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4808.0 - Illicit Drug Use, Sources of Australian Data, 2001  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 28/11/2001   
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Contents >> 4. Family and community issues

Examples of available data

  • In 1998, more than one in four (26%) Australians aged 14 years or older considered the regular use of marijuana/cannabis was acceptable.
  • In 1998, approximately 10% of Australians aged 14 years or older were victims of verbal abuse from a person affected by drugs other than alcohol.

    Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1999, 1998 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: First Results, AIHW cat. no. PHE 15, (Drug Statistics Series no. 1), AIHW, Canberra.

  • Over 3% of all problem calls to Kids Help Line in 1998 were from young people with various concerns regarding drugs; one in five of these callers were phoning about another person's drug use or how to help another person who was 'high'.

    Source: Kids Help Line, Drug Use, INFOSHEET 13, available from the Internet http://www.kidshelp.com.au/INFO13/DrugUse.htm

  • In a 1999 survey of parents of 12-17 year olds, the 42% of parents who had ever used marijuana themselves had lower perceptions of danger associated with marijuana use, as did current smokers and parents who usually drink five or more drinks on an occasion.

    Source: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care 1999, Research Report on Developmental Research for a Community Education and Information Campaign on Illicit Drugs, DHAC, Population Health Division, Research and Marketing Group, Canberra.


4.1 Introduction

For many in our society, the most important aspects of illicit drug use are the pain and disruption which the use of illicit drugs can inflict on others, rather than the health or legal consequences to the user. Heavy users of illicit drugs tend to be concentrated geographically, socially and demographically, so the impact of illicit drug use on individuals and communities can be expected to vary. For example, the experiences of those living in communities with high unemployment rates and large proportions of younger people will differ from the experiences of those in retirement communities.

According to the 1998 report of the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, National Drug Strategic Framework 1998-99 to 2002-03, the problems experienced by the families of people who have a substance-use disorder include social stigmatisation, financial burden, negative effects on family relationships and the social implications of associated criminal activity. Further, community concerns of public welfare and safety, including the danger of discarded needles and street nuisance, affect residents’ quality of life, property values and the viability of retail areas. The attitudes and opinions of members of the public toward the use of illicit drugs are also relevant to this topic.

This chapter looks at the availability of data on the effects of illicit drug use on families and communities. In addition to the sources listed here, sources of data on the issue of property crime associated with the use of illicit drugs are discussed in Chapter 5 Law and order. Sources which can provide information on public health issues are discussed in Chapter 3 Health issues.


4.2 Data sources

National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) (Appendix 1, A1.16)

This series of national surveys provides a measure of the changes in community attitudes and experiences with drug use. It also enables some comparisons to be made between various sectors of the community, such as those with different demographic characteristics or residents of different States and Territories.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey has been conducted every 2-3 years since 1985. Although the questionnaire has changed, some questions have been repeated a number of times during that period. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) conducted the seventh survey in the series during 2001, with results due to be available in 2002. Households were randomly selected from all States and Territories, and more than 10,000 persons aged 14 years or over were questioned on the topic of use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

In addition to information about their personal use of drugs, the 1998 survey asked respondents about their awareness of and attitude toward drug use. The survey included questions about people’s unpleasant experiences involving persons affected by drugs (such as being verbally or physically abused, being frightened, or having property damaged or stolen). It also questioned the respondent's perceptions of problems associated with drug use, such as the effect on other family members and the community, as well as their attitudes towards changes to regulations related to the sale and use of drugs and the treatments available.

In addition to the selected outputs listed in Appendix 1, A1.16, a publication written by Makkai and McAllister and published in 1998, Public Opinion Towards Drug Policies in Australia, 1985-95, provided an analysis of the responses regarding community attitudes from the first five surveys.

Inquiry into Substance Abuse in Australian Communities (Appendix 1, A1.11)

During 2000 and 2001, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs is conducting an inquiry into substance abuse in Australian communities. The committee invited written submissions on the subject and held a series of public meetings to gain information on the impact of drugs. Among those making a submission to this inquiry are private individuals, special interest groups and government departments.

The submissions to this inquiry will provide a wide-ranging source of recorded experience concerning the social consequences of illicit drug use. This material will help to identify the public’s concerns about the use of illicit drugs, the perceived impacts of drug abuse on the community, those who are affected by the abuse of both legal and illicit drugs, and those who have an interest in the subject. The terms of enquiry and list of submissions received are available on the website http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/fca

Kids Help Line statistics (Appendix 1, A1.12)

Calls to telephone support services are often from people associated with users, as well as those who use illicit drugs. Kids Help Line is a national organisation which provides a free confidential counselling service to give early help and support to young people to assist them to cope with their problems. The centre’s counselling service is accessible by telephone, email and the web (live-on-line private chat).

Data available on drug-related calls include State of residence, sex, age and drug type. Information on drug use is further classified by who is using (self use or whether a family member or friend is involved); frequency or pattern of use; and whether urgent intervention is required. National data from 1994 are available on a fee for service basis. Kids Help Line endeavours to make these data available to assist with research into youth problems and needs throughout Australia.

Developmental Research for the National Illicit Drugs Campaign (Appendix 1, A1.7)

The Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care commissioned Stancombe Research and Planning to conduct this research, to assist the development of a community education and information campaign on illicit drugs.

The first, qualitative stage of this study involved 15 focus groups with parents and 65 in-depth interviews with parents and other members of the community, mainly in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Dubbo (NSW) and Renmark (SA). These interviews sought an understanding of the scope of the target group's knowledge, attitudes and behaviours; to identify key issues; and to provide information and insights to aid the development of the campaign.

The second, quantitative stage of the research involved a national telephone survey of 1,004 parents of children aged 12-17 years, conducted in February 1999. It aimed to determine the extent to which the emerging key issues and relevant knowledge, attitudes and behaviours identified in the qualitative phase are representative of a wider population. Questions included whether respondents considered illegal drug taking to be a problem, the degree to which each drug (including alcohol and tobacco) was considered dangerous, their attitude to their teenage child using drugs, whether they thought it likely their child would be offered specific drugs and whether their child would accept the drug.

Some headline results from this work are available on the National Drugs Campaign website http://www.drugs.health.gov.au, by following links to campaign, then research. A summary report of the method of research and results is available from the Sydney office of the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.

Public perceptions of the health and psychological consequences of cannabis use

To obtain information regarding the community’s perceptions of the health effects of cannabis use, the National Task Force on Cannabis commissioned a survey of the Australian population in 1995. The study gathered qualitative data from preliminary focus groups in 15 communities and subsequently conducted a telephone interview of people across Australia. Questions related to the perceived benefits and risks of using alcohol, tobacco, heroin and amphetamines as well as cannabis.

Results were published in Public perceptions of the health and psychological consequences of cannabis use (Hall and Nelson, 1995). Responses were analysed to identify associations between demographic characteristics, personal use of cannabis or knowledge of a cannabis user, perceptions of benefits and risks, and attitudes toward possible cannabis legislation changes. This report is available from the website http://www.health.gov.au/pubhlth/publicat.

ABS surveys

The 1998 Crime and Safety Survey, a national household survey conducted by the ABS, investigated the extent of people’s experience of crimes. Although specific questions on drug offences were not included, respondents were asked if they thought illegal drugs were a problem in their neighbourhood. The survey provided information about the associations between a perceived illicit drugs problem, a respondent’s demographic characteristics and their experiences as victims of other crimes.

A similar question has been asked of respondents to the ABS quarterly Population Survey Monitor from 1996 until the survey vehicle was discontinued in 2000, as part of a topic covering Community Perceptions of Police Services. Data resulting from this survey question have been published in the Report on Government Services 2001 by the Productivity Commission’s Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth and State Service Provision, which is available on their website http://www.pc.gov.au/gsp/2001. Further data from both sources are available as a consultancy from the ABS.

Other sources

Alcohol and drug treatment services provide counselling and advice to not only drug users but their family and friends. Thus the NDARC survey of Clients of Treatment Service Agencies (COTSA) (Appendix 1, A1.6) and the proposed AIHW National Minimum Data Set for Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services (Appendix 1, A1.20), both discussed in 3.2.3 Drug and alcohol treatment services, give some information relating to clients who are family or friends of a user.


4.3 Data issues

There appears to be little national data which indicate the impact of illicit drug use on others. While many surveys have been designed to obtain information from users of illicit drugs, few surveys have been designed to gain information from those who do not use illicit drugs, regarding their experiences and knowledge of social consequences of illicit drug use by others. An example of a regional study which considered this impact was the 1997 study by Didcott et al. Long-term Cannabis Users on the New South Wales North Coast, which included questions for the family and friends of cannabis users.

There is only one example of administrative data in the listing of national data sources in this chapter: Kids Help Line. Similar information could be collected by many organisations providing welfare services to the community, although unless it is obtained and recorded in a systematic way on all records it is difficult to compile statistical aggregates.

Each State and Territory (except the Northern Territory) maintains an Alcohol and Drug Information Service for the public to call when they have queries concerning alcohol and drugs. The contact numbers for these telephone advisory services are listed on the Australian Drug Foundation website http://www.adf.org.au/parents/phoneno.html. Many of the calls received come from parents and partners of illicit drug users, and give an indication of family and community concerns. These services record information such as the type of drug used, level of use (such as experimental or regular) and the postcode of the caller. As yet there has been no national coordination of information from these State-specific support services, although the NDARC Illicit Drug Reporting System (Appendix 1, A1.10) has used information from these services to confirm trends in the popularity of particular types of illicit drugs.

The data quality issues discussed in Chapter 7 need to be considered in relation to any source of data on the social impacts of illicit drug use.


4.4 Data gaps

There is a lack of objective national data concerning the impact that substance abuse has on a wide range of social welfare issues. For example, there is little data on the extent and nature of the associations between illicit drug use and issues such as child neglect, violence, financial difficulties, social isolation, marriage breakdowns and homelessness.

There is also a lack of national data on public welfare issues such as needle discards and street nuisance. Many local governments have to deal with the problem of needle discards, and council records from either regular or ad hoc needle collections may give some data about local conditions. A number of local government councils and other organisations have surveyed their local populations for information on these issues within their particular areas.

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