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Illicit use of drugs is a direct cause of death and disability as well as being a risk factor for a number of diseases which affect drug users and the wider community. The relative health impact of the illicit use of drugs varies depending on the specific type of drug used and the circumstances of its use. Overall, however, illicit use of drugs (and illicit drug use disorders) account for an increasing proportion of the global burden of disease (moving from the 18th to 15th ranking risk factor between 1990 and 2010) (IHME 2013). Illicit use of drugs, also referred to here as ‘illicit drug use’, includes use of illegal drugs, non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs (an illicit behaviour), and inappropriate use of other substances (such as inhalants).

Current use and trends

  • The number of people participating in any illicit use of drugs, including pharmaceutical misuse in Australia is increasing.
  • The proportion of people using most illegal drugs has remained relatively stable and use of some illegal drugs has even slightly decreased over the last three years.
  • Figure 1: Recent use of illicit drugs by people aged 14 and over, 2010 and 2013 (per cent)

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  • In 2013, about 8 million (or 42%) people in Australia aged 14 years or older had ever illicitly used drugs, including misuse of pharmaceuticals. Almost 3 million (15.0%) had done so in the last 12 months, comparable with about 2.7 million (14.7%) in 2010.
  • Significant declines were seen in use of ecstasy (from 3.0% to 2.5%), heroin (from 0.2% to 0.1%) and GHB (from 0.1% to less than 0.1%) in 2013 but the misuse of pharmaceuticals increased significantly (from 4.2% in 2010 to 4.7% in 2013); use of the remaining drugs surveyed remained relatively stable between 2010 and 2013.
  • The most common illicit drug used, both recently and over the lifetime, was cannabis, at 10.2% and 35% respectively.
  • Among younger people aged 14–24 years, the age of initiation into illicit drug use increased from 16.0 years in 2010 to 16.3 years in 2013. More specifically: in 2013 significantly older ages of first use were reported for both cannabis and meth/amphetamines.
  • Males were more likely than females to use illicit drugs (18.1% compared with 12.1%), and people aged 20–29 were more likely to use illicit drugs than those in any other age group (27%).
  • While older people (aged 50 or older) generally have the lowest rates of recent illicit drug use, in recent years this age group has shown the largest increase in illicit use of drugs. This was the only age group to show a significant increase in illicit drug use between 2010 and 2013 (from 8.7% to 11.1% for 50–59 year olds and from 5.1% to 6.4% for people aged 60 and over).
  • While there was no significant increase in meth/amphetamine use in 2013, there was a change in the main form of meth/amphetamines used. Use of powder decreased significantly from 51% to 29% while the use of ice (or crystal methamphetamine) more than doubled, from 22% in 2010 to 50% in 2013. People also used meth/amphetamines more frequently in 2013.There was a significant increase in the proportion of users taking it daily or weekly (from 9.3% to 15.5%), particularly among ice users (from 12.4% to 25.3%).

Pharmaceutical misuse

In the context of illicit drug use, a pharmaceutical is ‘a drug that is available from a pharmacy, over-the-counter or by prescription, which may be subject to misuse’ (MCDS 2011). In the 2013 NDSHS, pharmaceuticals surveyed which may be subject to misuse were pain-killers/analgesics, tranquillisers, steroids, methadone/buprenorphine or other opiates (not including heroin).

  • Non-medical use of pharmaceuticals in the previous 12 months has increased overall since 2007 and was at the highest level of use seen since 1998 (from 3.7% in 2007 to 4.7% in 2013).
  • Figure 2: Misuse of pharmaceuticals by people aged 14 and over, 1995–2013 (per cent)

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  • The increase in pharmaceutical misuse in 2013 was mainly due to significant increases in recent use by men aged 30–39 (from 4.5% to 6.9%) and women aged 40–49 (from 3.1% to 4.5%).
  • Among people who reported recent misuse of any kind of painkiller/analgesic (3.3%), about three quarters had misused over the counter pain killers and half had misused prescription pain killers.

Emerging psychoactive substances

The 2013 Survey was the first NDSHS to collect data on use of emerging psychoactive substances (EPS). EPS is a term used to describe drugs that are relatively new to the recreational drug market and have mind-altering effects similar to conventional illicit drugs (including those known as meow meow, kronic and BZP) (NDARC 2013).

  • In 2013, 1.2% of the population (about 230,000 people) had used synthetic cannabinoids in the last 12 months, and 0.4% (about 80,000 people) had used another psychoactive substance such as mephedrone.
  • While the greater majority of synthetic cannabis users had also used a traditional illicit drug, a small proportion (4.5%) had only used synthetic cannabis in the previous 12 months.

Attitudes and perceptions

  • More people thought that meth/amphetamines was the illicit drug of most concern to the community in 2013 (increasing significantly from 9.5% to 16.1%) and is now the illicit drug of concern most commonly reported.
  • More people thought that meth/amphetamines caused the most deaths (increasing significantly from 4.7% to 8.7%) but this proportion was still lower than heroin (14.1%).
  • The proportion of people nominating cannabis and heroin as a ‘drug problem’ declined significantly, whereas the proportion nominating meth/amphetamines and pain-killers/analgesics increased.
  • Most people first try illicit drugs because they are curious to see what it is like (66%), and people continue to use illicit drugs because they want to enhance experiences (30%) or to do something exciting (17.5%).


In 2013, 8.3% of the population had been a victim of an illicit-drug related incident. Verbal abuse was the most frequently reported incident overall, and the proportion experiencing physical abuse by someone under the influence of illicit drugs increased significantly from 2.2% in 2010 to 3.1% in 2013.


Illicit use of drugs data from the 2013 NDSHS is available in the supplementary tables.