Using quantitative wastewater analysis to measure daily usage of conventional and emerging illicit drugs at an annual music festival


  • Foon Yin Lai MSc, PhD Candidate, Phong K. Thai PhD, Research Fellow, Jake O' Brien, BSc (Hons), PhD Candidate, Coral Gartner PhD, Research Fellow, Raimondo Bruno PhD, Senior lecturer & Acting Deputy Head of School, Benjamin Kele MAppSc, PhD Candidate, Christoph Ort PhD, Environmental Engineer, Jeremy Prichard PhD, Senior Lecturer, Paul Kirkbride PhD, Professor, Wayne Hall PhD, Professor, NHMRC Australia Fellow & Deputy Director (Policy), Steve Carter ADip, Senior Chemist, Jochen F. Mueller PhD, Professor & ARC Future Fellow.
  • Declaration of interest: None.


Introduction and Aims

Wastewater analysis provides a non-intrusive way of measuring drug use within a population. We used this approach to determine daily use of conventional illicit drugs [cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)] and emerging illicit psychostimulants (benzylpiperazine, mephedrone and methylone) in two consecutive years (2010 and 2011) at an annual music festival.

Design and Methods

Daily composite wastewater samples, representative of the festival, were collected from the on-site wastewater treatment plant and analysed for drug metabolites. Data over 2 years were compared using Wilcoxon matched-pair test. Data from 2010 festival were compared with data collected at the same time from a nearby urban community using equivalent methods.


Conventional illicit drugs were detected in all samples whereas emerging illicit psychostimulants were found only on specific days. The estimated per capita consumption of MDMA, cocaine and cannabis was similar between the two festival years. Statistically significant (P< 0.05; Z= −2.02.2) decreases were observed in use of methamphetamine and one emerging illicit psychostimulant (benzyl piperazine). Only consumption of MDMA was elevated at the festival compared with the nearby urban community.

Discussion and Conclusions

Rates of substance use at this festival remained relatively consistent over two monitoring years. Compared with the urban community, drug use among festival goers was only elevated for MDMA, confirming its popularity in music settings. Our study demonstrated that wastewater analysis can objectively capture changes in substance use at a music setting without raising major ethical issues. It would potentially allow effective assessments of drug prevention strategies in such settings in the future. [Lai FY, Thai PK, O'Brien J, Gartner C, Bruno R, Kele B, Ort C, Prichard J, Kirkbride P, Hall W, Carter S, Mueller JF. Using quantitative wastewater analysis to measure daily usage of conventional and emerging illicit drugs at an annual music festival. Drug Alcohol Rev 2013;32:594–602]