Illegal drug use during COVID-19

Have people turned to illegal drugs to help get them through the COVID-19 pandemic?


Have people turned to illegal drugs to help get them through the COVID-19 pandemic? That is just one of the answers being asked by a study called Australians’ Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats. Can New Zealand take something from this study on our brothers across the ditch. Whilst NZ doesn’t have huge exposure to risk from Cocaine use as supported by our tests on wastewater interesting findings in relation to our common foes Methamphetamine, Cannabis and of course our most prevalent Alcohol .

The Australians’ Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study is exploring the short and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the experiences of Australians who use drugs. Findings will be used to ensure drug-related issues during COVID-19 are better understood and more accurately represented, so as to better inform drug treatment and harm reduction in Australia.

To conduct the study, organisers invited people who had used illegal drugs at least once a month in 2019 to complete an initial online survey. They were then asked to take part in follow-up surveys at two months (late June 2020 to late September 2020), four months (late October 2020 to mid-January 2021) and 12 months (late April 2021 to mid-July 2021).

A relatively small but significant 197 participants completed all surveys. The majority were young, well-educated, (state)capital city people with a good mix between male and female. The study’s organisers highlight that being a convenience sample, findings from the study cannot be considered representative of all people that use drugs, however, they do provide an interesting insight.

Preliminary findings from the study are now in so let’s take a look at some of the results:

  • Not surprisingly, while not an illegal drug, alcohol was the most the most commonly used substance across all surveys, although use declined from the start of the surveys until the end.
  • The mantle of the most commonly used illegal substance, again not surprisingly, went to cannabis. Reported usage of cannabis did decline in the later surveys, despite no change in perceived availability.
  • The next most popular illegal drugs reportedly used by participants were cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) and meth/amphetamines (including ICE).
  • While also not illegal, e-cigarettes were also included in the study. Interestingly, there was a marked increase in the use of e-cigarettes in the final survey and 43% of participants reported that their use had increased relative to before COVID-19 restrictions.
  • In the final survey, perceived use of most drugs had mostly remained stable or decreased compared to before COVID-19 restrictions.
  • You may think that it would have been difficult to obtain many illegal drugs during COVID-19 restrictions, but on the whole most drugs were reported as easy or very easy to obtain. The exceptions were MDMA and meth/amphetamines, which were reported to be more difficult to source.
  • There was considerable diversity in changes in consumption across individuals and drug types, highlighting the divergency of experiences among people who use drugs.
  • Experience of drug bingeing and overdose remained relatively low and consistent across all surveys, while withdrawal
  • The final survey saw a continued increase in perceived ‘better’ mental health ratings (44%), while ratings of perceived ‘better’ physical health have remained relatively consistent across the study period.

Another interesting finding from the study has been participants level of nervousness about getting COVID-19. The spike of ‘nervousness’ of contracting the virus was in the second survey, but levels reduced in survey 3 and 4, before the latest NSW and Victorian restrictions. If a survey was conducted now, particularly in NSW, the results may be slightly different.


Did Australians reach for more drugs in the past 18 months to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic? Credit Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

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Ann-louise Anderson