Drugs of concern

What drugs do people seek treatment for?

People may seek AOD treatment services when experiencing problematic use with one or more drugs. Most people have one drug that is of greater concern for them, and their treatment will typically focus on this drug; this is referred to as the principal drug of concern. Clients who use more than one drug can also report additional drugs of concern.


Principal drug of concern

The most common principal drug of concern that led people to seek treatment was alcohol.

For people who received treatment for their own alcohol or drug use in 2020–21:

  • Almost 2 in 5 (37%) treatment episodes were for alcohol, followed by amphetamines (24%), cannabis (19%) and heroin (4.6%). This pattern was similar for both males and females, and Indigenous Australians (Figure AODTS PDOC.1).  
  • Where amphetamines (54,001 episodes) were reported as a principal drug of concern in 2020–21, over three quarters (78%) were for methamphetamines.

There was variation across age groups in the most common principal drugs of concern:

  • Alcohol was the most common principal drug of concern for older clients. Alcohol was the principal drug of concern for 46% of those aged 40–49; 59% of those aged 50–59; and 74% of people aged 60 and over.
  • Cannabis was the most common principal drug of concern treated in young people, with 3 in 5 people aged 10–19 (60% of treatment episodes) receiving treatment for cannabis.
  • Amphetamines were the most common principal drug of concern for over 1 in 3 people aged 30‍–‍39 (34%) and almost 3 in 10 aged 20–29 (27%).

In 2020–21, for episodes where the client was receiving treatment for their own drug use, alcohol was the most common principal drug of concern in all states and territories; ranging from 3 in 10 episodes in Victoria (31%) to over 7 in 10 treatment episodes in the Northern Territory (72%).

  • Queensland had the greatest proportion of treatment episodes for cannabis (29%) as a principal drug of concern due to the Police Diversion Program for cannabis. This was followed by Western Australia (22%).
  • The proportion of episodes involving heroin as a principal drug of concern was highest in the Australian Capital Territory (14%) compared to 4.6% nationally (Figure AODTS PDOC.1).

Figure AODTS PDOC.1: Closed treatment episodes for client’s own drug use, by principal drug of concern and state and territory, 2011–12 to 2020–21

The stacked bar graph shows the closed treatment episodes for clients’ own drug use by principal drug of concern and state and territory, from 2011–12 to 2020–21. Between 2011–12 and 2020–21, the number of treatment episodes increased from 146,948 episodes in 2011–12 to 223,335 episodes in 2020–21.

The four most common drugs of concern have remained consistent through this period. In 2020–21, 83,254 (37.3%) of closed treatment episodes had alcohol as the principal drug of concern (increasing from 67,370; 45.8% in 2011–12); 54,001 (24.2%) of episodes had amphetamines (more than doubling from 16,875; 11.5% in 2011–12); 43,449 (19.5%) of episodes had cannabis (increasing from 32,321; 22% in 2011–12); and 10,208 (4.6%) had heroin (falling from 12,918; 8.8% in 2011–12).  

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Over 10 years from 2011–12 to 2020–21, alcohol remained the most common principal drug of concern in treatment episodes provided to clients for their own drug use:

  • This number has increased 24%, from around 67,000 in 2011–12 to around 83,000 episodes with alcohol as principal drug of concern in 2020–21.
  • Proportionally, treatment for alcohol in relation to all principal drugs of concern decreased from 46% to 37% of treatment episodes over this period.
  • The proportion of episodes with amphetamines as a principal drug of concern increased from 11% (16,875) in 2011–12, to 28% (60,987) in 2019–20 and decreased to 24% (54,001) in 2020–21.
  • The proportion of episodes with cannabis as the principal drug of concern fell slightly from 22% to 19% over this time period.
  • The number of treatment episodes where heroin was the principal drug of concern fell from around 12,900 (8.8%) to 10,200 (4.6%) episodes over this period (Figure AODTS PDOC.1).

Methamphetamines

Over the 10-year period from 2011–12, the number and proportion of treatment episodes for methamphetamines has grown. Of the 16,800 treatment episodes provided to clients receiving treatment for amphetamines as a principal drug of concern in 2011–12 almost 1 in 5 (17% OR 2,788) reported methamphetamine as a principal drug of concern. The proportion increased to 50% of episodes (24,733) in 2016–17. Methamphetamines as a principal drug of concern code within amphetamines increased to almost 4 in 5 (78%) episodes in both 2019–20 (47,599 episodes) and 2020–21 (42,392) (Figure AODTS PDOC.2).

Over the same period treatment episodes for amphetamines and amphetamines not further defined decreased, as coding practices improved in reporting treatment for methamphetamines. The rise in reported episodes for methamphetamines can be attributed to a range of factors including improvements in agency coding, treatment system updates and increases in funded treatment services.

Figure AODTS PDOC.2: Closed treatment episodes for client’s own drug use for Amphetamines, by (ASCDC) codes, 2011–12 to 2020–21

The line graph shows that, among closed treatment episodes for client’s own drug use for amphetamines, methamphetamines have been the most common drug of concern since 2011–12. In 2020–21, there were 42,392 (78.5%) episodes with methamphetamines as a principal drug of concern, a large increase from 2,788 (16.5%) episodes in 2011-12.

The number and proportion of episodes with amphetamines not further defined has fallen from 11,842 episodes (70.2%) in 2011–12 to 8,864 episodes (16.4%) in 2020–21.

The number and proportion of episodes with amphetamine has fluctuated, peaking in 2013–14 (6,579 episodes or 22.7%) and falling to 1,646 episodes (3%) in 2020–21.

While the number of episodes with other amphetamines has increased from 480 episodes in 2011–12 to 1,099 in 2020–21, the proportion of episodes has remained consistent (2.8% to 2.0%).

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