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30 Oct. 2019

Media Release: Wastewater statistics wholly inaccurate for presenting drug trends

30 October 2019

Wastewater statistics wholly inaccurate for presenting drug trends 

The Association of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies NT (AADANT) is the peak body for non-government organisation drug and alcohol treatment services. We represent the services providing drug and alcohol treatment to Territorians and part of that representation includes ensuring accurate information about the sector and its clients is published.

The NT News recently ran an article with the headline “Mad for booze, fags, pills” in Tuesday’s paper on 29th October. The article cited wastewater statistics claiming the Northern Territory consumes alcohol, nicotine, methamphetamine (ice) and ecstasy (MDMA) at the highest quantities.

While we know the Northern Territory has the highest rate of alcohol consumption per person in Australia (NT Government Department of Health), we also know smoking rates are high in the NT. What the wastewater analysis by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) does is estimate the amount of each drug in the Territory by using formulas. The Territory only has two test sites which are near hospitals. For the purpose of the latest report, the Darwin wastewater site was tested 7 times in February 2019 and 7 times in April 2019. The regional site in Alice Springs was tested only in April 2019 six times. What this fails to do is capture an accurate picture geographically as Darwin (3,164 km2) and Alice Springs (148km2) leaves 1,417,688 km2 untested.

The report acknowledges these limitations which is why when reporting on drug and alcohol use in Australia, using wastewater analysis wholly inaccurate.

The wastewater analysis states, “The Northern Territory had the highest estimated average capital city consumption of methylamphetamine in April 2019 (As the Northern Territory only had two participating sites, results may not be representative of the Territory as a whole.)”

Using these rates as an indication of how many people are smoking tobacco through the use of cigarettes is also misleading as the test cannot differentiate between tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Therefore, assuming nicotine means number of smokers in the NT is inaccurate. Nicotine presence in wastewater does not conclude number of cigarette smokers. The report also notes all of these figures are estimates.

Cannabis use was reported as well, though the report itself alludes to its limitations to accurately quantify cannabis consumption in the NT. “The cannabis metabolite, 11-nor-9-carboxy-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC-COOH), a specific marker for cannabis consumption, is excreted in extremely small amounts. This may be a cause of variability in back-calculated results, so caution has to be exercised when making comparisons.”

As the peak body, we use a range of resources to inform ourselves and the services we represent on drug trends and points of potential concern. Two of those resources are the National Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) and the National Ecstasy Drug Reporting System (EDRS). Both reports survey current (use in the past six months) drug consumers by interviewing them about their drug use. These surveys are much more accurate and a realistic picture of what is happening in your State or Territory.

The wastewater analysis reports methylamphetamine estimated as the most used drug in the NT. The IDRS reports show 100 residents of the NT surveyed reported past six month use of methamphetamine (ice) was 44%.

 Wastewater analysis claims the NT had the highest estimated rate of ecstasy (MDMA) consumption, while the EDRS shows the drug used most often in the NT is cannabis. Of 100 respondents, 92 said they had used ecstasy in the past six months which does not equate to regular ongoing use.

AADANT also highlights there were two sample weeks for the entire year, and one sample week of 6 days for the regional collector in Alice Springs of wastewater data. This data is not indicative of drug trends and it is not an accurate depiction of what treatment services in the NT are seeing.

Lastly, the ICAC commented in the NT News that the NT has an “insatiable demand for narcotics and synthetic drugs.” This statement is also misleading as New Psychoactive Drugs (NPS), referred to as synthetic drugs, have been used recently by 11% of the respondents to the IDRS survey nationally. The EDRS also reported there were only 34 of 100 respondents surveyed who used NPS in the last six months.

This is hardly insatiable demand. While NPS are used in the NT, there certainly isn’t any data to support the demand suggested by the ICAC. Wastewater analysis estimates the prevalence of drugs in a designated area and that is where its limitations begin. EDRS and IDRS data are collected from current consumers of drugs and identifies their use and patterns of use, not the identification of substances in wastewater.

AADANT urges the media and those using data to support their claims carefully read how the data was collected and understand the limitations of the data.


Media contact for further inquiries: Katie Flynn, 8943 0608