Wastewater doesn’t lie

The numbers are in – alcohol is the highest consumed drug in all states and territories!

A recent report into substance use by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) found that alcohol was the most used drug out of all legal and illegal substances tested in every capital city and regional area across Australia. This information comes as no surprise to me but I’m sure the ACIC was quite shocked.

The research was commissioned on the advice of the National Ice Taskforce and in line with the current efforts to overcome what has been labelled the ‘ice epidemic’. The media are so consumed with the ‘war’ on ice that they are ignoring the blatant and recurring problems that alcohol has on our communities. What’s more is the report showed that the second most used substance per person was tobacco, with ice coming in third place. Ice is having negative impacts on our communities and should be addressed accordingly, but this report proves that it is not the number one problem. Alcohol is.

What was interesting is that the report showed no difference in average alcohol consumption between people living in the city and people living in rural Australia. Alcohol is affecting all of us equally and it is a serious community health issue.

It has become the social and cultural norm for Aussies to kick back and have a drink with friends, but lately our attitudes to drinking have changed and taken a turn for the worst. Alcohol leads to more violence than any other drug and it costs tax payers over $36 billion annually. Research has shown that alcohol causes over 5,500 deaths, 157,000 hospitalisations, 70,000 assaults and is linked to 24,000 domestic violence cases a year. [i],[ii]

The study tested wastewater samples from 51 sites across the country with the hope of identifying community drug problems. Wastewater analysis has been used internationally and is considered a reliable tool for measuring and estimating drug use within local populations. What this study showed was the average individual consumption of alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine derivatives, cocaine, oxycodone and a number of other substances. In the simplest terms, the study was able to calculate the average daily consumption or dosage per person by testing the wastewater samples and dividing it by the number of people in the catchment area. The testing failed to detect cannabinoids in the wastewater.

This is the first report to come out of the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program with another two reports expected to come out later this year. There is a clear substance use and abuse problem within Australia but the government needs to recognise the important role that alcohol plays in this issue. We need to address the elephant in the room. We need to address alcohol harm and in doing so we will start to address all the other substance use problems. Especially because the majority of individuals using illicit substances are also consuming alcohol.

People don’t want to acknowledge the fact that alcohol causes harm, but the evidence is there. Wastewater doesn’t lie.


[i] Chikritzhs, T, et al. (2003) Australian Alcohol Indicators: Patterns of Alcohol Use and Related Harms for Australian States and Territories 1990-2001, National Drug Research Institute and Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, Melbourne.

[ii] Laslett, A-M., Catalano, P., Chikritzhs, T., Dale, C., Doran, C., Ferris, J., Jainullabudeen, T., Livingston, M., Matthews, S., Mugavin, J., Room, R., Scholtterlein, M. & Wilkinson, C. (2010) The Range and Magnistude of Alcohol’s Harm to Others. Fitzroy, Victoria: Victoria, AER Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, Eastern Health.

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Madeleine Day

Maddie is a Policy Officer at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE). She has a background in social change, research, communications and community development.

This article has 5 comments

  1. David McDonald Reply

    Thank you Maddy, but you have miss-stated a couple of points:
    – You say that ‘alcohol was the most used drug out of all legal and illegal substances in every capital city and regional area across Australia’, but the monitoring program does not cover THC/cannabis, nor heroin, apparently for technical reasons not explained in the report.

    – And to say that ‘the ‘ice epidemic’ that has taken over our communities’ is a gross exaggeration that simply plays into the hands of the drug warriors who are into illicit drug problem inflation. It is simply wrong to suggest that ‘ice has taken over our communities’.

  2. Madeleine Day
    Madeleine Day Reply

    Thank you for your feedback David. The post has been edited to remove any ambiguity.

    It is evident in the report that alcohol use and abuse is an understated issue despite being so wide spread. I hope the edits clarify that I was referring to the “ice epidemic” as a media exaggeration and that I do not actually believe that it is taking over our communities. As I mentioned in the post Cannabinoids (JWH-018 & JWH-073) were tested for but no trace was detected. It is not explicitly stated in the report why this might be. You are correct the wastewater analysis did not test for 6-MAM, the metabolite for Heroin. This is probably because the detection time (in urine) is less than one day. Maybe we will see some changes to their methodology and drug metabolite selection in the next report.

  3. Paul Dessauer Reply

    Heroin is metabolised to morphine within 21 hours of use, which is why it wouldn’t have been practical to test for it. Testing for morhpine, oxycodone, or other opioids is possible, but will not distinguish between prescribed and illicit use. As far as detecting synthetic or phyto (plant) cannabinoids is concerned, techniques are being developed that will allow this:

    See for example;
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/dta.2199/full
    and
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20961790.2016.1270812

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