Profiles of illicit drug use during annual key holiday and control periods in Australia: wastewater analysis in an urban, a semi-rural and a vacation area


Correspondence to: Foon Yin Lai, The National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology (Entox), The University of Queensland, 39 Kessels Road, Coopers Plains, QLD 4108, Australia. E-mail:



To examine changes in illicit drug consumption between peak holiday season (23 December–3 January) in Australia and a control period two months later in a coastal urban area, an inland semi-rural area and an island populated predominantly by vacationers during holidays.


Analysis of representative daily composite wastewater samples collected from the inlet of the major wastewater treatment plant in each area.


Three wastewater treatment plants.


Wastewater treatment plants serviced approximately 350 000 persons in the urban area, 120 000 in the semi-rural area and 1100–2400 on the island.


Drug residues were analysed using liquid chromatography coupled to a tandem mass spectrometer. Per capita drug consumption was estimated. Changes in drug use were quantified using Hedges' g.


During the holidays, cannabis consumption in the semi-rural area declined (g = −2.8) as did methamphetamine (−0.8), whereas cocaine (+1.5) and ecstasy (+1.6) use increased. In the urban area, consumption of all drugs increased during holidays (cannabis +1.6, cocaine +1.2, ecstasy +0.8 and methamphetamine +0.3). In the vacation area, methamphetamine (+0.7), ecstasy (+0.7) and cocaine (+1.1) use increased, but cannabis (−0.5) use decreased during holiday periods.


While the peak holiday season in Australia is perceived as a period of increased drug use, this is not uniform across all drugs and areas. Substantial declines in drug use in the semi-rural area contrasted with substantial increases in urban and vacation areas. Per capita drug consumption in the vacation area was equivalent to that in the urban area, implying that these locations merit particular attention for drug use monitoring and harm minimisation measures.