Victoria Police-Ambulance Service, Melbourne, cooperative study to establish the relationship between drug overdose and criminality

Criminology Research Council grant ; (6/81)

The project surveyed all patients taken to hospital by Ambulance Service, Melbourne, between 1 August 1981 and 31 January 1982, displaying symptoms of acute drug poisoning. It described their characteristics and their criminal histories with special regard to the legality of the drugs used in their attempted suicide. The incidence of drug poisoning was compared with drug offences reported to police in the same time period.

Sixty-two per cent of acute drug poisoning patients were female and 48 per cent were under 30 years old. Women were more likely to be aged under 20 years while more men were in the 20 to 29 year age bracket. People living in Central Melbourne were over-represented compared with the general population. Over 13 per cent of those attempting to commit suicide had a history of psychiatric illness, 2.3 per cent were epileptics, and 4.5 per cent showed signs of drug addiction.

Forty-two per cent of patients used more than one preparation in their attempt to commit suicide and alcohol was a contributory factor in 27.5 per cent of cases. Tranquilisers, hypnotics and sedatives were used by 86 per cent of all patients and comprised 58 per cent of all drugs recorded by ambulance officers. Illegal or special permit drugs were used by 7 per cent of the acute drug poisoning group.

Forty per cent of the men who attempted to commit suicide and 20 per cent of the women were previously known to police. Three-quarters of these people were first recorded between the ages of 17 and 20 years and over 40 per cent had recorded contact with the police within one year prior to this overdose episode. There was no significant relationship between the legality of the drugs used and the likelihood of being known to the police.

About half of the first offences committed by people who came to notice through an acute drug poisoning incident were property offences and 10 per cent involved protection applications. Users of alcohol only or over-the-counter drugs were more likely to have committed offences against the person than users of illegal or prescription drugs. Only 3 per cent of drug overdose patients were known to have committed prior drug offences.

More acute drug poisoning cases occurred in the Eastern Sector of Melbourne while drug offences were more frequent in the Northern Suburbs. Nearly one-third of both incidents occurred in Central Melbourne.

Drug offences were more prevalent during January than in other months of the survey, and this could be attributed to a surge in the incidence of amphetamine, cannabis and heroin offences. There was no similar increase in the incidence of acute drug poisoning behaviour. The weekend and the evening were significant factors in the incidence of acute drug poisoning while drug offences were more uniformly distributed across days of the week and times of day.

The study concluded that drug abuse in Melbourne is a continuum of behaviours ranging from single incidents of drunkenness in teenagers to addiction to illegal drugs such as heroin. The study did not support the view expressed by some previous researchers that need and socio-economic status are significant factors in predisposition to attempted suicide because parts of Melbourne which are known to have low indices of need have a high incidence of acute drug poisoning.

Multiple drug use and the high alcohol involvement in acute drug poisoning cases draws attention to the important role of legally available drugs in the drug abuse problem. Users of illegal drugs, known drug offenders and people showing symptoms of addiction could not be separated from users of legal preparations and users of different legal groups of drugs had similar likelihood of criminal involvement. These factors suggest that property crime committed by illegal drug users is not only an income producing exercise. Psychological factors may be more important than economic necessity in determining the criminal behaviour of drug abusers.