Health and crime experts are concerned about rising misuse of the painkiller fentanyl, particularly in regional areas. (Lucy Barbour)
The latest national drug data shows a worrying trend in regional Australia, where there’s been a sharp increase in the use of the opioid fentanyl.
Overall, Australia came in just behind the United States for the use of several illicit drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine.
Wastewater was tested for 12 different drugs by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ABC Rural: Kim Honan)
The data comes from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s latest analysis of drug use across the country, where wastewater was tested for 12 different drugs.
It also ranks drug use by Australians against other countries and it found Australia is second behind the US for the use of meth, cocaine and MDMA.
The report shows that methamphetamine is one of the most commonly consumed illicit substances in Australia, but that’s changing in some areas.
Melinda Lucas from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation told The World Today it is positive there has been a reduction in meth use in regional areas as there is “a high burden of harm associated with methamphetamine”.
The rise of meth use in some city areas was concerning, but not surprising to Ms Lucas.
“We know from data collected over a number of years that Australia is a country that consumes a lot of stimulants,” she said.
Methamphetamine is one of the most commonly consumed illicit substances in Australia. (NSW Police: AAP)
The report also shows that heroin use is at its highest level in Victoria, NSW has the highest use of cocaine and the ACT has the highest use of fentanyl.
Ms Lucas highlighted that the data confirmed that nicotine and alcohol remain the most used substances, which is “something that is often overlooked within these reports”.
“One of the biggest things to emerge is that what we’re still finding is that the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco are still causing the most amount of harm in the community,” she said.
Illicit drugs not only concern for rehab services
Julie Babino, chief executive officer of Odyssey House in New South Wales, said they are “seeing an increase in our residential program of people coming in with methamphetamine as a drug of concern”.
Ms Babino said that although their residents’ principle drug of concern is meth, sometimes it is alcohol — with the findings from the report being indicative of what Odyssey House sees in treatment.
“Methamphetamine has a very quick addiction cycle, so people will seek treatment very quickly, while people that have an alcohol problem — sometimes they can be very functioning people in the community. They can be functioning for a very long time before they seek treatment,” she said.
Nadine Ezard from the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney said they also see a lot of meth users, although there are some gaps in what the wastewater tests reveal.
“One of the issues with the wastewater is that it doesn’t really say how many people are using. If you see an increase in methamphetamine in the wastewater, you don’t know if it’s more people using a little amount or it’s just a few people using a large amount,” she said.
Dr Ezard explained that matching the data sources does suggest that there are probably a very small group of people that “are potentially [using] more frequently and running into problems”.
Fentanyl use carries a lot of risk with it because it is highly potent, which increases the risk of overdose. (ABC News: Lucy Barbour)
Rising opioid use worrisome
But Ms Lucas explained that one of the biggest concerns from the wastewater analysis is it reveals an increased use of the painkiller fentanyl.
“What we see here compared to the data from 2017 is the increase of fentanyl. While there is no way to tell the difference between whether it’s legally prescribed fentanyl or illicitly used fentanyl, fentanyl carries quite a lot of risk with it because it is high potency and the risk of overdose is quite high, so that’s quite concerning,” she said.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation suggested real-time prescription monitoring should be rolled out nationally to reduce the amount of opioids being dispensed and prescribed.
Ms Babino from Odyssey House is also concerned about the increased use of opioids because it does not correlate with people coming into treatment for prescription drugs.
“It’s a different type of people that are probably being impacted by prescription drugs,” she said.
“I think that it is one area that all of the community should continue to be concerned about.”