Illicit drug use

Why are illicit drug use rates important?

Illicit drug use refers to a wide range of behaviours including the use of illegal drugs, misuse of pharmaceuticals or the illicit use of other psychoactive substances (AIHW 2014). Illicit drug use has short- and long-term detrimental effects on health, and is associated with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C virus (when injecting equipment and needles are shared), low birthweight (for babies of drug users), malnutrition, infective endocarditis (leading to damage to the heart valves), poisoning, mental illness, brain damage, and respiratory problems (Loxley et al. 2004). Illicit drug users are associated with negative social impacts including stressed family relationships, family breakdown, domestic violence, child abuse, assaults and crime (NRHA 2012).

Do rates vary across population groups?

In 2013, 21% of all young people aged 12-24 had used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months. Of the population groups examined, 18-24 year olds were more likely to engage in illicit drug use than 12-17 year olds (29% compared to 11%) as were males compared with females (24% and 18% respectively). There was no statistically significant difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people (22% compared to 21%).

In 2013, the illicit use of drugs (excluding pharmaceuticals) was significantly higher than the misuse of pharmaceutical drugs (19% compared to 5.3%) (see notes below). In 2013, the most commonly used illicit drugs were cannabis (17%), ecstasy (5.7%) and hallucinogens (3.4%). The most commonly misused pharmaceuticals were pain-killers/analgesics (3.1%), tranquillisers (1.3%) and other opiates/opioids (*0.6%).

Has there been a change over time?

For all young people there was a significant reduction in the illicit use of drugs from 2001 to 2007 (32% to 19%), after which the proportion of young people using illicit drugs remained stable at around 20%. There were significant reductions in the proportion of young people using illicit drugs among 18-24 year olds (37% to 27%) and among males (35% to 20%) and females (29% to 18%).

Illicit drug use among Indigenous young people decreased from 38% in 2001 to 24% in 2007, although this was not statistically significant.

Data were not available for 12-13 years olds in 2001. Between 2004 to 2013 there was no statistically significant decrease for 12-17 year olds (from 12% to 10%).

From 2001 to 2013 there was a significant decline in the illicit use of drugs (excluding pharmaceuticals (from 30% to 19%). Over this period, the use of ecstasy declined from 8.5% to 5.7%). However, the trends in the use of other illicit drugs (excluding pharmaceuticals) were more variable. From 2001 to 2007, there was a significant decrease in the use of cannabis (28% to 15%) and hallucinogens (3.5% to 1.5%). Between 2007 and 2013, there appear to have been increased proportions of young people using these drugs, although the changes are not statistically significant (for cannabis from 15% to 17% and for hallucinogens from 1.5% to 3.4%).

There was no clear trend in the misuse of pharmaceuticals from 2001 to 2013. A significant decrease between 2001 and 2007 (from 5.6% to 3.4%), was followed by a similar increase from 2007 and 2013 (from 3.4% to 5.3%). The use of pain-killers/analgesics showed a similar pattern, decreasing from 3.9% in 2001 to 2.3% in 2007, before increasing to 3.1% in 2013. There was a significant decline in the misuse of tranquilisers among young people from 2001 to 2013 (from 2.3% to 1.3%). Conversely, there was no significant change in the misuse of other opiates/opioids over this period, remaining at less than *1%.