Levels of illegal ‘other drug’ use in NSW have reached their highest point in five years, prompting concerns COVID-related drug supply disruptions are making some drugs more attractive or easy to acquire.

Newly released BOCSAR data analysed by Central News shows since 2016 there have been over 25,000 other drug-related arrests across NSW. Records collected over the past five years show constant growth, amounting to a 12 per cent increase compared to a downwards trend in more common illegal drugs like amphetamines and cannabis.

‘Other drugs’ include depressants such as sleeping pills or hallucinogens such as LSD, ketamine, or inhalants.

Professor Paul Dietze is a senior research fellow and regular contributor for the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC).

He says COVID-19 may have impacted the illegal drug trade just like any other industry, meaning while some products fail, others flourish.

“The closure of the borders certainly changed elements of drug supply very quickly. Then we had lockdowns, and those impacted particularly on people’s movement, which has impacted drug prices and resulted in reduced transit,” he said.

“For example, there’s been a trend of increased ketamine use in Victoria, and that could potentially be driving the increase in other drug-related offences recorded in New South Wales.

“While it is a singular curve of data, it would make sense. So, it could be reflecting a border population shift like that,” he said.

Other drug rates in south-west Sydney particularly have leapt 44 per cent, with arrest numbers doubling from 2019 to 2020.

The data over-representation in Sydney’s south-west is particularly concerning when compared to dates of strict COVID-19 lockdowns.

Home to eight LGA’s of concern during the height of the pandemic, according to a report by the Australian Council of Social Services, Western Sydney also has some of the lowest average household income in the state.

Also affected by lengthy bans across the construction industry, Professor Kate Conigrave from Sydney University’s Faculty of Medicine hopes the recent jump in other drug possession isn’t a sign of south-west Sydney’s heavy burden from COVID-restrictions.

“You have to look at socioeconomic status and other measures of disadvantage and trauma. Where you have disadvantage or major stress or trauma, substance use tends to pop up more often,” she said.

Professor Conigrave says while movement restrictions have reduced access to more common illicit substances, people may be experimenting with over-the-counter alternatives. She says without understanding the effects on the body or what a dangerous dosage looks like, these often-homemade substitutes can cause great harm.

“Sleeping pills are commonly misused and a common cause of ambulance call-outs. Also, Lyrica (pregabalin) is commonly misused. And even things like paint or glue sniffing can show up in the ‘other drug category,” she said.

“GHB (Gamma-hydroxybutyrate) is another ‘other drug’ that we see around a lot at present.”

This year’s PULSE report of CALD communities by the Western Sydney Migrant Resource Centre confirms the enormous emotional consequences of lengthy lockdowns.

More than half of the report’s responses stated they couldn’t cope with COVID restrictions, saying they felt extreme stress, anxiety, depression, and sadness.

It could be that police are targeting differently, so the consequences are shifting for the types of drugs that are showing up in arrests.

While this clear sense of lockdown trauma sets up the ideal conditions for risky other drug experimentation in Sydney’s West, Professor Dietz says this may not be the case at all.

“It may not necessarily reflect on anything other than police practice. Rather than the actual use of the substances, it could be that police are targeting differently, so the consequences are shifting for the types of drugs that are showing up in arrests. So, it’s very hard to unpack the current lifestyle,” he said.

“We should be giving people the option of being diverted away from the courts, and I’m not sure how that’s reflected in the data. Whether or not we should be arresting people for small quantities of possession is maybe something that we need to be thinking of as a community.”

He says that COVID restrictions have created several positive outcomes for drug users. While recent data does show an increase in ‘other drug’ possession across the state, the most important data, he added, should be related to minimising drug-related harms and increased treatment levels.

“COVID has actually allowed us to make takeaway doses of methadone buprenorphine (used to treat opioid addiction) more available in NSW and essentially to make the treatment program more flexible,” he said.

“We need to make sure that this doesn’t change in the post-COVID environment, and we need to maintain those service innovations so that people can more flexibly access help, because that’s one of the major barriers to accessing correct, healthy treatment.”

If you or anyone you know needs help: Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Alcohol and Drug Information Service on 1800 250 015

Main image of pills by e-MagineArt/Flickr.