The community lockdown and social distancing measures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic have so far had limited impact on the Melbourne illicit drug market, according to research conducted by Burnet Institute.
The SuperMIX study of more than 1,300 people who inject drugs has been running since 2008 and is the largest cohort study of its type ever conducted in Australia.
Among key findings from the latest survey of a sample of 60 participants, conducted between 29 March and 1 May:
- Heroin prices remained stable, though 20 percent of participants reported trying but failing to purchase heroin
- Methamphetamine was accessible, but almost half the participants reported it was weaker than normal
- The rate of benzodiazepine use was almost identical to pre-COVID-19 levels
- A small percentage reported increased alcohol and tobacco consumption, but there was no evidence of alcohol being used as a substitute for other drugs
- There was a 10 percent decrease in injecting frequency as a direct result of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Changes to border controls, regulations around physical distancing and prohibitions on public gatherings were anticipated to have profound impacts on drug markets and people who use drugs,” Burnet Institute Program Director, Behaviours and Health Risks, Professor Paul Dietze said.
“It’s still early days, but we haven’t seen much in the way of people changing their behaviour yet, which is surprising.
“We would anticipate things like people turning to drinking more (alcohol), and while there’s a little bit of evidence of that, we’re only seeing small effects at the moment.“
Professor Dietze said the data shows that injecting networks have changed. People are injecting with fewer people than previously, and some people are reporting they are injecting less often.
He said one area that will need to be closely monitored is the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on access to opioid antagonist treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine.
“There has been a small decline in people being on treatment, but we know that those who were on treatment were actually able to get more convenient take-away doses more readily, so there’s indications of both positives and negatives at this early stage,” Professor Dietze said.
Professor Dietze said continued monitoring is vital. The survey is ongoing, and data will be updated regularly to determine wider trends in the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on this cohort of vulnerable and marginalised people in the community.