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Alcohol and other drugs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures

The use of alcohol and other drugs is not a traditional part of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture. Although people did consume weak alcohol made from various plants, traditional rules controlled how and when it was used. In some communities, traditional beliefs may lead people to think that sickness is not caused by alcohol or drug use but happens because of sorcery and black magic.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities had traditional healers with extensive knowledge and methods, passed from generation to generation. They provided treatments that included bush medicine and spirit balancing to heal pain, suffering, grief, sadness and sorrow. Over time, traditional healing methods have been lost for many communities, and alcohol has become a way to cope, survive and resist.

The ‘poison grog’

The arrival of the British to Australia in 1788 drastically reduced the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population through violence, the introduction of diseases, and prevention of access to land that had provided them with food and resources.

The British also introduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to western alcohol. Within weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet, the first pubs opened. That shaped the way Australian society developed over the next few decades.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labourers were paid in alcohol or tobacco (if their wages were not stolen). In the early 1800s, the white settlers in Sydney found it amusing to ply Aboriginal men with alcohol and encourage them to fight each other, often to the death. White settlers also gave alcohol to Aboriginal people to pay for sex.

The problem now

The following video outlines some of the statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander use of alcohol.

Review of the harmful use of alcohol among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are less likely to drink alcohol than non-Indigenous people, but those who do drink are more likely to drink at harmful levels.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are 1.2 times more likely to drink at levels of high risk of lifetime harm than non-Indigenous people.
  • In 2014–15, 39% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults smoke. This is almost 3 times more than the percentage of non-Indigenous Australians who smoke.
  • In 2014–15, more than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children lived with someone who usually smoked inside the house.
  • In 2014–15, 69% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults had never used illicit substances.
  • The most commonly used drugs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are (in order of most used): cannabis, analgesics (painkillers) and sedatives, other drugs (heroin, cocaine, petrol, LSD or kava), and amphetamines (ice).

The impact of alcohol and other drugs use

  • From 2010–2014, the rate of deaths due to drug use was almost twice as high for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than for non-Indigenous people in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
  • The most common drug-related conditions that resulted in hospitalisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were poisoning and mental and behavioural disorder.
  • Hospitalisation for mental and behavioural disorders from the use of amphetamines had the highest rate of hospitalisation due to drug use. The rate of hospitalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for this was more than 3 times higher than for non-Indigenous people.
  • Cannabis use was the second highest cause of hospitalisation for mental and behavioural disorders due to drug use, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples almost 4 times more likely to be hospitalised than non-Indigenous people.
  • Rates of hospitalisation due to drug use were higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in major cities than in inner and outer regional areas. Remote areas had the lowest rates of hospitalisation due to drug use.
  • In 2014–15, hospitalisation rates for poisoning and accidental poisoning from the toxic effects of organic solvents (for example, petrol) were between 3.9 and 5.1 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples than for non-Indigenous people.
  • Fewer Indigenous women drink than non-Indigenous women (71% compared with 77% respectively). However, Indigenous women of childbearing age (18–44 years) are more likely to drink at risky levels (11.6% compared with 9.5%).

Illicit drug use in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet’s Summary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, 2018 states that:

Surveys consistently show that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not use illicit drugs.

The (following) information … is for adults from the 2014–2015 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). Similar results were found in the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), but the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the NDSHS was small, leading to some concerns about the accuracy of the results.

The following video provides a graphical representation of illicit drug use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Illicit drug use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

The impact on children, family and culture

When it occurs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, problematic use of AOD:

  • affects the spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing of children, women and men, causing deep pain and disconnection that continues the cycle of AOD use
  • influences the way parents are able to fulfil their traditional roles in raising their children and the way young people are initiated in becoming women and men
  • models a way of life that becomes the community norm (Aboriginal ethos is based on community and shared living), which will include sharing alcohol and drugs
  • can have a negative effect on the whole community.

The impact on women’s business

Prior to colonisation, women were responsible for raising children and participated in the spiritual life of their people. This was disrupted by colonisation, when the land was taken away, people were killed and children were taken. Women could no longer fulfil their role, and this has been an enduring pain for children and women for generations across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

AOD use may be one way an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman choses to cope, resist and survive.

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman may experience the impacts of AOD through her own use, through living in a community where alcohol use permeates daily life, and through the high rates of alcohol-related violence and domestic violence within her family and community.

Things that may make an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman more vulnerable:

  • She may be deprived of support from kin because of social upheaval, dispossession, or early death.
  • She may not have AOD workers or services that include all aspects of Aboriginal wellbeing (spiritual, emotional and physical).
  • She may not know about the impacts of AOD use on herself or her children.

The impact on men's business

There are a number of ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s roles and values in the family and community have changed since colonisation. Alcohol has had a major impact on this.

'Our people would go to the mines and after work they see the whitefella drink beer. A lot of Yolngu men thought that was the way to be. They thought alcohol made them more powerful.'

Kathy Balngayngu Marika, traditional Elder and artist-in-residence at Bangarra Dance Theatre, SMH October 2011

Other impacts include:

  • an inability to carry out their role as men, or mentor young boys, because they have not been taught or traditions have not passed down
  • a change of their traditional role as providers of the family. For example, welfare payments see women getting more than men (because of children).

Not being able to carry out their men’s business as providers and leaders can lead Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to feel a loss of identity and to feel disempowered, disconnected and devalued.

Alcohol and drugs can become a way of numbing this. Men who are numbed in spirit and identity are unable to show and teach young men that these things are not normal.

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