To most of us, ice is a commodity best used to keep the beers cold. But for an apparently growing number of Australians, it’s a potentially lethal incarnation of an illicit drug that’s driving violent crime up and addicts into early graves.
Despite the deceptively benign colloquial name “ice”, methamphetamine – or crystal meth – is reportedly one of the most virulent forms of illicit substance authorities have seen in recent years.
The use of amphetamines has been stable since around 2001, according to the Australian Drug Foundation, however its form has changed and it’s this shift that’s causing most concern. The use of the drug in its powdered form (mostly referred to as “speed”) has decreased sharply in recent years in favor of the more potent, and therefore more potentially lethal, crystal methamphetamine – ice.
But while mainstream media reports have helped form a public perception of society in the grip of an “ice age” of epidemic proportions, drug-world weary police and some health professionals see it more as another trend in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of people who turn to illicit substances for a raft of psychological and physiological reasons.
Among those at the pointy end of the drug war is Detective Inspector Rod Blackman, Crime Manager of the Orana Local Area Command (pictured). As a seasoned officer, he’s seen trends come and go and says the chief concern with the drug ice is that users are playing Russian roulette with every hit.
“Amphetamines and methamphetamine has been around for a long time. The difficulty with methyl amphetamine is that it’s manufactured by criminals, so the quality varies dramatically. They’re not interested in quality control.”
The difference, he says, between the equally disturbing misuse and abuse of oxyodone-based drugs – known colloquially as “hillbilly heroin” – is that they’re pharmaceutical, so while similarly dangerous used incorrectly, the quality is consistent.
“There’s a raft of different chemicals out there being sold as drugs on the black market, all of which have different results on humans.”
So those turning to ice because it’s the new trend, and it’s readily available, are playing with their lives?
“Absolutely. If you don’t know where it’s come from, it’s inherently dangerous because you just cannot simply predict the effect on your body. There’s been no shortage of overdoses, no shortage of people with permanent mental health issues as a result of the psychotic episodes coming out of some of these drugs – it really is Russian roulette.”
The rise in the use of ice has come about thanks to what Blackman calls a “heroin drought”. We’re victims, effectively, of our own success at tackling heroin imports into this country.
“It’s now very difficult to get heroin into Australia,” he says, adding that the drought has been global. “Heroin is a very different drug, with different properties – but ice is equally addictive. All drugs are addictive.
“There’s a lot of theory about the addiction – both psychological and physiological – and certainly for methyl amphetamine users there seems to be a lot of evidence about the psychological addiction to it as well as the physiological addiction.”
As to the idea that the use of ice has reached epidemic proportions, Blackman is circumspect.
“It’s probably just another wave in the cycle of clandestine drugs. If you were to look back over history you would see peaks and troughs of all different types of drugs. In the late 90s, early 2000s heroin was peaking. There was a lot of it around, so you had drug users committing lots of break and enters to support their highly expensive, highly addictive habits. That petered out with the difficulties getting heroin.”
Then, he says, there was the “new wave” oxycodone based drugs – similar in effect to heroin, being an opioid analgesic.
“Being pharmaceutical grade, quality was assured and they were relatively easy to come by once oxycodone was deregulated, and practices like “doctor shopping” came into vogue. So there was a sharp elevation in oxycodone misuse.
“That’s now changed because the manufacturers and providers of oxycodone have varied it to make it very difficult to extract for clandestine use. So now we’re seeing them go back to amphetamines and methamphetamines.”
Effectively, rather than spawning a whole new raft of drug-addicts, the rise in the use of ice is more a shift in the current drug of choice – back to the future.
That’s not to say any of this is good news. Quite to the contrary, says Blackman, who sees the direct effect of drug crime every day.
“The main thing is that you do get violent crime associated with methamphetamine use, there’s no doubt about that. Most clandestine drugs are expensive and heavy habits create heavy turnover in terms of crime.”
Anecdotally – and averages are difficult to determine given the different physiological effect of the drug on individual users – the cost of a “hit” can vary between $40 and $100.
“Some users could quite easily have a $300 a day habit, and that puts it up there with heroin at its height.”
The funding for such an expensive habit needs to come from somewhere, and it’s to crime that many desperate users turn. Most ice addicts aren’t the types to hold down regular jobs, says Blackman.
“People with methamphetamine addictions would find it very hard to function in day-to-day life. If you’re staying awake for three days in a row, there’s the old what goes up must come down thing. They crash very heavily not to mention some of the other adverse effects.”
It’s stating the obvious to say there’s no easy answer to the scourge of illicit drugs, but Blackman believes the best defense is education.
“We have to take away the desire to use drugs. There is no market if you don’t want to buy. We need to keep having the conversation with our kids. Is one drug more dangerous than another? I wouldn’t pick one – because tomorrow it may be something totally different. Just another peak – because they’ve all been around for a long time.
“We just have to work hard around changing people’s attitudes to taking drugs.”
And for those who think it can’t happen to their kids, or in their nice neighborhood street, Blackman has a blunt message.
“You’re absolutely kidding yourselves. But you, the community need to be our eyes and ears.
“We represent you, we investigate matters on your behalf in our community. Be vigilant about what is going on. If a house in your street is suddenly getting a lot of vehicular traffic for short periods of time, unexplained, or even out of the usual, report it. We all have a vested interest in that. If you’re aware that somebody is involved in the drug trade then put your hand up and be counted, anonymously or otherwise. Again, it’s those who sit back and say ‘well it’s not my business’ who are kidding themselves.”
Epidemic isn’t a word that sits comfortably with Dr Lee Nixon (pictured).
The addiction medicine specialist and director of the Involuntary Drug and Alcohol Treatment unit at Orange’s Bloomfield Hospital says the use of emotive terminology in discussions about the use of methamphetamines isn’t helping.
“Epidemic is a dangerous word. It suggests that everyone in the community is at risk, and I think that’s overstating the situation.”
Nixon is adamant that the whole debate needs an injection of perspective, and points a learned finger at society’s abuse of legal drugs. If you’re looking for a real baddie, he says, look no further than cigarettes.
“For a drug that causes death, nicotine is by far the most dangerous – it kills 15,000 or more Australians a year. If you’re looking for drugs that cause death, disability and distress, then alcohol comes way ahead of anything else.”
By comparison with booze, ice’s high profile of is all out of proportion according to the medico who has more than 20 years’ experience in the field of addiction treatment.
“Like alcohol, most people use methamphetamine recreationally without coming to a lot of harm. People who have a reason to get addicted – usually a combination of genetics or life experience – come to a lot of harm through the use of either alcohol or methamphetamine. For a small percentage of those people the doses build up and up until things become really chaotic.
“And those are the people who are capturing the attention of the public at the moment – they’re the face of the “epidemic”.
Nixon echoes Detective Inspector Rod Blackman’s assessment of the wax and wane cycle of illicit substances.
“Drugs become more or less popular, often because fashions change.
“At the moment we’re at a point where there’s a lot of methamphetamine around which ties in with a lot of young people’s view of the world, and certainly it’s being used quite a lot. So we would expect that the percentage of people who actually get into trouble will translate to a much larger number of people than in the past.
“If that’s an epidemic – then we’re having an epidemic.”
The rising hysteria about the “ice age” is more a product of visibility than any greater threat posed by this particular drug, he believes.
“The people who get addicted to ice are those who are most chaotic, and some of the people in that situation are at risk of developing drug induced psychosis. They’re the ones who feature in the news as the perpetrators of violence – they’re the ones who come to the attention of the public through usually psychotic related violence.”
But Nixon also sees the level of hyperbole surrounding ice as a result of a public preference for keeping horror at arm’s length.
“Ice is a “safe” thing to be concerned about. People don’t want to hear about the effects of alcohol because most people have a drink every so often – it hits too close to home. Whereas we can be horrified and self-righteous about something “they” do – “they” should do something about “them”.”
Still, the doctor is conscious of in any way dismissing the harmful potential of ice for both users and the communities in which they live.
“I don’t want to underplay the risks of ice. It’s a drug that can lead to huge distress and can often permanently damage people’s lives,” he says, conceding that an ice-induced psychosis is “more dramatic than with most other drugs”.
He goes through a litany of significant risks associated with ice, over and above the aforementioned psychosis.
“Things like blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and a predisposition to depression or other mental health disorders can be exacerbated by its use. People who inject ice also run an increased risk of contracting hepatitis-C – even more so than heroin users, because the injections tend to be more impulsive.
“Then there are all the other types of risk generally associated with using illicit substances and having to raise money you can’t afford – so people are often pushed into sex work or crime to support their habit, which leads variously to things like undiagnosed and untreated sexually transmitted disease, or to prison sentences. There are a raft of negative things that come with it, and I don’t want to underestimate the dangers of using ice.
“But we do need to keep perspective – alongside the fact that most people who are users don’t grow horns and a tail immediately and that there are worse drugs in regular use in our society.”
Asked to acknowledge that the use of illicit drugs is never a wise choice, Nixon chooses his words carefully.
“In the best of all worlds, yes, that’s true. The more potential vulnerabilities you have in your background, the later you start experimenting with any mind-altering substances the better. That includes alcohol.”