THE Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission recently released the first report from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program. This fascinating area of research uses analytical chemistry, population data and information about the human metabolic system to estimate the per capita consumption of illicit drugs, tobacco and alcohol.
Wastewater analysis cannot provide information about individuals – how drugs affect their health, family, jobs and so forth. But compared with traditional survey methods for studying drug use, wastewater analysis is fast, accurate and it can capture information on huge populations. It is an excellent new tool that complements existing methods.
The engine rooms of wastewater analysis in this country are laboratories at the University of South Australian and the University of Queensland. The University of Tasmania has collaborated with the Queensland laboratory since 2009.
Of all the drugs covered in the NWDMP report, probably the greatest interest lies in methamphetamine. This drug has notoriety, especially in the form of crystalline methamphetamine – “ice” – because of strong links between heavy use of this drug and psychotic episodes, heart attacks, strokes, violence and criminal behavior.
Where methamphetamine is concerned, the big picture for Australia is not positive. One of the problems for law enforcement agencies is that the ingredients needed to make methamphetamine – called precursor chemicals – do not need to be imported into Australia. This distinguishes methamphetamine from drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy. That said, clearly methamphetamine is smuggled into this country. This week police agencies announced the seizure in Melbourne of 903kg of methamphetamine hidden in floorboards imported from China. Police estimated the value of this haul to be about $900 million.
Methamphetamine is the second-most commonly used illicit drug in Australia after cannabis. A single dose of methamphetamine costs $50 to $80 so the main beneficiaries of the methamphetamine market are organised crime groups. Various sources show that methamphetamine consumption in Australia is considerably higher than in most European countries and comparable to consumption rates in parts of Asia and the US.
The methamphetamine market has increased in Australia since wastewater monitoring began in 2009.
Our team found that the amount of methamphetamine consumed in South-East Queensland increased five-fold in urban sites between 2009 and 2015. The South Australian team observed very similar trends in Adelaide over the same period. Importantly, we cannot tell exactly what this means in terms of the numbers of people who regularly use methamphetamine – and who therefore are at greatest risk of adverse effects in terms of health and wellbeing.
What is the situation in Tasmania?
The University of Tasmania co-funded the first Tasmanian pilot study in 2014 and 2015. The results – awaiting publication – suggest that methamphetamine consumption was possibly the lowest in the country.
The NWDMP broadly confirms that result. It shows that Hobart, which has the largest population of all the Tasmanian sites (about 200,000 people in the catchments of the participating wastewater treatment plants), had the lowest average consumption rate of all Australian capital cities along with Canberra. Consumption rates in two regional areas were below national averages.
This is good news. We think the result may be due to multiple factors, including the activities of Tasmania Police, the difficulty Bass Strait poses for drug traffickers, and Tasmania’s relatively dispersed population – which probably inhibits large-scale trafficking for rapid profits. Consistent with this view is evidence that the purity of methamphetamine doses tends to be lower in Tasmania than in other states.
But the NWDMP report also raises concerns for our State too.
First, although many parts of Tasmania have levels of consumption that are low by national standards, they are still high by international standards. Secondly, two of the regional Tasmanian sites – which cannot be named for a raft of reasons – were well above the national average. These sites, like several others across the country, show that methamphetamine use can be very localised. This also means that the negative effects of methamphetamine use can be concentrated in particular communities.
This brings us to a critical point. We see wastewater analysis having an important future role in monitoring drug use in regional areas in Tasmania and Australia.
Surveys in large cities have produced useful data on drug use trends for many years now. But for practical reasons it is extremely difficult for surveys to study drug consumption in country towns. These communities have fallen in a “data shadow” in the absence of reliable measures of drug consumption.
Wastewater analysis of sewerage treatment plants in regional areas may provide this missing information that will be of value to health agencies, NGOs and law enforcement agencies.
Wastewater analysis promises to help Tasmania to assess how well it is tackling methamphetamine use and identify those communities most in need of assistance.