4808.0 - Illicit Drug Use, Sources of Australian Data, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 28/11/2001   
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Contents >> 1. Introduction

  • "Drugs destroy lives and communities, undermine sustainable human development and generate crime. Drugs affect all sectors of society in all countries; in particular, drug abuse affects the freedom and development of young people, the world's most valuable asset."

    Source: Political Declaration on Global Drug Control, by the States Members of the United Nations at the twentieth special session of the General Assembly, June 1998.

  • ". . . much more needs to be done to identify, understand and contain the forces which lead individuals to resort to drugs . . . Information and a better understanding of the problem are essential prerequisites for progress in meeting this aim."

    Source: Giorgio Giacomelli, Executive Director of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme.
    United Nations International Drug Control Programme 1997, World Drug Report 1997, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

1.1 Background

Illicit drug use is of international concern and has become a major cause of concern within the Australian community as it affects so many facets of society. This is reflected in the range of strategies, studies and rehabilitation programs being undertaken. Governments, government agencies, community organisations and universities are giving increased attention to the issue. An improved understanding of the information already available is in the interests of all.

A range of policy questions give direction to current data collection and research on illicit drugs. These include questions such as:
  • What is the extent and nature of illicit drug use across the country?
  • What is the attitude of the community to illicit drug use?
  • What circumstances lead some people but not others to experiment with illicit drugs?
  • What is the impact of illicit drug taking on users themselves, their families and the wider community?
  • To what extent is illicit drug taking linked with other drug taking and harmful behaviours?
  • What are the costs to society of illicit drug use?
  • How effectively do the health and criminal justice systems deal with the use of illicit drugs?
  • In what ways are the production, supply and use of illicit drugs associated with other crime such as burglary, prostitution and fraud?
As the national statistical agency, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is interested in ensuring that the data on key social issues and policy questions are available to support research, analysis, policy development and decision making. In the area of illicit drugs, such data will inevitably be drawn from a wide variety of sources, with surveys and specific collections complementing the information available from administrative systems. These data will be most valuable, and the resources devoted to statistical collections will be most effectively used, when they are coordinated to promote, as far as possible, a unified body of information.

A key step in this process is understanding the range of existing statistical activity on the subject. Users can then assess whether the information necessary for analysis and decision making is available. Priorities for further work can then be established.

1.2 Purpose of this publication

The purpose of this publication is to assist governments, community groups and the Australian public in identifying and accessing available data sources on the extent and consequences of illicit drug use. As well as giving a brief outline of the main data sources available, limitations and gaps in available data are identified.

This publication is not intended to be a discussion of the impact of illicit drug use in Australia; rather it points the reader to the data which are available and provides a commentary on the source. It adds value to the body of existing research by identifying major sources of data from the separate fields of study involved, showing how the data sources may complement each other and where there are gaps among existing datasets.

1.3 Scope and coverage

The focus of this publication is on sources of national quantitative data which have been collected within the last 10 years and concern the use of illicit drugs within Australia.

The terms ‘illicit drug’ and ‘drug’ have no standard definition applied in Australian research. The Australian Standard Classification of Drugs of Concern, released by the ABS in July 2000, classifies drugs according to their type and form, but does not distinguish among substances on the basis of their legality.

Throughout this publication, the terminology is consistent with the definition of terms used in the National Drug Strategic Framework 1998-99 to 2002-03 (Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, 1998). The term ‘drug’ refers to any ‘substance that produces a psychoactive effect’ (i.e. the mental processes are altered). This term may include tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs (i.e. substances which are legally available, although their supply is very regulated) as well as illicit drugs.

In this publication the term 'illicit drugs’ refers to cannabis, heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens, amphetamines, ecstasy and other ‘designer’ drugs. Excluded from the term ‘illicit drugs’ are tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs primarily used for therapeutic purposes (e.g. benzodiazepines), substances used for performance enhancement (e.g. anabolic steroids) and other common substances which may be inhaled for psychoactive effects (e.g. petrol), even when these substances are used illegally or without medical consent. The term ‘injecting drug use’ refers to the use of illicit drugs by injection.

There is, however, no consistency of definition or scope among the data sources referred to in this publication. Each of the data sources applies its own definition of ‘drugs’ and ‘illicit drugs’. Substances can be categorised in different ways, and the data sources may or may not distinguish between the use of illegal substances and the non-therapeutic use of pharmaceutical substances. Some sources of information on the subject do not include all illicit drugs. Many are also sources of information on legally available drugs of concern such as alcohol and tobacco. This variability among data sources presents problems when using or comparing data from different sources.

The scope of this publication is restricted to sources of data on one or more of the illicit drugs as defined above. Sources of data on other substances of concern have been included only if they also contain data on these illicit drugs. This has been a pragmatic limitation of scope, which may not reflect data availability or social circumstances. Illicit drugs are not used in isolation but are often used in combination with each other and with other substances. It is acknowledged that the use of legally available substances excluded from the scope of this paper may have a greater impact than the use of illicit substances.

The data sources discussed in this publication are only those which provide national empirical data. They do not indicate the full range of information regarding the use of illicit drugs in Australia. Much additional work is being conducted at local and State levels, especially in the fields of prevention and treatment, which does not result in national data and so is out of scope of this publication.

State Government departments in the fields of law and order, health, social welfare and youth are potential sources of State and local data. Private organisations such as those providing welfare support and treatment services may be able to provide data for their area of operations. In addition to these administrative data, there have been many surveys of illicit drug users in particular local areas, cities or States. A number of these datasets are available from the Australian National University’s Social Science Data Archives (see Appendix 2, A2.5).

Research studies are often reported in journals such as Connexions; Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health; Addiction; Drug and Alcohol Review; and Drug and Alcohol Dependence. CD-ROM literature databases such as AustROM can be of assistance in finding relevant papers. Many of these papers are referenced in the publications listed in Appendix 2 Further references regarding illicit drug use. The library and information services maintained by the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia is a valuable resource available to the public for further researching the subject (Appendix 2, A2.2).

1.4 Outline of publication

This publication is structured around broad subject areas of social and economic concern related to illicit drug use. A chapter is provided on each of the following: prevalence and patterns of illicit drug use; resultant health issues; effects on family and community members; law and order issues; and economic costs associated with illicit drug use. Sources of national data relevant to the area of concern are identified within each chapter. If sources provide information on more than one of the broad areas of concern, they are mentioned in each appropriate chapter.

Examples of the type of data available on the subject are given in the information boxes at the beginning of each chapter, followed by a brief introduction to the issues relevant to the subject. Each of the main sources of data is examined, providing background such as the organisation responsible, reference years, a description of data items available, a mention of data limitations and a reference to published results. Less comprehensive sources are mentioned only briefly. A short discussion of data issues follows, summarising any difficulties or limitations of the data available. Identified gaps in the available national data are then outlined.

As each major data source is mentioned, a reference to the relevant entry in Appendix 1 is provided in brackets. Appendix 1 provides a directory of the national sources of data, listed alphabetically. It provides a summary of details useful to anyone interested in accessing the data available, including a description of data items available, references to selected published output and contact details of the organisation responsible for the data.

Appendix 2 provides further references, mainly to publications and websites which may be useful when researching specific aspects of illicit drug use. Appendix 3 provides a guide to the classification issues associated with coding illnesses and causes of death directly associated with illicit drug use. Thereafter, there is a bibliography of publications, followed by a short index of the data sources available and organisations responsible.

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