July 30, 2020

Aussies who use drugs

busy Bondi beach

When reading statistics, such as the findings from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), it’s easy to forget that those numbers represent actual people.

So, while we’re looking at drug trends and discussing the changes to drug use in Australia, let’s also take the opportunity to really consider the way that we think about people who use drugs.

Australians who use drugs are our community members

Ask people to imagine what a person who uses drugs looks like and many people will probably think of a similar stereotype. Maybe they learned it through the news media, movies or TV characters, from family or friends, or from their own experiences.

There are a lot of stereotypes about what people who use drugs look like, how they act, where and how they live. These stereotypes – and the stigma attached to them – hurt people. And when it comes to people who use drugs, that’s a lot of people.

The truth is that 9 million Australians have used an illicit drug at least once in their life, and 3.4 million have done so in the past year.1

The overwhelming majority of people who use drugs do not fit into any stereotype. We’re talking about our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family. We’re talking about 43% of the country who have used an illicit drug at some point in their life.1

We need to reframe how we think about people who use drugs and stop stereotyping millions of people.

We need to recognise the enormous diversity of people who use drugs and let go any negative attitudes that are not helpful in addressing drug use and harms in Australia.

By approaching drug use as a health issue, instead of a moral or criminal one, we can focus on measures to keep people who use drugs safer – like treatment, information and harm reduction measures.

The best part about the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey is that it shows that many Australians agree.

What do Aussies support?

For the first time, the 2019 survey asked people for their opinion on two new measures: drug checking (aka pill testing) and supervised drug consumption rooms (like the medically supervised injecting rooms in Melbourne and Sydney).

The survey found that:

  • 57% of Australians supported drug checking at designated sites.
  • 47% of Australians supported supervised drug consumption rooms.1

It also found that:

  • The majority of Australians continue to support programs that reduce harms from injecting, such as needle and syringe programs and methadone programs.
  • Most Australians support a ‘caution/warning or no action’ for people found in possession specifically of cannabis.
  • Most Australians support a ‘referral to treatment or education’ for people found in possession of other illegal drugs.
  • There is declining support for a prison sentence for people who are found in possession of illegal drugs.
  • More Australians support cannabis legalisation than oppose it - 41% versus 37%.1

Everyone can help to reduce stigma

We know that stigma hurts people, and we can all take positive action to reduce the stigma attached to people who use drugs.

We can avoid repeating negative stereotypes, use person-first language, take opportunities to educate others, and build a culture where people feel safe asking for support when they need it without fear of being judged.

The language we use really matters, and thinking about our language is a great place to start changing how we think and talk about Aussies who use drugs.

Learn more about language at The Power of Words.

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.

Share this