Cannabis in Australia - Indigenous Australia

Indigenous Australia

Statistics show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have a lower life expectancy and higher rates of disease and injury than the non-indigenous population. Well-documented historical and social factors have contributed to the widespread use of tobacco and alcohol among indigenous communities and according to Perkins, Clough and others, the use of illicit drugs (cannabis in particular) is higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than among the non-indigenous population of Australia.

Little detailed information is available on cannabis use in urban or remote indigenous communities. jan Copeland from the NCPIC and others cite 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey results showing that 27% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents reported using cannabis in the last 12 months, compared with 13% of non-indigenous Australians. However, these results are likely to under-report cannabis use in non-urban Aboriginal populations; communities are often small, isolated and highly mobile, making data collection problematic. What little detailed information is available on remote indigenous communities comes mainly from targeted studies of several communities in the Top End of Australia's Northern Territory.

Studies that do provide information on cannabis use within the indigenous population show pattern of problematic cannabis abuse that exceeds that seen in the mainstream non-indigenous population. A survey conducted in the mid-1980s by Watson and others failed to detect any cannabis use in Top End indigenous communities. However, by the late 1990s the Aboriginal Research Council provided information suggesting that cannabis was used by 31% of males and 8% of females in eastern Arnhem Land. A further study in 2002 found that cannabis was being used regularly by 67% of males and 22% of females aged 13 to 36.

As part of the 2004 National Drug Strategy, a survey was conducted assessing drug use among indigenous populations living in urban areas. Results showed that 48% had tried cannabis at least once, and 22% had used cannabis in the previous year. Regular cannabis use (at least weekly) was also more common among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities than non-indigenous groups (11% and 4%, respectively).

A state-wide survey of students in New South Wales (NSW) indicated that the use of cannabis is significantly higher among indigenous students. Researchers noted that, after adjusting for socio-demographic variables, indigenous students were 1.6 times more likely to have ever tried cannabis than non-indigenous students.

The data describing cannabis use in the indigenous population compared with non-indigenous use varies in the ratio of recent cannabis use to those respondents who have ever used cannabis. In the non-indigenous population, rates of cannabis use in the last 12 months are a third of those ever using cannabis; however, researchers found only a few percentage-points' difference between rates of regular and lifetime use within the indigenous population.

According to McLaren and Mattick, the reasons for high rates of cannabis use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are complex and likely to be related to the social determinants of drug use. Risk factors associated with harmful substance use are often related to poor health and social well-being, stemming from the alienation and dispossession experienced by this population. Spooner and Hetherington confirm that many of the social determinants of harmful substance abuse are disproportionately present in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

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