Data on the consequences of illicit drug use to our society are available from a wide range of sources. Some data are collected to provide information specifically on illicit drug use; other collections have an entirely different original purpose but happen also to be relevant to illicit drug use. A variety of methods for collecting useful data has been developed by researchers in their particular fields of expertise.
Data on the prevalence of drug use, including illicit drugs, have resulted from a number of representative surveys of the Australian population. Trend data over a number of years are provided by the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) with funds from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care (DHAC). Implementation of the Illicit Drug Reporting System, by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at the University on NSW, has enabled changes in the patterns of use of injecting drugs to be monitored and made available quickly.
Data on the major health issues resulting from illicit drug use are available from established national collections of data regarding deaths and hospital admissions, conducted by ABS and AIHW, although these data are dominated by injecting drug use. This information has been supplemented in recent years by data from a survey of general practitioners conducted by the General Practice Statistics and Classifications Unit at the University of Sydney. Further information on injecting drug use is available from treatment programs, needle and syringe programs, and public health records. The association between mental health conditions and the use of illicit drugs was explored in a 1997 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing of Adults which was conducted by the ABS with funding from DHAC, as part of the first National Mental Health Strategy. Less severe health effects associated with the use of illicit drugs may not be recorded in these datasets, but the AIHW National Drug Strategy Household Survey has attempted to fill this gap by asking questions on ill-health and lifestyle.
Little objective information is available about the effects of a person's use of illicit drugs on family and community. However, the AIHW National Drug Strategy Household Survey has asked some questions on this issue, as have ad hoc national telephone surveys. Organisations providing counselling and welfare services to the population have the potential to provide further information regarding illicit drug use.
The Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence collects and disseminates data on illicit drug use from the many agencies involved in law and order issues. Additionally, there are relevant administrative data available from collections which concentrate on homicides and gaol sentences. Until recently, national data concerning the association between illicit drug use and other crime came primarily from surveys of injecting drug users by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research and NDARC. Further evidence is becoming available about prisoners and people detained by police from surveys recently implemented by the Australian Institute of Criminology.
Data are not readily available on the costs to governments of all issues related to illicit drug use. Work is being done to produce up-to-date estimates of the social costs resulting from illicit drug use, but the availability of input data restricts the currency of such estimates.
The tension between different policies and programs (such as harm minimisation and reducing drug-related crime) will continue to create both differing demands for data and a variety of sources of drug-related data. It is very important that work on improving the consistency and comparability of data continues. All data collectors and custodians need to fully document the procedures and protocols they have applied to their collections. It is also important that researchers and analysts make informed decisions about the appropriate use of the available data.