March 1, 2019

Women and the use of alcohol and other drugs


International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to reflect on many aspects of women’s lives, including health and wellbeing.

Globally, women remain vulnerable to the negative impacts of both their partner’s drug use and their own personal use. We also know that gender is one of the primary lenses through which people are judged on their alcohol and other drug use.

This means that women in particular face significant stigma if they are a person who uses drugs.1 And while historically men have used drugs at higher levels than women, data indicates that this may be changing.

AOD use among Australian women

In Australia, men have consistently been 1.4 times more likely than women to have used an illicit drug in the last 12 months.2

However, the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicates that there has been an increase in illicit drug use among women in their 30s since 2013.2

Specifically, when compared to 20132, there has been:

  • a 2.5% increase in cannabis use among women in their 30s (who have used in the last 12 months)
  • a 1.9% increase in cocaine use among women in their 20s (who have used in the last 12 months) - almost double compared to the rate of use in 2001
  • a reported increase in use of ecstasy among women in their 30s
  • a significant increase in recent meth/amphetamine use from 0.9% to 1.6% reported by women in their 40s.

This is concerning because of the particular harms that women can be more likely to experience from drug use.

“Research has shown that women often use drugs differently, respond to drugs differently, and can have unique obstacles to effective treatment as simple as not being able to find child care or being prescribed treatment that has not been adequately tested on women.” 3

And those harms are not borne equally across all women – some groups are more likely to experience harm than others.

Vulnerable groups

Among the women who report using drugs and are included in research, there are vulnerable groups that experience significant difficulties with respect to accessing treatment.4

Recent research highlights the fact that drug dependence is reported to be more common among people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI).5

In the first population-based study in Australia comparing gay/bisexual (GB) men and lesbian/gay/bisexual (LGB) women with heterosexual peers, it was found that LGB women start smoking and drinking earlier and report higher rates of illicit drug use in the past 12 months.5

It was also found that LGB women report higher engagement in risky behaviours such as injecting drug use, when compared to heterosexual peers. LGB women also report higher rates of anxiety and depression when compared to male counterparts, which places them at a greater risk of substance use harms.5,6

Other social determinants of health, such as race, socio-economic status and marital status, can influence the level of stigma that a woman who uses drugs may experience.4

To combat these issues, it is important for women to be included in research and health service planning.1,5,6 It’s also important that individuals and organisations act on reducing the stigma experienced by women who use drugs and support all women who might need help with an alcohol or drug dependency to access that help.

Services available

For information on services that are available to women specifically, visit Help & Support. You can sort the audience by ‘women’ to identify a service in a specific state or territory.

  1. Network of Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies. (2017). Women's AOD Services Network profile. Retrieved Febuary 20, 2019, from NADA Resources
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2016). Illicit Use of Drugs. Retrieved April 12, 2018, from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. Retrieved Febuary 20, 2019, from NIH
  4. International Network of People who use Drugs. (2014). A war on women who use drugs. London: INPUD Secretariat
  5. Roxburgh, A., Lea, T., de Wit, J., & Degenhardt, L. (2016). Sexual identity and prevalence of alcohol and other drug use among Australians in the general population. International Journal of Drug Policy, 28, 76-82.
  6. Marel, C., Sunderland, M., Mills, K. L., Slade, T., Teesson, M., & Chapman, C. (2019). Conditional probabilities of substance use disorders and associated risk factors: Progression from first use to use disorder on alcohol, cannabis, stimulants, sedatives and opioids. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 194, 136-142.

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