IDUs interviewed during the present study often described a drug 'scene' in which both Indigenous and non-Indigenous users participate. It appeared that the drug-using friends or acquaintances of many Indigenous injectors include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and those who were consulted identified few obvious or consistent differences in the drug-using behaviour of Indigenous IDUs and their non-Indigenous peers. 'Its blackfellas and whitefellas, all together' (IDU, Western Sydney); 'It's definitely black and white together' (IDU Cairns); the injecting scene is 'colourblind' (IDU Cairns). 'It's all the same scene' (health worker, Port Augusta).
Some of those interviewed in Mildura referred to an active and 'very obvious' drug scene in a particular area of the town; this was described as 'quite multicultural', involving for example Caucasians, Pacific Islanders and Aboriginal people. Drug and alcohol workers in Mildura observed that it was common for one person to come into the NSP from a car which might have a combination of Indigenous and non-Indigenous passengers, and a similar comment was made in Cairns. It was suggested in Cairns that non-Indigenous peers were an important source of injecting equipment for young Indigenous IDUs in particular. An Aboriginal worker in Perth emphasised that the local drug scene was 'very mixed' in terms of Indigenous and non-Indigenous involvement. In Dubbo and Taree in regional NSW, on the other hand, there were varying comments on the extent of mixing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous IDUs (one IDU said, for example, that non-Indigenous people were sometimes suspected of being undercover Police). In the small community of Carnarvon, in Western Australia, it was suggested that there might well be largely separate groups of Indigenous and non-Indigenous drug users.
One implication of extensive contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous IDUs is that mainstream NSP initiatives, information campaigns and the like can be expected to reach significant numbers of Indigenous IDUs. Given that young Indigenous IDUs, for example, tend to have numbers of non-Indigenous friends and acquaintances, 'It can be argued that campaigns that are effective in reducing drug use among non-Indigenous young people may also deter drug use by Indigenous youth'24.
Nevertheless, for a range of historical, social and economic reasons, Indigenous IDUs were thought to be clustered towards the most disadvantaged end of the drug using spectrum. A Perth stakeholder spoke of the appeal of drug injecting (specifically injecting amphetamines) for marginalised and disempowered people. Injecting was 'tailor-made', he believed, for Aboriginal people with low self-esteem and few hopes or personal resources; for a time, it can make you 'feel like God'. The point was also made that substance misuse of one kind or another (particularly involving alcohol, tobacco and marihuana) has been a common element of dysfunctionality in Aboriginal communities, with the result that many disadvantaged Aboriginal children and young people are from and early age familiar with relatives and neighbours using alcohol and other drugs.Top of page
Numbers of those consulted, in various locations, argued that Indigenous drug injecting is commonly an outcome or reflection of marginalisation and multiple disadvantage. The 'middle class experimentation' that accounts for some non-Indigenous injecting was not seen as characteristic of Indigenous injecting. It was much more likely to be a means of coping with unpleasant life realities and/or a symptom of having little to lose. Aboriginal people are rarely 'successful drug users', thought one Adelaide worker.25
Another important, and possibly distinctive, aspect of Indigenous drug injecting was that it frequently occurred within a group of friends and/or family members, and that Indigenous young people were often introduced to injecting by older relatives or friends. According to one interviewee, there were 'whole households of Noongar injectors' in Adelaide. Another Adelaide stakeholder spoke of groups of family members and friends acquiring and using drugs together ('Who has the cash today?'). Trust and familiarity within such groups (a 'caring and sharing' context) could easily mean risky behaviour; 'Sharing within the family doesn't count'; said another observer. Further, easy access to drugs in this kind of situation could be reflected in people starting to use and to inject drugs at a young age. A Carnarvon health worker made the point that, given factors such as crowded living conditions and the tendency to use drugs in a group situation, Indigenous Australians' drug using and drug injecting may well be more 'in your face' than among non-Indigenous people.
Stakeholders noted that low income or dependence on social security was not necessarily a barrier to using illegal drugs. Numbers of those consulted said that acquisition of drugs might be financed by low-income people in various ways – for example by sharing or pooling of welfare benefits, by theft (sometimes from friends or family), sex work or exchanging sexual favours for drugs. Some IDUs were said to use small-scale dealing (eg in home-grown marihuana) to enable them to purchase injectable drugs. Some observers also made the point that, especially in the larger cities, injectable drugs were not necessarily very costly relative to alcohol or even tobacco – particularly if the drugs were used in relatively small quantities. According to one Melbourne stakeholder, 'a hit can be cheaper than a packet of smokes' if you're only using lightly. In Carnarvon it was said that 'speed is cheaper then grog, usually'.
Some observers commented, however, that while the low incomes common among Indigenous Australians need not prevent people from injecting, they could affect the frequency with which they do so. In Port Augusta, for example, Aboriginal injecting was described as 'sporadic' – affected both by the availability of drugs and the capacity to pay for them. A Northern Territory health worker likewise drew a connection between low Indigenous incomes and relatively limited access to illicit drugs. Some of those consulted by the study team said that the high cost of a drug like heroin tended to limit its use among young people; drugs such as cannabis were cheaper and more easily obtained. One worker in Cairns had concluded that, for the most part, local Indigenous IDUs tended to be recreational or occasional, rather than regular, injectors.
24 Gary Meyerhoff 'Injecting Drug Use in Urban Indigenous Communities: a Literature Review with a Particular Focus on the Darwin Area', Danila Dilba Medical Service, 2000, p16.
25 Meyerhoff's research for Danila Dilba Medical Service in 2000 quotes earlier researchers as stating that within Indigenous populations 'drugs are taken as a way of dealing with pain both emotional and physical' (p10), and that other relevant factors include low educational/employment status, limited leisure activities and family breakdown. 'Like other Australians, however, some young people use a variety of drugs in order to alter their mood and have fun' (quoting Brady 1992).