When it comes to drug use, Australians are world leaders. More than 40 per cent of them have used drugs illicitly and they have one of the highest rates of illegal use per capita despite also having some of the most expensive prices.
But exactly who is using which substances, and how often, may come as a surprise.
"I think there's always been gross underestimation in Australia of the number of Australians using drugs," says emergency physician and Australian National University researcher David Caldicott. "But if you ever want to know what a country is about, see what they eat, see what drugs they use."
Australia's drug-consuming community is as diverse as it is fluid, with patterns of use sometimes varying dramatically with age, gender, location and class.
Women's drug use is catching up with men's. Although men make up the majority of drug-related arrests and people seeking treatment, national data shows women account for an increasing share of drug users.
Among past-year users, the share of women reporting the most frequent use of methamphetamines, cannabis, ecstasy or cocaine surpassed the share of men between 2010 and 2013 – a first for the national survey. In New South Wales in Australia, arrest rates for possession or use of amphetamines are rising faster for women than men (55% vs 39% rise over two years), according to the bureau.
"You could say we've won equal rights to use drugs," says psychologist and addiction expert Rebecca McKetin from the Australian National University.
"With women becoming more independent, more involved with labour force, you see these trends emerging where that gender disparity is closing."
Drug users are becoming older, partly because people are living longer and partly because users are not giving up their habits.
People over 50 showed the largest rise in illicit drug use in 2013. Heroin users are the oldest illicit drug consumers (median age 37) and ecstasy users the youngest (median age 25), with the heaviest ecstasy users aged 14-19. When it comes to cannabis, the opposite trend emerges – people in their 30s have the highest rate of past-year use, but people in their 40s are the most likely to use it every day.
Low-level drug use tends to go hand-in-hand with social disadvantage, associate professor McKetin says, citing the changing socioeconomic profile of tobacco users as an example.
"A lot of our perceptions are biased by how common the drug is. Today, tobacco use is concentrated among low socioeconomic groups but if you went back to the 1950s that wouldn't be the case because at that point half the population were smoking."
By contrast, cocaine use is three times higher in the most advantaged social class than in the least advantaged class and ecstasy use is twice as high – although researchers believe cocaine use, in particular, is significantly under-reported. "Higher income, higher educated people are not going to volunteer their drug use," Downey says.
The latest data suggests ecstasy is on its way out – rates of use have been falling since 2007 – and amphetamines, are in.
"Historically, the forms of methamphetamine we had in Australia couldn't be smoked," McKetin says. But now, the availability and accessibility of crystal meth that can be smoked has boosted its appeal to a different demographic.
"They're a younger group of people. They're a little bit more educated. They're more in the direction of the general population," she says.
Treatment episodes for smoking amphetamines has trebled over the past two years, according to figures from the Institute of Health and Welfare. Smoking now accounts for nearly 40 per cent of amphetamines-related treatment episodes, compared to just over 20% two years ago.
"Smoking is not held with the disdain that injected meth is," says Dr Caldicott, a leading researcher on drug-taking in Australia's party scene. And the increasing popularity of smoking meth is changing the social status of meth users within the drug community.
"In the drug-consuming community there's a hierarchy of respectability. Party people who use pills, people who use cocaine, people who regard themselves as functional drug users look down on people who inject drugs."
But people who occasionally smoke meth are more accepted, which has allowed the drug to make inroads among more privileged drug users. "The dance party scene is a very well-off group of people. Many people who are involved in this scene are upper middle class," Dr Caldicott says.
"The problem is that it can be very difficult with a drug such as crystal meth to occasionally smoke it. It's a very addictive drug."
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