Victoria overtook NSW as the state most likely to report cocaine use for the first time in 2019, although both states saw significant increases. In NSW, cocaine users jumped from 3.4 per cent of those surveyed to 5 per cent between 2016 and 2019, while Victorian use more than doubled from 2.5 per cent of respondents to 5.2 per cent during the same period.
More than 98 per cent of cocaine users were aged between 20 and 49 and men were more likely to report use than women.
Despite an increase in the number of individuals using cocaine, rates of use remained relatively low: 16.8 per cent of users took the drug once a month or more (up from 10.1 per cent in 2016).
The findings coincide with the latest wastewater drug monitoring report from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, which found record cocaine and heroin consumption in Sydney and other cities; higher than demand in regional areas where methylamphetamine, MDMA and fentanyl were more popular.
The program, which analyses wastewater for about half the national population, estimated 5.7 tonnes of cocaine was consumed in 2019-20, up 85.6 per cent from 3 tonnes in 2016-17. This was only outstripped by methylamphetamine, known as ice in its crystal form, with 11.1 tonnes consumed, up from 8.4 tonnes.
NSW accounted for more than half of the estimated cocaine use, consuming 3 tonnes in 2019-20, compared to Victoria’s 1.2 tonnes and Queensland’s 900kg.
The ACIC analysis again found Sydney to be the epicentre of cocaine use, consuming a daily average of 15 doses per 1000 people in October 2020. This compared to Melbourne’s six doses per 1000 people, Brisbane’s five and Canberra’s 10.
While methylamphetamine remains the most popular illicit substance and consumption has increased long-term, it was the drug most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions and effects of the pandemic saw average doses per day per 1000 people drop from 50 at the start of 2020 to less than 30 people in August.
Shane Neilson, the ACIC’s head of determination for high-risk and emerging drugs, said cocaine consumption had broadened beyond the wealthy demographics stereotypically associated with it.
Mr Neilson said recreational cocaine users, who often buy it off dealers they know personally, did not appear to draw the link between the habit and the criminal groups that process, traffic and supply it.
“There is a total disconnect between a social setting in NSW and the ruthless transnational crime groups that supply cocaine,” he said.
Detective Acting Superintendent Jayne Doherty, commander of the NSW Police drug squad, said there was a “wilful blindness” or naivete among some users.
“The local dealer might be that nice young bloke but further up the food chain, it’s always going back to organised crime,” she said.
The commander of the newly established anti-gangs Raptor Squad, Detective Superintendent Jason Weinstein, said people buying the drug were perpetuating violent gang conflict over the illicit drug trade in Sydney.
“Kids who go out on Friday night and buy a line of coke … they’re really aiding in their own little way the shootings,” Superintendent Weinstein said.
Dr Amy Peacock from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, who led the analysis of the survey results, said the irregular use of cocaine could be a result of its relatively high price of approximately $300 per gram.
People who use cocaine increasingly report finding it easy to obtain. While just under half of users expressed this view in 2003, this has steadily increased to 70 per cent in the latest survey.
Data from state health systems show an increase in cocaine-related hospitalisations and treatment episodes.
Nationally, the cocaine-related hospitalisation rate increased from 5.1 to 15.6 per 100,000 people from 2011-12 to 2017-18. Within one year, treatment episodes increased from 3.2 to 5.9 per 100,000 people (from 2016-17 to 2017-18).
“Whilst we were aware of reports of increased availability of cocaine, findings of increased harms were concerning, particularly the increased rate of people seeking drug treatment for cocaine-related problems,” Dr Peacock said, adding more research and evaluation of treatment methods was needed.
Mary Ward is a health reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Fergus Hunter is a crime reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.