Convictions for cocaine possession in the Byron Shire reached a 22-year high last financial year, in what some see as a reflection of the region’s changing drug habits.
The latest figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) show that the cocaine conviction rate for the region reached 94.7 (per 100,000 people) in the 12 months to July.
This is the highest conviction rate for cocaine since the BOCSAR began recording convictions for different drugs by local government area back in 1995.
The figures show that Byron had the fifth-highest rate of cocaine convictions in NSW last financial year.
The conviction rate was triple the state average and puts the shire up with some of the traditional cocaine hotspots in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
And the figures are not an anomaly – the region has seen a significant increase in cocaine convictions over the past five years.
The head of the Buttery’s INTRA community outreach program, Krystian Gruft, said cocaine was a substance of concern for a significant number of locals presenting to his program.
‘Cocaine is often people’s second drug of concern,’ Gruft said.
‘I think there are some people in the community who have the money to buy, so it’s market driven.’
‘And from what I’ve heard, it is around at the moment.’
Coke rivals meth
The conviction rate for cocaine possession among locals is now getting close to that for methamphetamine, casting doubt on media claims that the region is in the grip of an ‘ice epidemic’.
The conviction rate of 110 (per 100,000 people) for meth is well outside the ten worst regions in the state, and we have rarely featured in this list in the past decade.
‘From what I’ve seen, methamphetamine is a concern [in the shire], but the extent of the problem has been exaggerated by the media and the government,’ Gruft said.
‘We do see clients presenting with ice as their primary drug of concern, but it is not at the level some are suggesting.
‘Having said that, it is a very dangerous drug for people who get dependent on it.’
This potential for harm is reinforced by the significant increase in the number of people requiring hospitalisation for methamphetamine use within the the Northern NSW Local Health District.
The rate of hospitalisations reached 150 (per 100,000) at the end of last year following a steady climb over the preceding seven years.
Cannabis possession remains responsible for the vast majority of drug-related convictions in the shire, with a conviction rate of 1,790, dwarfing all the other drugs.
However, in the past five years the conviction rate has halved, falling from the peak rate of 4,536 in 2013.
But local experts contacted by The Echo said they had not seen a reduction in cannabis use, suggesting the figures may simply reflect changes in policing.
The commanders of the Tweed-Byron LAC were unavailable for an interview for this story, despite The Echo’s repeated requests to speak to them.
Mr Gruft said the most notable change in drug use he had observed in recent years was that people were taking multiple different substances depending on what was available.
‘People often still have a primary drug of concern, but they might also be reliant on cannabis and alcohol nowadays.
‘Ten or 20 years ago, you tended to see people sticking to their drug of primary concern.
‘These days it seems very much to depend on market forces – what’s available.
‘It makes our job more difficult because polysubstance abuse is more difficult to treat.’
Mr Gruft said the introduction of road-side drug testing by the state government was also having an impact on people’s drug choice.
‘I think that the people who once would have smoked a joint now and then and perhaps had a couple of plants in the backyard are using other things that the police don’t test for when they do a roadside drug test,’ he said.
‘I think that’s part of the reason for the rise in synthetic drug use, especially synthetic cannabinoids.’
Mr Gruft’s comments are backed up by the BOCSAR statistics, which show there were just nine convictions for cannabis growing in the Shire last financial year – the lowest number in at least 22 years.
This follows a long-running downward trend in cultivation convictions from the high rates of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
While patterns of illegal drug use in the shire may have changed over the past decade, the experts and the statistics both point to alcohol as by far the most prevalent and destructive drug.
The manager of the Tweed-Byron Drug and Alcohol Service, Mitchell Doby, said alcohol was responsible for 56 per cent of presentations to his service.
‘Alcohol remains the biggest drug of concern in this region and across NSW,’ he said.
‘It’s associated with more people being assaulted, more car accidents and more domestic violence incidents than any other drug by far.’
Mr Doby said that alcohol was sometimes being used alongside prescription drugs such as painkillers, particularly among the older residents of the region.
‘I think that you’re starting to see it among the older residents who are retiring,’ he said.
‘You’ve got people who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands and in some cases that’s the result.’
Mr Gruft said that if someone becomes concerned about their substance use the first step is to talk to a professional.
‘I’m in favour of a stepped-care approach,’ he said.
‘Start by seeing a drug and alcohol counsellor, either at Byron Health Centre or a private practice and go from there.
‘There are definitely steps you can take and you don’t have to take them alone.’