Earlier this year I attended a conference on the ‘Ice Epidemic’. It was fascinating to hear from academics, researchers, social workers and health practitioners, all who offered different perspectives on this topic, which has been so visible in the press and in our community over the last 2 years.
A big message of the conference, which may surprise you, was that the media driven image of thousands of addicts consumed by ice-rage, smashing up hospitals and fighting police officers is by and large a myth. The ‘zombie-like’ portrayal of ice users can in fact be very harmful – demonising users and discouraging them from admitting they have a problem and seeking treatment.
There is not an epidemic of ice raging zombies out there. In fact, use of methamphetamine has not risen at all over the last few years. What has changed is the way methamphetamine is being used.
Several conference presenters mentioned that throughout coverage of the ice-epidemic, media omit the ‘positive’ reasons (euphoric state, heightened focus and energy, confidence etc) some people use methamphetamine.
For many years the use of amphetamines was socially acceptable, being promoted through propaganda as an aid for alertness and weight loss, just to name a few.
As more became known about amphetamines and methamphetamine, they became illicit substances, and use has remained low, and underground.
Many ice users remain high functioning individuals. Many use the drug infrequently (less than once a month) and their use is often controlled, supporting partying lifestyles or the ability to remain focused for long periods of time (eg: in stressful jobs).
What is being reported as the Australian ‘Ice Epidemic, is actually related to the way methamphetamine is being used by some people. This has fuelled the media coverage over the past few years.
An increasing number of people are using the more pure and potent crystal form of methamphetamine (‘ice’) instead of powder (‘speed’) or paste (‘base’) and they are often taking it intravenously or by smoking. Injecting and smoking can both lead to increased volumes of the drug being taken – it is much harder to measure how much you’re having, and its impact on your behaviour, if you smoke or inject (rather than snort or swallow). Users are using more frequency, partly as the price is low.
So what’s changed?
1. The price has decreased
2. The purity level has increased
3. The form of the drug is changing
4. The way people are administering (taking) the drug is also changing
5. People are using the drug more frequently
All these things, including the form of the drug being used and the means it is being used by, lead to the greatest and quickest effect of the drug. It also leads to larger amounts being taken, greater highs, but also protracted and painful come-downs and withdrawals alongside, at times, rage, paranoia and depression.
This type of use (greater, quicker highs, heightened effects, greater come downs and negative consequences) can then result in very quickly spiralling issues. ‘Use’ can lead to ‘abuse’ once the element of control disappears. Unlike with other addictions (alcohol, marijuana, heroin), addiction to methamphetamine can escalate in a shorter space of time (a matter of months or even weeks). And the most public issues such as crime, violence and the visible impact on physical health are much more confrontational than those associated with other addictions.
Whilst media coverage of the Ice Epidemic has been misleading, there is certainly a very real and present problem. The impact on users and those around them can be devastating, and more and more people are using ice instead of other drugs (including other amphetamines).
One of the most worrying aspects talked about at the conference was the impact on the brain of a methamphetamine user. In short, excessive methamphetamine use can impair cognitive function, leading to reduced capacity and mental health issues.
Regardless of how you look at it, ice can be a horrific drug, that can quickly spiral use to abuse to have devastating impact on life.
The silver lining to this cloud, is that the media coverage has led to a commitment at Government and NGO level to address the issue. And with your support, programs like Triple Care Farm are leading the way. Ice became the number 1 drug of concern at the Farm in 2014 and remains so. Most young people using ice are using other substances at the same time, and experience complicating mental and physical health issues. But with the professionalism, care and attention offered at the Farm, change is possible.
The Federal Government’s National Ice Strategy, released late last year, supports the Farm’s holistic and individual model of care. They recognise that to help people escape addiction, particularly ice, and then stay off drugs, underlying issues such as mental health, social disconnection and unemployment need to be addressed along with the drug use. The National Ice Strategy is supporting a number of initiatives to address ice use.
The Farm has also been pioneering in amending its treatment regimes for young people addicted to ice, focusing on supporting extended withdrawal and stabilisation before launching into positive rehabilitation (counselling, training etc). This commitment to program improvement, matched with the donor support that makes it possible, has allowed the Farm to react to the needs of ice users and help them get off, and stay off ice for good.
The Team at Triple Care Farm and SDMF will keep you informed on developments around the ice epidemic, and together, we can offer solutions for young people struggling with this potent and scary drug.