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There's a Lot of Meth in Australia’s Sewage

A national wastewater study has revealed what drugs Aussies are taking and where.

by Katherine Gillespie
27 March 2017, 2:32pm

A national survey of our sewage indicates that Australians are doing a whole lot of meth. Released Sunday, the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Report reveals that methylamphetamine [more commonly referred to as methamphetamine] is the most frequently consumed narcotic across all regions. The report covers approximately 58 percent of Australia's population—around 14 million people.

To deduce a population's drug use through wastewater, researchers look for chemicals expelled by the body after drugs are metabolised by the liver. So for example if you take cocaine, a percentage of that drug—as well as its byproducts—will eventually leave the body in the same way that food a drink does. By then measuring the quantities of drugs in a city's wastewater, researchers get a sense of a population's consumption.

Of the 13 substances researchers were looking for, methylamphetamine was the third most common after alcohol and tobacco. Levels of party drugs like cocaine and MDMA were comparatively small, as were levels of synthetic cannabis compounds like JWH-018. Levels of oxycodone and fentanyl were "significant," particularly in rural areas. The researchers did not test the wastewater for cannabis.

According to the research, Western Australia is the nation's meth capital, with both urban and regional wastewater sites far exceeding national averages. High levels of meth were also found in the sewage of regional Queensland, Victoria, and Tasmania. The report notes that these results are concerning, especially when placed on an international scale. Of the 18 European countries with comparable wastewater data, Australia ranks second for consumption of methylamphetamine, while Slovakia comes first.

The high levels of meth found compared to, say, MDMA might surprise you. As VICE has previously reported, meth use in Australia might not be quite so widespread as it seems, and in fact tends to be concentrated in rural rather than metro areas.

So it's worth noting that the results of the report align with its original intent, which was to highlight the widespread use of meth around Australia. In fact it was the National Ice Taskforce which initially recommended using national wastewater analysis to measure Australia's methylamphetamine use back in 2015. The research was then carried out independently by the University of Queensland in consultation with the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Still, using wastewater to measure a population's illicit drug use is a widespread and accepted scientific methodology throughout Europe and North America. It makes sense to test sewage for drugs as all chemicals metabolised by the body have to end up somewhere, eventually.

"An advantage of this research is that people who are surveyed personally about their drug habits don't necessarily know what they're taking or how much they're taking if asked. If you report to a survey, you could say you were taking ecstasy regularly—but it might actually not be pure MDMA that you're taking, it might be a substitute. So this is the first real hard evidence of actual substances being taken that we've had," a University of Queensland researcher involved in the study told VICE.

Oh, and if you're worried about the privacy implications of big government testing your poo, fear not—as a 2015 study into the effectiveness of wastewater analysis notes that testing sewage is a good way to test a population's drug habits, but is incapable of pinning results to individuals.

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