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How big a problem is drug use in the mining industry?

Cannabis plant

How prevalent is illicit drug use in Australia's mining industry? We look at the research and find out.

The headlines have been terrible.

“Ice the ‘drug of choice’ for miners”, screamed the Sydney Morning Herald. “Growing use of drugs pose threat to resources sector,” warned the Australian Mining website.

Perhaps it is no surprise some people who work in the mining industry take recreational drugs. As the ABC’s comparatively sober headline recently put it: “Mining industry facing the same challenge as communities in dealing with drugs and alcohol”.

But, just how bad is the drug problem in Australia’s mining industry? Let’s start with some figures from the general population to give us some context.

Drug use in Australia’s general population is rife

The United Nations 2014 World Drug Report revealed Australia tops the world in the use of party drug ecstasy, came third for consumption of methamphetamines and fourth for cocaine use.

The study found more than 10 per cent of working-age Australians regularly use cannabis, with 1.9 million people in the 15 to 65 age group using the drug in the 12 months before they were surveyed.

In 2016 a separate report, by Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, estimated the number of Australians using methamphetamine (including crystal meth, or ice) had tripled over five years to some 268,000 regular or dependent users.

Remember, methamphetamine is reportedly “the drug of choice” for miners. So how bad is it? Well, in 2015 the Australian Industry Group said it had data to show monthly ice usage in the mining industry was shockingly high, with 38 per cent of workers reportedly using it. As for other drugs, a long-range study by Curtin University released the same year found that: “If you were involved in the mining sector in 2010 you were some eight percentage points more likely to be using these drugs for non-medical purposes relative to the base year of 2001.”

How the mining industry has responded to drug use

Naturally, the mining industry is taking this obvious threat to worker and site safety seriously. Mining companies routinely screen their employees for drug and alcohol use. While they can test for amphetamines, methamphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, cocaine, methadone, opiates and morphine, there are some limits. A 2016 survey of 53 mining companies found more than 60 per cent did not test for so-called “designer drugs” because their chemical make-up was constantly changing to beat standard drug tests.

But governments and the police are reacting, too. In late 2016 Western Australian Police visited four Pilbara mine sites with drug detection dogs and searched 1200 mine workers and their belongings. Over the four days of Operation Redwater, no trace of illicit drugs or paraphernalia was found — results both the WA Police and the mining companies were pleased with.

Take our survey and tell us what you think

So, what’s the truth? Is illicit drug use a problem in Australia’s mining industry, as the headlines would have us believe? Mining People International is conducting a survey to find out. To take part and share your experiences, visit our special polls page.