NDARC Technical Report No. 162 (2003)
This report presents the results of a study to monitor party drug markets in NSW. The 2002 sample provides data for the fourth year on trends in party drug markets. Data from a feasibility trial conducted in 2000 and 2001 and those of a comparable study conducted in 1997 are also included. Trends of the demographic characteristics and patterns of drug use among party drug users, their criminal behaviour, and perceived party drug-related harms are presented. The implications of the results and the nature and characteristics of party drug markets are discussed.
Demographic characteristics of Party Drug Users (PDU)
The results indicate that party drug users, a population defined in this study by the regular use of tablets sold as ‘ecstasy’, tend to be young, relatively well-educated, and likely to be employed or engaged in full time study. Less than half reported engaging in crime, most of which is accounted for by low-level drug dealing. Four participants were currently in treatment for a drug-related problem, and two participants had previously been incarcerated.
Patterns of polydrug use among (PDU)
Participants could be characterised as extensive polydrug users, half of whom nominated ecstasy as their favourite or preferred drug. On average, participants had used 12 drugs in their lifetime and had used seven in the preceding six months. Most participants regularly used other drugs concurrently with ecstasy, including tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, methamphetamine powder, and ketamine. Most participants also used other drugs to ease the ‘come down’ or aversive recovery period following acute ecstasy intoxication, including cannabis, tobacco, alcohol, methamphetamine powder and benzodiazepines. These patterns of polydrug use emphasise the need for research and education on the effects and risks of such practices.
The prevalence and frequency of use of party drugs other than ecstasy among the sample suggest that although the use of drugs such as ketamine, GHB and ice appears to have increased, there are relatively few regular users. The use of these drugs may be opportunistic in nature, and may not be as widely or as consistently available as ecstasy. Most participants that used ketamine, GHB and ice reported using less than once a month. Users of these drugs are invariably experienced users of ecstasy, the ‘staple’ drug, or fundamental core, of the party drug market.
Patterns of ecstasy use
Participants reported great variation in patterns of party drug use. They typically began to use ecstasy in their late teens, and their current frequency of use varied from once per month to a few days per week. A third (33%) of participants had used between monthly and fortnightly, 47% between fortnightly and weekly, and 20% had used ecstasy on more than one day per week. Participants had used ecstasy on a median of 20 days in the preceding six months (range 6-72). A high proportion of the 2002 reported they had binged (used ecstasy continuously for more than 48 hours) on ecstasy in the preceding six months. Over half (60%) of participants had used four or more tablets in a single use episode in the preceding six months, and three quarters (74%) reported that they ‘typically’ used more than one tablet. Consistent with earlier reports, participants primarily administered ecstasy orally. Although 15% reported having injected the drug at some time, no one reported that injection was their preferred route of ecstasy administration.
Price, purity and availability of ecstasy
In recent years, there has been a steady decrease in the average price in Sydney of a single ecstasy tablet, from $50 in 1997, $40 in 2000, to $35 in 2001 and 2002. Most participants report paying for ecstasy through paid employment or being given it by friends. The majority report ‘scoring’ ecstasy from friends and dealers.
Tablets sold as ecstasy have remained readily available in Sydney since 1997; the great majority of users described the drug as ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to obtain. However, the proportion of the ecstasy market that is sourced by locally produced ‘duplicate’ tablets has increased markedly since 1997. The Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence recently estimated that up to 80% of tablets sold as ecstasy in Australia are locally manufactured duplicate tablets that contain low-dose methamphetamine, sometimes in combination with another drug such as ketamine, rather than MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), the compound to which the term ‘ecstasy’ originally applied (Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, 2002). Almost all of the tablets that actually contain MDMA are likely to have been imported; few clandestine manufacturers in Australia have access to neither the necessary precursors nor the required expertise to produce true MDMA.
There is little consistency regarding users subjective reports of the purity of ecstasy. The average purity of seizures of tablets actually containing MDMA analysed has increased in recent years. ‘Imports’ (imported tablets) are more likely to contain MDMA and tend to be more highly sought after than locally manufactured imitations that contain methamphetamine, with users willing to pay more for a tablet they believe is imported. The supply of imported MDMA tablets does not appear to match demand, and the market for ‘duplicate’ pills remains however, NSW police reported that the ratio of methamphetamine tablets sold as MDMA to MDMA tablets actually containing MDMA had decreased in 2001-02. This may indicate an increase in imported MDMA or that tablets containing methamphetamine are being sold as such. The number and weight of customs seizures of ecstasy seized at the border has also increased in recent years suggesting either changes in activity, improvements in detection or more ecstasy being imported or a combination of these factors.
Harms related to ecstasy and other drug use
Participants reported a broad range of recent physical and psychological side effects that they perceived as due, at least in part, to their use of ecstasy. Most were relatively minor and consistent with the side effects reported in previous years; for example, trouble sleeping, mental confusion and difficulty concentrating. Ecstasy-related occupational, relationship and financial problems were also reported by substantial proportions. Although many of these problems could be considered relatively minor, some constituted significant disruptions to functioning, including loss of employment, the ending of relationships, and the inability to pay for food or rent.
Patterns of methamphetamine use
All participants reported lifetime use of methamphetamine powder (speed) and most reported recent use. Most participants reported using about once a month; snorting was the most common route of administration followed by swallowing. Users reported using half a gram of speed in a typical session. The proportion reporting speed use remained relatively stable across sampling years, although frequency of use appears to have decreased (median days used dropped from 12 days in 2000, 10 days in 2001 to 7 days in 2002). This may be as a consequence of the increased prevalence of other forms of methamphetamine such as base and crystal methamphetamine.
Forty four percent of the sample reported recent use of methamphetamine base, the majority using less than once a month. Similar proportions reported swallowing and snorting, typically using one point in a session. Reports of lifetime and recent use of base have increased since the distinction between different forms of methamphetamine was documented in 2000. Smaller numbers reported recent use of crystal methamphetamine, on a median of two days in the preceding six months. Users snorted or smoked crystal and typically reported using 1.5 points in a session. Proportions of users reporting crystal use have increased overtime.
Patterns of cocaine use
The majority of participants reported lifetime and recent use of cocaine. The vast majority used less than once a month, with snorting being the most common route of administration. A half a gram of cocaine was used in a typical session. Proportions of party drug users that report cocaine use has remained stable across sampling years.
Patterns of ketamine use
There appears to have been an increase in the proportion of participants reporting lifetime and recent use of ketamine, with the frequency and quantity of use remaining relatively stable. Most recent users reported using less than one a month. Snorting and then swallowing were the most commonly reported routes of administration.
Patterns of GHB use
Recent GHB use was reported by a significant minority of the 2002 sample. Users reported using GHB monthly or less, typically using half a vile or 10mls in a session. The number of party drug users who reported ever having used GHB continued to increase in 2002 (from 23% in 2001 to 35% in 2002). Similarly reports of recent use increased relative to previous years.
Patterns of LSD use
A third of participants reported using LSD in the six months preceding interview. The majority used monthly or less with a tab being the typical amount used in a session. Lifetime use of LSD appears to have decreased across sampling years (from 97% in 1997 to 73% in 2002).
Patterns of MDA use
About a third of participants used MDA recently, generally less than once a month. Typically a cap was used in a session and the vast majority reported swallowing the drug. The proportion of participants who report having ever used MDA has fluctuated across time (60% in 1997, 36% in 2000, 43% in 2001 and 56% in 2002).
Patterns of other drug use
Almost all party drug users report consuming alcohol on a median of two days a week. Similarly, most of the 2002 sample reported recent cannabis use, the majority of who smoke on a median of two days per week. Tobacco use was common although only half of those reporting recent used were daily cigarette smokers. Comparable to previous years, half the 2002 sample had used benzodiazepines at some time. Those who reported recent benzodiazepine use did so less than once a month. A small number of the 2002 sample reported the recent use of antidepressants, half of whom used for reasons other than depression. The use of inhalants such as amyl nitrate and nitrous oxide appear to have decreased across time.
Price, purity and availability of other party drugs
The price, purity and availability of methamphetamine powder was commented on by two thirds of the sample with $40 for half a weight the most common purchase. Smaller numbers of participants felt confident enough of their knowledge about other forms of methamphetamine and other party drugs to comment on their price, purity and availability, suggesting more limited exposure to such drugs. Much of the use of less common party drugs, such as MDA or ketamine, appears to be opportunistic in nature, and therefore infrequent relative to the use of the widely used party drug ecstasy. It may be that people who report the recent use of such drugs do not deliberately seek them out, and hence, are unfamiliar with market indicators such as changes in price, purity and availability. The low prevalence rates of the regular use of these drugs are indicative of the smaller size of their markets.
The expansion of the party drug market
Data from all three sources suggest the expansion of the market for ecstasy. Both users and KI have reported that the number of people using ecstasy had increased and that, in recent years, ecstasy has become a mainstream drug. These impressions are validated by the results of the 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which indicated that prevalence of both lifetime and recent use of ecstasy in Australia had tripled since the 1995 survey. The 2001 survey show an increase in lifetime prevalence of ecstasy use since 1998 (to 6.1% of the general population), despite the fact that the lifetime prevalence of use of almost all illicit drugs appeared to decrease over the same timeframe. The demographic characteristics and self-reported patterns of drug use of regular ecstasy users interviewed in since 1997 were strikingly similar, suggesting that the main change in the market has been its size rather than in its nature.
Although overall rates of polydrug use remained stable over the years, the results suggested that the availability and use of specific drugs varied over that time. From 1997, the prevalence and frequency of use of some drugs decreased, including LSD and inhalants such as amyl nitrite and nitrous oxide. However, over the same period, the prevalence of use of other drugs, including ketamine, GHB, and ice, have steadily increased. It seems that as the demand for and/or availability of one illicit drug wanes, the demand for and/or availability of another increases, highlighting the dynamic nature of party drug markets. Ecstasy remains the fundamental ‘staple’ of the party drug market and is consistently widely available. The demand for and availability and use of other party drugs appear more limited and erratic, and there are relatively few regular users of these drugs.
Despite the variability in the contents of tablets sold as ‘ecstasy’, the market demand for the tablets continues to grow, and ecstasy is used in combination with a variety of drugs. Some users report harms associated with their ecstasy use, and the newer drugs reported by some users (such as GHB) may pose significant risks to users. Continued monitoring of this market will enable the collection and dissemination of information that will allow the implementation of timely policy responses to market developments. The conduct of the Party Drugs Initiative (PDI) in 2003 and 2004 in all jurisdictions across Australia should be a useful addition to current knowledge about party drug markets across the country.
Citation: White, B., Breen, C. and Degenhardt, L. (2003) NSW Party Drug Trends 2002: Findings from the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) Party Drugs Module, Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.