Water analysis shows drug use increase

ANALYSIS of waste water from an unnamed Queensland region has revealed an increase in methamphetamine use, according to research released by the Australian Institute of Criminology on Monday.

Researchers at Queensland University, the University of Tasmania and the Australian Federal Police chemically analysed raw waste water from a Queensland sewage treatment plant to estimate daily consumption of methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy) and cocaine for a week in 2009 and again in 2010.

While cocaine use decreased during this period, methamphetamine use increased significantly. Researchers speculated that this may be because cocaine and methamphetamine are economic substitutes for each other.

Overall, drug use was found to spike on weekends.

University of Tasmania researcher Dr Jeremy Prichard said that waste water analysis could supplement information gathered by current drug monitoring systems. It is a relatively new science that tests sewerage to discover the types and quantities of drugs used in a certain area.

"By producing time-sensitive, chemical data from large populations, the (waste water analysis) method provides detailed but anonymous information on the size and evolution of drug markets in specific geographic locations," he said.

He said that while there was potential for this method to be adopted at large-scale music events to study emerging trends in drug use or by authorities to gather intelligence in drug manufacturing, "it's really theoretical at this stage".

"It's easy to measure waste in a treatment plant because everything is homogenised. It's very difficult - and we're still not sure if it's even feasible - to do it for one person's house or even for a music festival," he said.

"As researchers we're bound by strict ethical and legal guidelines, we can't invade people's privacy or identify people. If we did, we wouldn't be allowed to do our research.

"And if agencies were interested in using the technology, they would need a warrant to do so."

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties President Michael Cope echoed this sentiment. "We would be concerned if there was a situation where individuals could be identified, but there's nothing wrong with testing in a city, for example, where no one can be identified."

The location of the sewage treatment plant in the study could not be revealed due to confidentiality concerns.

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