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Is the 'ice epidemic' a media myth? A Northern Territory perspective

By Richard Midford, Matt Stevens and Jennifer Buckley - posted Thursday, 3 September 2015


Lurid headlines like 'Australia in grip of ice crisis' (SkyNews, 15 May 2015) and 'Ice - Australia's biggest drug threat' (Illawarra Mercury, 25 March 2015) suggest that Australia is in the grip of an escalating epidemic. This perception is reinforced by a federally funded television and online advertising campaign that depicts Ice users behaving violently in an emergency room, and in the family home. But, do these accounts represent the full story on the use of Ice in Australia and the Northern Territory, or is the truth rather less salacious?

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) and its predecessor the National Drug Household Survey (NDHS) provide information on long-term trends in the use of methamphetamine, of which Ice (crystal methamphetamine) is but one form. The graph of use derived from these surveys shows that figure for 'ever use' and 'use in the past 12 months' rose to their highest levels in the period 1998 to 2004 and subsequently dropped away.

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However, the form in which the drug was used did change between 2010 and 2013. Use of Speed (the powder form) dropped from 51% to 29%, whereas the use of Ice (the crystal form) increased from 22% to 50%. Even taking account of this increased preference for methamphetamine in the form of Ice, only about 1% of the population used it in the past 12 months.

Beyond the three-yearly national survey, there are two additional projects that monitor the use of illicit drugs: Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) and the Ecstacy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS). DUMA reports on drug use among police detainees, and their recent report indicated that the use of all amphetamines, including Ice, increased from 24% in 2011/12 to 37% 2013/14. This is a substantial increase, but the current rate is only marginally above the 35% level of detainee use in both 2003 and 2004. The presumption is that Ice contributed to this increased level of use, but this cannot be determined from the report. Another consideration is that the mix of police detainees in the study is partly a reflection of police arrest priorities: if police target amphetamine users then the percentage of detainees who test positive for these drugs will go up.

The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System provides more precise information on the use of Ice. This project collates information annually from regular psychostimulant users, from key experts who have regular contact with these users, and from a range of indicator data. One of its aims is to identify emerging trends in the use of psychostimulants, including Ice, so it should provide an early indication of any trend towards increased use.

The above graph of recent (past six months) methamphetamine use by regular users is from the latest EDRS report. It indicates very clearly that use of methamphetamine in any form, including Ice, has gone down substantially in the 12 years to 2014. A breakdown of these data by state and territory indicates that 27% of regular users in the Northern Territory had used Ice recently, compared to 20% nationally. The only jurisdiction with a higher proportion of regular users was Victoria, with 34%. Within this downward national trend the Northern Territory does have a proportionately greater problem of regular use, which is likely due in part to the younger average age of Territorians and the greater proportion of males.

So, is Australia - and the Northern Territory more specifically - in the midst of an Ice epidemic? The data would suggest otherwise, and there is a real danger that the media will create unwarranted public fear by continuing to sensationalise the problem. This concern is compounded by media stories that characterise Ice users as unpredictable and violent. This is true of some individuals under certain circumstances, but generalising to users as a whole has no basis in fact. Moreover, the associated stigma caused by this style of reporting is likely to be an obstacle to engagement and rehabilitation.

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Finally, it is important to give a sense of proportion to the problems created by Ice. If you look at harms caused to individuals, families and communities by drugs, the standout offender is alcohol, rather than Ice. A recent study, 'Alcohol's burden of disease in Australia' reports that in Australia, in 2010 5,555 deaths and 157,132 hospitalisations were attributable to alcohol. The jurisdiction with the highest proportion of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalisations was the NT. Here, deaths were approximately three times higher than the national average, and hospitalisations were 50% higher. In contrast, a national study of drug-induced deaths reported that methamphetamine-related deaths totalled 88 in 2010 and 101 in 2011 (National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, 2015). For every hospitalisation in 2012/13 linked to stimulant use there were 25 alcohol-related hospitalisations. (National Centre for Education and Training, 2015)

In summary, there is some evidence that the use of Ice is increasing, as there is some evidence that it is not. However even selective interpretation of the available evidence does not support characterising the problem as an epidemic. It is seductive to sensationalise drug use and demonise drug users, and this doubtless sells more newspapers. But if the media is to contribute to a constructive, balanced discussion of Ice use, then its coverage needs to be informed by the full range of evidence.

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About the Authors

Richard Midford is Professor of Health in Education, in a joint appointment between Charles Darwin University and the Menzies School of Health Research. His research focuses on social and emotional wellbeing, how alcohol and drug harm prevention programs can be developed in partnership with local communities, prevention in workplace settings and development of effective school drug education.

Matt Stevens is a Senior Research Fellow at Menzies School of Health Research, Charles Darwin University. He is a trained statistician and multidisciplinary researcher. His main area of research is in the social determinants of health, with a focus on public health approaches to addictive behaviours.

Jennifer Buckley is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Menzies School of Health Research, Charles Darwin University. She is a multi-disciplinary researcher with a strong focus on Indigenous health. Her main areas of research include suicide prevention, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and alcohol management.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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