Social impacts

The social impacts of alcohol and other drug use are pervasive, and include criminal activity and engagement with the criminal justice system, victimisation and road trauma.

Risky behaviours and criminal activity

Beyond the illegality of drug use in Australia, alcohol and other drug use may be related to crime in multiple ways. The consumption of alcohol and other drugs may influence people to engage in risky or criminal activities such as driving a motor vehicle, offensive conduct and verbal or physical violence. Most people who regularly use alcohol or illicit drugs do not report engaging in risky behaviours or criminal activity.

The most recently available data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) is from 2016 and showed that of people aged 14 and over:

  • Almost 1 in 6 (17.4%) recent drinkers put themselves or others at risk of harm while under the influence of alcohol in the previous 12 months (Table S1.10).
  • Risky drinkers (lifetime and single occasion) were far more likely to engage in risky behaviours or harmful activities than low-risk drinkers (Table S1.11).
  • People who recently used illicit drugs were more likely than recent drinkers to engage in criminal behaviour, however criminal activity is generally declining.
  • 3.1% of people who recently used illicit drugs created a disturbance, damaged or stole goods (down from 5.9% in 2007).
  • 0.6% of people who recently used illicit drugs physically abused someone (down from 2.4% in 2007) (AIHW 2017).

The illicit drugs market is often associated with a range of criminal activities, including property crime, fraud and violence. Engagement in criminal activity (beyond the illegal use of drugs) is more prevalent among populations of regular and injecting drug users than it is among the general population.

In 2020, around one-third (33%) of participants in the national Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) reported engaging in some form of criminal activity in the month prior to interview. Similarly, 2 in 5 (40%) participants in the 2020 Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) reported engaging in any form of criminal activity in the month prior to interview (Peacock et al. 2021).

The most commonly reported criminal activities in both the EDRS and the IDRS were selling drugs for cash profit and property crime (Peacock et al. 2020; Peacock et al. 2021). In the EDRS, both these activities declined between 2019 and 2020: drug dealing decreased from 32% to 20%, and property crime from 21% to 15%.

Data collection for 2020 took place from April–July for the EDRS and June–September for the IDRS. This is after COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and travel were introduced in Australia (Peacock et al. 2020; Peacock et al. 2021).

Driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs

The most recently available data from the NDSHS is from 2016 and showed that most recent drinkers do not drive under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, with 1 in 10 (9.9%) recent drinkers reporting driving a motor vehicle. This was the most risky behaviour undertaken by recent drinkers, followed by swimming (6.5%).

The most common activity undertaken while under the influence of illicit drugs was driving (Figure IMPACT5). In 2016, 15.1% of people who recently used illicit drugs admitted they had done this in the last 12 months (a similar proportion to 2013 of 15.9%) (Table S1.12).

Figure IMPACT5: Activities done while under the influence of illicit drugs in the previous 12 months, people aged 14 and over who had recentlyᵃ used illicit drugs, 2007 to 2016

This figure shows that the proportion of people who have engaged in different activities while under the influence of illicit drugs has fluctuated over time. In 2016, 15.1% of people who had recently used illicit drugs drove a vehicle while under the influence of illicit drugs, 12.4% went swimming, and 9.9% went to work.

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Driving a motor vehicle whilst under the influence of alcohol and other drugs significantly increases the risk of road accidents. According to data from the Australian Road Deaths Database from the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, in 2018 there were 100 drivers and motorcycle riders who were killed with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above the legal limit (excluding Victoria and Western Australia). This was a 32.9% decrease from the average annual number during the 3-year period 2008 to 2010 (BITRE 2020) (Table S1.13).

Among participants in the 2017 IDRS who reported recently driving a vehicle, three-quarters (75%) drove within 3 hours of using an illicit or illicitly obtained drug on a median of 24 occasions. Participants reported driving a median of 30 minutes after taking an illicit drug. The illicit drugs most commonly reported were crystal methamphetamine (43%), followed by heroin (39%) and cannabis (36%). Of recent drivers, 13% reported driving over the alcohol limit in the last 6 months (Karlsson & Burns 2018) (Table S1.14).

Family, domestic and sexual violence

Data show that incidents of family, domestic or sexual violence often occur in the context of alcohol and other drug use. For example, the 2016 Personal Safety Survey showed that of women who have experienced male perpetrated physical or sexual violence (assault or threat) in the past 10 years, around half reported that they believed alcohol or another substance contributed to their experience of male perpetrated sexual violence (ABS 2017) (Table S1.15).

Data from the 2019 NDSHS showed that 21% of Australians aged 14 and over had ever been verbally or physically abused, or put in fear by someone under the influence of alcohol (Table S1.23). Females were more likely than males to report their abuser being a current or former spouse or partner, while males were more likely to report their abuser was a stranger (Table S1.16).

A recent Australian study found that domestic and family violence incidents were significantly more likely than other violent incidents to involve drugs (Coomber et al. 2019). Respondents who reported the use of illicit drugs in the previous 12 months were 3 times as likely to report experiencing violence over the same period and the frequency of violent incidents was 6 times higher. The risk of injury doubled when respondents reported that the most recent incident involved drug use (Coomber et al. 2019).

Data from the Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) program showed that detainees who reported dependence on methamphetamine or cannabis reported higher rates of domestic violence (Morgan & Gannoni 2020). Sixty-one percent of detainees who reported being dependent on methamphetamine reported recent violence towards a current or former intimate partner. This is substantially higher than the proportions reported for detainees who said they had used methamphetamine but were not dependent (37%) and detainees who said they had not used methamphetamine (32%). Similarly, detainees who reported being dependent on cannabis self-reported higher rates of domestic violence—58% compared with 41% for detainees who had used cannabis but were not dependent and 25% for detainees who had not used cannabis (Morgan & Gannoni 2020).

Illicit drug use within families

Parental drug use and conflict with parents are family factors that can increase the risk of drug use among younger people (Wilkins et al. 2019). Wave 17 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey included a new set of questions assessing illicit drug use, including estimates for the use of any illicit drug in the previous 12 months. The collection of data for all family members allows the inter-relationship of illicit drug use among family members to be explored. Only findings for cannabis use have been reported—31% of respondents whose mother reported a lifetime history of cannabis use had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months. This was 2.5 times higher than those whose mother reported no history of cannabis use (12.7%). Findings were similar when comparing results based on the history of cannabis use for fathers (Wilkins et al. 2019).

Homicide

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC)’s National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) collects data on homicide incidents in Australia. The NHMP draws information on the use of alcohol and other drugs by homicide victims and offenders from different sources: data on victims is based on toxicology, and data on offenders is based on self-report or assessment by the police (Bricknell & Doherty 2021).

Data from the latest NHMP report showed that there were 224 homicide incidents recorded in Australia in 2018–19, excluding the Australian Capital Territory (Bricknell & Doherty 2021). In 2018–19:

  • Victims had consumed alcohol in over one-quarter (27%) of homicide incidents, down from 30% in 2017–18.
  • Victims had used illicit drugs (including non-therapeutic levels of pharmaceutical drugs) in around 1 in 5 (21%) of incidents, down from 27% in 2017–18.
  • Offenders were recorded as having consumed alcohol in over one-quarter (28%) of homicide incidents, up from 25% in 2017–18.
  • Offenders had used illicit drugs in over 1 in 10 (12%) incidents, similar to 2017–18 (13% of incidents) (Table S1.17).

In 194 homicide incidents in 2018–19, the relationship between the victim and offender was known. Of these incidents, 5.7% were motivated by an alcohol-related argument and 3.1% were related to drugs (Bricknell & Doherty 2021).

Victimisation

The 2019 NDSHS showed that:

  • More than 1 in 5 (21%) Australians aged 14 and over had been a victim of an alcohol-related incident, although this proportion has declined from 30% in 2007 (Table S1.23; Figure IMPACT6).
  • Since 2016, there has been a significant decline in the proportion of the population who experienced physical abuse (5.9% to 4.8%) by persons affected by alcohol. Proportions have also declined for verbal abuse (18.7% to 17.7 (Table S1.23).
  • Just over 1 in 10 people (10.5%) had been a victim of an illicit drug-related incident, up from 9.2% in 2016
  • significant increases were reported across all types of incidents and these were driven by increases among males (Table S1.24).
  • Verbal abuse was the most frequently reported incident overall (7.9%) and a significantly greater proportion of people in their 50s reported being verbally abused by someone under the influence of illicit drugs (increasing from 8.0% in 2016 to 9.8% in 2019) (Table S1.25).
  • People in their 20s were most likely to experience an incident caused by someone under the influence of illicit drugs (13.3%), with 2.9% physically abused and 9.8% put in fear (Table S1.25).

Figure IMPACT6: Victims of alcohol or illicit drug-related incidents in the previous 12 months, people aged 14 and over, 2007 to 2019 (per cent)

This figure shows that the proportion of people who were victims of any alcohol-related incident has declined from 2007 (29.6%) to 2019 (21.4%).

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In addition, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Crime Victimisation survey indicates that many people who have experienced actual or threatened assault believe alcohol or other drugs contributed to the incident. In 2019–20, among people aged 18 years and over who experienced physical or face-to-face threatened assault in the last 12 months:

  • Around 1 in 2 believed alcohol or another substance contributed to the most recent incident of physical assault (57%) or face-to-face threatened assault (50%).
  • A higher proportion of men (61%) than women (52%) believed that alcohol or another substance contributed to the most recent incident of physical assault.
  • Women (53%) were more likely than men (48%) to believe that alcohol or another substance contributed to the most recent incident of face-to-face threatened assault (ABS 2021).