part of an ongoing national Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) study, which, in 2001, identified a “heroin drought.” IDRS is co-ordinated by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) and is conducted in each state and territory at the same time each year. This study has run since 1997.

Ms Rose, who co-ordinated the Queensland part of the national study, said not only were more people using methamphetamines, the illicit drug was also increasing in purity, availability and was reducing in price.

Dr Libby Topp from NDARC, National Co-ordinator of the IDRS, believes the trend towards the use of crystalline methamphetamine, which was identified in last year’s study, has become an even greater problem in 2001.

“More people are using methamphetamine and the drug continues to be available under a variety of different guises,” said Dr Topp. “The drug is readily available right across the country and attracting younger users. As the purity and availability of heroin has dropped – just the opposite has occurred in the methamphetamine market. It really does appear to have filled a hole in the drug market.”

International research indicates that the widespread use of crystalline methamphetamine is likely to be associated with adverse psychological effects such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and even psychotic breakdown and episodes.

There are also community problems associated with a drug such as methamphetamine.

“There have been reports from some states, particularly Queensland, of increases in violent and property crime,” commented Dr Topp. “More presentations from methamphetamine users to Accident and Emergency Departments have also been reported, as well as more attendances by paramedics to users who are difficult to manage due to their psychotic and/or violent behaviour.”

Apart from methamphetamine, different states have responded differently to the change in the heroin market. Both legal and illegal drugs have been substituted for heroin, or used to supplement the less pure form of the drug.

Cocaine was identified in NSW, the ACT, Queensland and Victoria and the increased injection of benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Normison) was noted in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland.

Australia’s heroin drought is totally unique; never before has a modern western drug market experienced such a marked reduction in the supply of heroin, and at the present time only Australia is experiencing the shortage.

“There have undoubtedly been a number of positive consequences of the drought, notably a significant decrease in the number of heroin overdoses and some people who have stopped using drugs altogether, either by themselves or with the help of treatment,” said Dr Topp.

“However, there have also been unintended consequences. We already know that illicit drug users do not stick to one drug type. This study has shown that the boundaries between different drug markets are very blurred, with users shifting between drugs with ease.” As a result poly drug use is becoming more of a problem.

“This has enormous implications for both the law enforcement and health sectors,” concluded Dr Topp. “The major benefit of the IDRS is that we can now detect new drug trends as they are emerging – it is our alarm bell. Without a system designed to detect new trends, we are always playing catch-up with major problems.”

IDRS is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care and the National Drug Enforcement Research Fund.

Media: For more information on the Queensland part of the study, contact Gabrielle Rose (0411 043 490, 07 3365 5287) or Peter McCutcheon at UQ Communications on 07 3365 1088. For more information on the national study, contact Paul Dillon on 02 9385 0226 or 0419 402 099.