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Monitoring medication and illicit drug consumption in a prison by wastewater-based epidemiology: Impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

Wang Z, Mueller JF, O'Brien JW, Thompson J, Tscharke BJ, Verhagen R, Zheng Q, Prichard J, Hall W, Humphreys K, Thomas KV, Thai PK. Monitoring medication and illicit drug consumption in a prison by wastewater-based epidemiology: Impact of COVID-19 restrictions. Water research. 2023 Oct 1; 244:120452.

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Drug consumption in prisons is a concern for the safety of incarcerated people and staff. Typically, drug use prevalence in prisons is estimated through urinalysis and intelligence operations, which can be intrusive and stressful. An alternative approach, wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), was used in this study to estimate the consumption of licit and illicit drugs for the entire population of a prison in Australia. Wastewater samples were collected from March to December 2020, covering periods of no restrictions and periods when prison access was restricted to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Target biomarkers were analysed by liquid chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS). The average consumption of common illicit drugs (MDMA, methamphetamine and cocaine) over the sampling period in the prison (0.5 - 4.5 mg/1000 people/day) was two to three orders of magnitude lower than in the community population (254 - 1000 mg/1000 people/day). Comparison of WBE estimates against pharmacy dispensing data suggested potential illicit buprenorphine consumption at the prison. Methamphetamine and buprenorphine use decreased when no visitors were allowed (18% - 72% decrease for methamphetamine; about half decrease for buprenorphine) and increased once these restrictions were eased (22% - 39% increase for methamphetamine; 44% - 67% increase for buprenorphine). The changes in drug use may be attributed in part to a reduction of drug trafficking into the prison from visitors or non-essential staffs and in part to the reduced contribution of urine from staff who used toilets within the prison. This study provided useful information on the scale of illicit drug use and extra-medical use of licit drugs in prison, and its changes under different security conditions.

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