NDARC Technical Report No. 36 (1996)


In-depth ethnographic interviews and observational fieldwork designed to elicit information in relation to drug use patterns, local drug market conditions and emerging trends were undertaken in Cabramatta, Sydney, over a three month period between September and December 1995. A total of forty subjects participated in a tape-recorded interview and observational data in the form of fieldnotes were collected on each subject and on the nature, type and level of interactions between subjects in the study. In addition, subjects were required to complete a short structured questionnaire on local drug market conditions.

The principal findings concern a relatively “hidden” group of young, recent initiates to heroin use, the emergence of a street-based injecting culture in the study area and the apparent resilience of the local drug market to pressures from law enforcement. Specifically, the results of this preliminary study suggest that heroin users in Cabramatta may be significantly younger, have lower levels of education and higher levels of unemployment, be more likely to be female, less likely to be Anglo-Australian, more likely to have initiated heroin use by smoking rather than parenteral use, more likely to be involved in crime (including drug distribution and sales activity), more likely to engage in high risk injecting episodes and to have little or no experience of treatment, than those encountered in the literature.

The young people described in this study are worthy of further study from both a public health and a criminological perspective. The prevalence and incidence of heroin use among young people in the area is probably such as to indicate a new cohort of heroin users, many of whom have initiated use through smoking. Cabramatta itself is also worthy of further study. Many of the factors identified here, including drug acquisition routines, collective injecting episodes, use settings and law enforcement practices, represent components of a neighbourhood risk environment which is highly conducive to the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne viruses. The development of a large open air drug market has led to the emergence of a street-based injecting culture which draws heavily on young people from the local area. The density of these networks and their convergence in collective injecting episodes may have important implications for public health.

However, it is important to note that access to this group of young, relatively “new” heroin users was only possible because of ongoing fieldwork based in Cabramatta. The usual problems involved in gaining access and establishing relations of trust with subjects were avoided by “piggy backing” on existing research actively engaged in recruiting, interviewing and observing street-level drug users in the area. It is also important to note that the costs associated with this component of the research do not reflect actual costs involved in conducting ethnographic research. These issues are not insignificant in assessing the feasibility of an ethnographic monitoring component to the proposed Illicit Drug Reporting System.



Lisa Maher
Date Commenced
20 Sep 1996
Resource Type
Technical Reports