Australians spend more on illegal drugs than they do on beauty, public transport, tea and coffee and electronic gadgets, according to tests of wastewater for traces of narcotics. The buzz kill: The nation is also the most costly worldwide in which to get and stay high.
The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) found in a recent study that Australians consumed 9.6 tons of methylamphetamine, four tons of cocaine, 1.1 tons of ecstasy (MDMA) and more than 700 kilograms of heroin in 2018, along with smaller quantities of nine other narcotic substances.
Based on prevailing market prices for drugs, they spent an estimated A$9.3 billion (US$6.6 billion), the study found.
“This is money people could be spending on legitimate goods for themselves and their families,” said ACIC chief executive Michael Phelan, noting that there was also high consumption of alcohol and nicotine in the country.
The tests covered just 56% of the population, or about 13 million people, from August 2017 to August 2018.
The actual figure is probably much higher. Studies by the central bank tracing distribution of banknotes estimate A$13.5 billion ($9.6 billion) was spent in 2016-17, of which almost 2% were used in drug deals.
If so, households spent almost as much on drugs as they did on alcohol, more than they did on meat and almost the same amount as for personal care.
On a global basis, it costs more to get high in Australia than anywhere else, according to the annual Bloomberg Global Vice Index, which tracks prices for four drug groups: opioids, cocaine, cannabis and amphetamine.
It takes $1,263, or 116% of an average weekly pay, to keep up a drug habit in Australia, up from 91% of pay a year ago, the Bloomberg index estimates. The rise is largely due to the increasing use of prescription opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl.
New Zealand (US$1,075) is the second-most expensive country for illicit drug habits, followed by the United States ($846), Thailand ($808) and Armenia ($770).
However, it takes only 9% of a weekly income to stay high in Luxembourg, 9.2% in the Netherlands, and 11.5% in Uruguay. On a purely cost basis, Laos (US$21), Costa Rica ($31) and South Africa ($35) lead the pack, due in large part to their proximity to growing areas or trafficking routes.
Australia and New Zealand, by comparison, are isolated from the major markets. Methylamphetamines and heroin are mostly imported from Asia and cocaine from the Americas; opioids are diverted from legal supplies.
The fact that high prices have done little to reduce drug consumption is a big concern to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which says there is a direct link with premature deaths and social issues like homelessness.
There were 2,177 drug-related deaths in Australia in 2016, the year of the central bank studies, up from 1,231 in 2002, with 70% occurring in the prime earnings age bracket of 30-59 years. Twice as many men die from drug overdoses as women, but female deaths are growing at a faster rate.
Opioids now account for the largest number of deaths — 1,045 in 2016 — with fatalities almost doubling since 2007 to 6.6 fatalities per 100,000 residents. These figures, however, include deaths from legitimate usage. The main age bracket affected was 35-44, with a total of 364 fatalities.
Consumption of methylamphetamine and cocaine continues to rise in all states, according to the wastewater sampling, but heroin and the party drug ecstasy are in decline. There has been a spate of deaths at music festivals associated with ecstasy, with five in New South Wales alone.
Cannabis is widely considered to be the most heavily consumed drug, but it is not included in wastewater studies because dosage figures are not reliable. The ACIC said that consumption was highest outside major cities.
Oxycodone and fentanyl, blamed for a surge in US fatalities, are filling the gap left by heroin and ecstasy: they are now the second-most popular drugs in all states other than the Northern Territory, though quantities are less than for cocaine and heroin because the dosages tend to be smaller.
Yet the opioids problem has not yet reached the magnitude seen in the US, where they were responsible for two-thirds of the 71,568 drug deaths in 2017. Of these, almost 30,000 were caused by illegal use of fentanyl.
University of New South Wales researcher Amy Peacock said after the release of the 2017 data that there was no evidence Australia would follow this pattern.
Unlike in the US, where fentanyl is illegally produced, supplies in Australia are exclusively obtained from medical prescriptions.
“Although we are carefully monitoring the situation in Australia, at the moment there is little evidence to suggest that illicit fentanyl is playing a large part in our opioid overdoses,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald.