Breaking the ice
Methamphetamines, specifically the crystallised form commonly known as ice, has received a lot of attention recently, due to the spike in its use and the harmful effects it has on its users. But how widespread is the problem? And what can we do to stop it?
I have a confession to make. I have never done drugs, not even a cheeky puff of a cigarette.
To many that may seem too straight-edged to have lived life, and to admit there have been times as I’ve grown older that I seemingly regret not even trying, just to know what it is like.
But in the back of my mind there was always that voice, ‘What if you get addicted?’ and even if I wanted to, I would not have even known who or where to get drugs from.
Doctor Don Spencer, clinical director of the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service’s Alcohol and Other Drug Service says methamphetamine use in Australia peaked in the late 1990s and has been slowly declining since, stabilising over the last six or seven years.
“But the issue with the whole ice thing and why people are concerned, is the crystal form of methamphetamine is starting to dominate the market,” he says, explaining that the use of the powdered form, aka speed, halved from 42 per cent in 2010 to 21 per cent in 2013, and crystal methamphetamine use more than doubled from 20 per cent to 46 per cent.
“Most of what’s around is crystal methamphetamine, which is more pure than it’s ever been and it is used predominantly through smoking and also by injecting.
“So what you’ve got is people using a much higher potency drug and they’re using through a mechanism which means it gets into their brain much faster and therefore they’re more likely to get intoxicated, behave badly and cause grief.
“So even if you’ve got relatively small numbers of people using, which there are, they tend to cause a lot of problems and are very obvious, people can see it, especially in small communities.
I think that’s the issue, that’s why it’s perceived as being an epidemic. It’s not an epidemic if you look at the numbers, but it may be an epidemic if you look at the impact that it has on communities and families who put up with this thing on a regular basis.
“The evidence here in Queensland is it’s more problematic in rural and remote areas than it is in the city, which is interesting.”
The recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which is a self-reporting survey carried out every three years, indicates an increase in the number of people who are using very frequently (weekly or more often), making up 0.4 percent of the population aged 14 and over.
“It’s a small percentage, but the numbers are pretty irrelevant if you look at what damage is being done,” Don says.
“Generally speaking, drugs move in fashions, just like everything else, so what we’re seeing in Australia is young people are tending to use alcohol less and cannabis less, but getting more into the psycho stimulants, which include amphetamines and amphetamine-type drugs like ecstasy and many of these new novel psycho ephedrine substances.
“They’re the sort of drugs young people want to experiment with, and they tend to use them in a recreational way. It’s fairly available and even though the price appears to have gone up, purity has gone up even more quickly, so the price per gram has dropped. If you went back 10 years ago, most of the methamphetamine around was 20 per cent pure, now it’s 70 per cent or more.”
In 2015 the Federal Government compiled a report looking at crystal methamphetamine use and its problems. From that came the National Drug Strategy which hands out $298 million nationwide in funding packages from 1 July, 2016 to 2020.
Here in Queensland, $43 million has been allocated for alcohol and drug services. This has seen the formation of the Sunshine Coast and Gympie Alcohol and Drug Alliance, made up of a mix of government and non-government service providers on the frontline.
Through the alliance, drug-dependant users have access to preventative strategies, as well as educational and family support services.
Methamphetamine is a drug, a stimulant that is part of the amphetamine group often manufactured from common pharmaceuticals and readily-available household chemicals. It has the effect of speeding up the function of the brain and nervous system.
There are three main forms of methamphetamine:
ICE: commonly describes the crystalline form of methamphetamine. It is usually smoked or injected.
BASE: a damp or oily substance and typically white, yellow or brown in colour. This form of methamphetamine is typically injected or swallowed.
POWDER: a white or off-white powder that is also known as ‘speed.’ It can be snorted, injected or swallowed.
Methamphetamine can also come in pill form. Variations in the chemical structure of methamphetamine also produce other drugs, such as methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or ecstasy.
If you need help, call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service 1800 177 833
Who does the Alcohol and Other Drug Service help?
Don: We get referrals of all types, but tend to concentrate on people who are more at the severe end of the spectrum and are likely to need intensive input and probably some sort of pharmacotherapy, some medication. Over half are self referrals.
We are what would have been called the methadone clinic, but we now call it the Queensland Opiate Treatment Program – it’s pharmacotherapy for people who are opiate dependent who voluntarily choose to do something about that. It’s the bulk of our work.
Then we have the non-opiate group for whom we provide community-based counselling and support services. For us, that’s predominantly alcohol.
Excluding the opiate referrals, 65 per cent of our referrals are about alcohol, about eight per cent are methamphetamine, eight per cent other stimulants, 12 per cent cannabis and then you’ve got sedatives and other prescribed drugs.