The objective of this study was to describe patterns of substance use among remote Aboriginal community populations. The setting was the eastern Arnhem Land ('Miwatj') region of the Northern Territory's (NT) 'Top End', with a population of 4217 Aboriginal people over 15 years of age using a cross-sectional description and comparison. Sample 1 (n = 689) from the region used data from health-worker consensus classification of kava, alcohol, tobacco, petrol and cannabis use. Sample 2 ( n = 101) from one community used self-reported use, age at commencement, duration, amounts consumed and expenditure. In 1999 (sample 1), 46% of males and 18% of females were kava users, alcohol: 53% males, 12% females, tobacco: 68% males, 65% females, and cannabis: 31% males, 8% females. Less than 5% sniffed petrol. In one community in 2000, 39% males and 20% females reported using cannabis during the previous month. In this community between 1999 and 2000, the proportion of current kava users among men declined (77-52%, p = 0.015) with a tendency in women for a decrease in the proportion of tobacco users (87-69%, p = 0.096). The increase in the proportion of cannabis users in men (21-39%, p = 0.068) was not statistically significant. However, in women the increase was significant (0-20%, p = 0.013). Gross expenditure on tobacco and kava were similar in 2000: both greater than cannabis and alcohol. Median years used ranged from 4 years for cannabis and 20 years for tobacco. The data supported anecdotes of a recent rise in cannabis use, especially in women. Kava use declined in men. Tobacco use patterns in women may have been changing. Average per capita consumption of alcohol was low compared with other 'Top End' areas. Such varied and dynamic substance use patterns pose challenges for research and policy.