What We Know About Young Australians And Drugs

Brought to you by Drug Aware

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Over the years, a lot of blatant misinformation about young people and drugs has found its way into the mainstream. There’s a long history of sensationalising drug use by young Australians, especially around music festivals. We’ve seen moral panic after moral panic suggest that The Youth™ are using more drugs than ever before.

While, yes, obviously, some young people use drugs, the portrait we’re so often painted just isn’t accurate. If you look at the stats, Australia’s youth are actually taking less drugs than generations before us.

Here’s what we actually know about young Australians and drugs.

Actually, A Lot Of Us Are Sober

Lily Allen may have once famously sung that everyone’s at it but, here in Australia, that’s really not the case.

A study conducted by Drug Aware in Western Australia, for instance, found that 78 percent of 14 to 22 year olds don’t use illicit drugs. In Junkee’s own youth research, conducted last year, we found that only 19 percent of 16 to 35-year-olds surveyed use illicit drugs at least monthly, and 46 percent of you don’t use them at all.

… Especially Gen Z

The data shows that drug use is actually trending down among young people, not going up.

While Junkee’s youth research found that 58 percent of millennials have taken recreational drugs in their life, only 46 percent of Gen Z respondents had. And, on the booze front, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that an increasing number of young people are abstaining from alcohol, too. That’s in line with a worldwide trend of young people using less drink and drugs than the generations before them.

Basically, since the ‘90s, we’ve seen a massive decline in the amount of young people who take drugs. The most-recent Australian secondary school students alcohol and drug survey, conducted in 2017, found that the proportion of high school students who’ve ever taken drugs has “significantly dropped” since 1996, while the Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown that way less Australians under the age of 35 are dying from drug misuse (which includes both illicit and pharmaceutical drugs) than they did in 1999.

TL;DR: young people are healthier and using less drugs than our parents and grandparents did in their day.


No, Not Everyone At Festivals Is On Pills

We’ll probably never get exact stats on how many people are using drugs at any given festival, but the data we do have suggests it’s probably less than you think. It’s definitely way lower than certain stories would suggest.

In 2016, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) found that just 8 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 7 percent of 20 to 29-years olds had used ecstasy in the previous 12 months (that’s down 3.7 and 3.4 percent respectively since 2001). But they could have taken those pills at home, in clubs, or at parties – they weren’t necessarily doing it at festivals. A survey conducted by triple j in 2018 found half of those who reported having taken drugs in the past 12 months said they don’t bring them into festivals at all.

Even at Defqon.1, dubbed a “high risk” festival by the NSW Government, only 355 people in the 30,000-strong crowd were found in possession of drugs – which is just over 1 percent of the total attendees.

Now, obviously just because others weren’t found with drugs doesn’t mean they weren’t using them. But that the size of festival crowds, coupled with heavy police presence and media coverage, could distort our perception of just how prevalent drug use is at such events and therefore the number of young people who are actually using drugs generally.

But Cannabis Is The Most Commonly Used Drug In The Country

By the way, the most commonly used recreational drug in Australia isn’t pills or speed or cocaine but… cannabis.

The 2016 NDSHS found cannabis was the most commonly used illicit drug, with 10.4 percent of Australians reporting having used it in their lifetime. The next most-common drug was cocaine at 2.5 percent, which is a big drop.

The Truth Is, Less Young People Are Taking Drugs Than You Think

Tragically, over 1800 people die from illicit and pharmaceutical drug-related deaths every year in Australia – but you probably didn’t see them in the pages of the paper.

In 2016, the most recent year for which the ABS has released figures, an overdose victim was most likely to be a middle-aged male who lived outside of a capital city and misused prescription drugs. It’s factors like unemployment, mental health conditions, chronic health issues, and social disadvantage that statistically are related to people being more likely to use drugs.

So, why do we still think that such a large number of young people use drugs? It could be because of the number of stories around the  music festival deaths and the controversy surrounding pill testing, or that those aged between 20 and 29 years do use more drugs than any other age group. But the fact remains that most young people don’t use at all, and that’s somehow harder to believe than the notion that everyone’s at it.

Stats show 78% of young people in WA don’t use illicit drugs. Search Drug Aware to find out more.

(Lead image: GoaShape / Unsplash)