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Substance abuse in northern Australia

During 2014, concerns were reported by residents, community leaders and service providers in rural and remote Indigenous communities in northern Queensland about the appearance of ‘new drugs’. In 2015 the Indigenous Leaders Forum of the Local Government Association of Queensland and the Queensland Police Service instigated research to investigate the impacts of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) including methamphetamine in northern and north-east Queensland. This research was led by AITHM Associate Professor Alan Clough.

The study surveyed 10 communities with around 1200 participants, investigating whether ‘new drugs’ were being used in the community. Simultaneously a web-based survey of front-line service providers across sectors including health, law enforcement, and emergency services was used to capture the impacts of alcohol and other drug use on workload (157 participants across outer regional, remote and very remote sites). In addition, Indigenous community members and service providers in selected localities were interviewed about the prevalence and impacts of methamphetamine use (11 sites across the region, 53 participants).

The use of methamphetamine was established in some outer regional and remote towns in the region. Evidence of this use appeared to decrease in the more remote sites, indicating that relative isolation currently provides some protection from access and uptake of new drugs. There was strong agreement among service providers in health and law enforcement that the major drug-related workload of frontline service providers was more often caused by alcohol, a combination of alcohol and drugs, or cannabis, than methamphetamine.

Associate Professor Clough is also evaluating strategies used to combat the high rates of injury and death linked to alcohol availability and misuse in rural and remote Indigenous communities. In 2002, the Queensland Government implemented AMPs to address what was seen as a public health crisis in 19 discrete communities. Some communities have seen a reduction  in alcohol-related harm, however there has been an increase in the application of punitive measures to reduce access to illicit alcohol.

The Queensland Government recently announced $6M funding  for the health sector to fund treatment, mainly in southern regions of the State. However, AITHM’s analysis suggests that a focus on prevention in the northern and north-east regions will be more cost-effective and sustainable in the long term within an integrated and robust cross-sector strategy.

With no evidence-based interventions readily available, and to reduce the prospects of any possible increase in the use of ‘ice’ in the region in the future, Associate Professor Clough and his team suggest that there needs to be a coordinated cross-sectoral response, by health providers, facilitated by an appropriate office in Government to coordinate and oversee strategy implementation with a focus on prevention. The priority for very remote locations is to support supply reduction alongside advocacy, awareness- raising and preventative initiatives by the health sector across Queensland. A coordinated approach to upskill drug and alcohol and mental health workers to increase confidence in dealing with methamphetamine-related issues would also be of value. There is also a need for better engagement by drug and alcohol and mental service providers with community members and leaders in order to improve culturally safe service provision.