What drugs do people seek treatment for?

People may seek alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services due to experiencing problematic use with one or more drugs. Most people have one drug that is of greater concern for them and their treatment will typically focus on this drug; this is referred to as the principal drug of concern principal drug of concern. Clients who use more than one drug can also report additional drugs of concern.

Principal drugs of concern

The most common principal drug of concern that led clients to seek treatment for their own drug use was alcohol.

In 2019–20, the most common principal drug of concerns that led clients to seek treatment for their own drug use were alcohol (34% or 75,005 treatment episodes), amphetamines (28%), cannabis (18%) and heroin (5.1%). This pattern was similar for both males and females, and Indigenous clients. There was variation across age groups in the most common principal drugs of concern.

Of the 28% (60,987) of closed treatment episodes where amphetamines were reported as a principal drug of concern in 2019–20, over three quarters (78%) were for methamphetamines. Specific coding for methamphetamine episodes has not previously been available due to the nature of the coding structure. This has improved over time, due to improved workforce training and new system updates.

This dashboard shows the principal drug of concern (PDOC) of clients receiving AOD treatment in 2019–20. In 2019–20, alcohol was the most common PDOC (34% of closed treatment episodes), followed by amphetamines (28%) and cannabis (18%). Where alcohol was the PDOC, counselling was the most common main treatment type (38%), self/family was the most common source of referral (42%) and expected/planned completion was the most common reason for cessation (62%).

Alcohol was the most common principal drug of concern for clients aged 40 and over; 45% of closed treatment episodes for clients aged 40–49, 61% clients aged 50–59 and 75% of clients aged 60 and over, receiving treatment for alcohol as a principal drug of concern. Cannabis was the most common principal drug of concern (55%) for clients aged 10–19, while amphetamines were the most common for clients aged 20–29 years and 30–39 years (34% and 38%, respectively).  

Alcohol was the most common principal drug of concern for which clients received treatment in all states and territories except Western Australia and South Australia, where amphetamines were the most common (34% and 35% of closed treatment episodes, respectively).

Among all states and territories, Queensland had the greatest proportion of closed treatment episodes for cannabis (27%) as a principal drug of concern while the Australian Capital Territory had the greatest proportion for heroin (10%) as a principal drug of concern.

The following data visualisation shows:

  • the number of closed treatment episodes for a clients own drug use by principal drug of concern
  • the proportion of closed episodes for each principal drug of concern by source of referral, main treatment type and reason for cessation.

Over the period from 2015–16 to 2019–20

Alcohol continued to be the most common principal drug of concern for clients seeking treatment for their own drug use, comprising around one-third of treatment episodes in both 2015–16 (32%) and 2019–20 (34%). In the same period, the proportion of episodes with cannabis as the principal drug of concern fell from 23% to 18%, while episodes with amphetamines as the principal drug of concern increased from 23% to 28%. Heroin remained the fourth most common principal drug of concern, accounting for 5.5% of treatment episodes in 2015–16 and 5.1% in 2019–20.

Nationally, where amphetamines were the principal drug of concern, over 2 in 5  episodes (46% or 21,187 treatment episodes) reported methamphetamine only in 2015–16, rising to 50% (24,733 episodes) in 2016–17 and 78% (47,599 episodes) in 2019–20 (table 1); Over the same time episodes reported for amphetamines and amphetamines not further defined decreased as coding practices improved for methamphetamines. The rise in reported episodes for methamphetamines can be attributed to a range of factors including improvements in agency coding practices for methamphetamines, treatment system updates and increases in funded treatment services.

Table 1: Closed treatment episodes for amphetamine (ASCDC) codes, 2015–16 to 2019–20

 

2015–16

2016–17

2017–18

2018–19

2019–20

 

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

Amphetamines

11.4%

5,293

8.7%

4,303

6.7%

3,709

6.5%

3,754

4.1%

2,514

Amphetamines not further defined

41.3%

19,130

40.6%

20,174

41.2%

22,227

25.7%

14,954

16.5%

10,049

Methamphetamine

45.8%

21,187

49.8%

24,733

51.4%

27,699

66.1%

38,470

78%

47,599

Other amphetamines

1.5%

671

0.9%

460

0.5%

259

1.7%

998

1.4%

825

Total amphetamines

100.0

46,281

100.0

49,670

100.0

53,894

100.0

58,176

100.0

60,987

Note: Other amphetamine category includes Amphetamine analogues, Dexamphetamine, Amphetamines NEC (not elsewhere classified) from the Australian Standard Classification of Drugs of Concern, (ASCDC).

Figure 2: Most common principal drugs of concern, by state and territory

The line graph shows the most common principal drugs of concern (PDOC) in Australia. In 2019–10, alcohol was the most common PDOC (34% of closed treatment episodes), followed by amphetamines (28%) and cannabis (18%). Between 2010–11 and 2019–20, alcohol as a principal drug of concern decreased (from 47% to 34%), while amphetamines has increased (from 8.7% to 28%).

Selected principal drugs of concern

Among clients seeking treatment for their own drug use, the number of closed treatment episodes with codeine as the principal drug of concern decreased by more than half (64%) from 2015–16 (1,448 treatment episodes), dropping to 618 episodes in 2018–19 and further in 2019–20 (526 episodes). This decline may in part be due to the rescheduling of codeine to a schedule 4 drug in February 2018, meaning that codeine could no longer be purchased from a pharmacy or chemist without a prescription. Closed treatment episodes with morphine as the principal drug of concern decreased by 58%, from 1,451 episodes in 2015–16, to 875 episodes in 2018–19, and further to 611 in 2019–20.

By contrast, the number of treatment episodes with cocaine as the principal drug of concern increased by 212% between 2015–16 (668 episodes) and 2019–20 (2,086 episodes); findings suggest increasing availability and prevalence of cocaine use in Australia. Although frequency of use remains low, potentially related to high street price, rates of cocaine-related hospitalisations and treatment episodes have increased (Man et al. 2021).

Additional drugs of concern

Clients reported at least one additional drug of concern in around one-third (36%) of all closed treatment episodes.

In addition to the principal drug of concern, clients are able to nominate up to five additional drugs of concern; these drugs are not necessarily the subject of any treatment within the episode. In 2019–20, clients reported at least one additional drug of concern in about one-third (36%) of all closed treatment episodes. Consistent with previous years, the most common additional drugs of concern in 2019–20 were cannabis (15% of closed treatment episodes), nicotine (13%), alcohol (10%) and amphetamines (8%).

The type of additional drug often varies by the principal drug of concern. For example, principal drugs of concern where cannabis was reported as an additional drug of concern included; over two-fifths of volatile solvents (42% of closed episodes reported cannabis as an additional drug), followed by alcohol (34%), amphetamines (33%) and benzodiazepines (23%). Comparatively, amphetamines were the most common additional drug of concern when the principal drug of concern was heroin (30%) or buprenorphine (22%).