After COVID-19-related restrictions were introduced in Australia in early 2020, use of ecstasy/MDMA, related stimulants, and other licit and illicit drugs appeared to mostly remain stable, or decrease.

Researchers at The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), UNSW Sydney, interviewed 800 young people who regularly use ecstasy, between April and July 2020 as part of the EDRS program, and found the shift in drug use was primarily due to reduced opportunities to socialise.

Lead author, Ms Olivia Price said, “COVID-19 restrictions have functioned as a demand reduction intervention, driving behaviour change for some individuals by removing social motives for drug use through limits on gatherings.”

“Reductions in use may have reversed with relaxation of restrictions on gatherings, although this is likely dependent on drug markets and subject to individual variability.”

The report found that social factors played a role for the smaller percentage who reported increased drug use.

“Participants who reported increased drug use cited boredom, lack of activity, and spending more time with others with whom they use these drugs,” said Ms Price.

“Further, one in four people cited increased stress, anxiety and depression associated with COVID-19 as a reason for increased use of drugs like alcohol and methamphetamines. These findings reinforce the necessity of addressing barriers to mental health service utilisation for people who use drugs.”

The report showed limited evidence of shifts in drug price and purity when studying data collected from 2016 to 2020, although there were some indications of a decline in perceived availability of cocaine and crystal methamphetamine and perceived availability and purity of MDMA.

“Supply disruptions to illegal drug markets were expected given Australia’s remoteness, reliance on importation and the restrictions on available importation methods,” said Ms Price.

“However, it was anticipated that these disruptions would take some time to manifest depending on demand, time to deplete existing supply, and duration of national and jurisdictional border restrictions.”

The report calls for ongoing surveillance into trends in drug use, markets and harms.

“Ongoing monitoring, drawing on sentinel and population-level data, will be critical to establish the extent and pervasiveness of drug market shifts, and potential fluctuations in use and harms as a consequence. This is particularly critical as we continue to see restrictions on gatherings and movement imposed internationally and across various Australian states and territories” said Ms Price.

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The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the Drug and Alcohol Program.

For free and confidential drug and alcohol support in Australia, contact the National Alcohol & Other Drug Hotline (1800 250 015).

For harm reduction resources for people who use drugs during the COVID-19 pandemic, see the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) website or contact Australian organisations representing people who use drugs.