News & Events

An Ice Epidemic

19 Dec 2014


By James A Pitts, Chief Executive Officer, Odyssey House McGrath Foundation

There is no doubt ice (crystal methamphetamine) poses a serious problem.

Misuse of any amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) is dangerous, but ice is more potent in its action on the central nervous system, more addictive, and has more serious physical and mental health effects, particularly when used regularly, in large quantities or over a long period. At its worst, ice can cause users to behave aggressively and violently, or experience anxious or paranoid thoughts, hallucinations or even psychosis, such as thinking people are out to get them or there are bugs crawling under their skin.

Amphetamine addiction has surged by 21 per cent to become the leading problem for a record four in ten people seeking treatment for alcohol and other drug dependence, according to the 2014 Odyssey House Annual Report. Forty per cent of clients entering our residential rehabilitation program during the financial year cited ATS such as ice, base or speed as their principal drug of concern, up from 33 per cent in 2013.

This is the highest figure for amphetamine dependence ever recorded at Odyssey House, far outstripping other illicit drugs such as heroin/opiates (11 per cent of admissions in 2014, down 42% from 2013) or cannabis (14% of admissions, down 17.6%).

However, we don’t have an “epidemic” of ice.

An epidemic is defined as “the occurrence in a community or region of cases of an illness, specific health-related behavior, or other health-related events clearly in excess of normal expectancy”, according to A Dictionary of Epidemiology.

But what we are seeing is not “in excess of normal expectancy”.

Recent high-profile drug seizures, increased arrests for amphetamine possession and use, and media headlines and commentary on the “scourge of ice” all paint a distorted – and unhelpful picture – of reality.

In fact, the increased numbers of amphetamine-dependent people seeking help from Odyssey House reflects the growing prevalence and use of ice as the “amphetamine of choice” in the community. In other words, amphetamine usage habits are changing among existing drug users, who might previously have used speed or heroin. Harms due to the more addictive and potent effects of ice are increasing and people are seeking treatment accordingly. But we’re not seeing a significant increase in ice use among people who have never used drugs, despite what is implied by the hysteria.

The latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey shows the proportion of Australians using meth/amphetamine is stable. In 2010 and in 2013, 2.1 per cent of people reported using meth/amphetamine in the 12 months preceding the survey. About 7.0 per cent of people had used meth/amphetamines in their lifetime in 2013, compared to 6.8 per cent in 2010.

Among those who had used meth/amphetamine in the past 12 months, use of ice more than doubled from 22 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2013, while use of powder such as speed dropped from 51 per cent to 29 per cent. The survey also showed meth/amphetamine use is becoming more frequent, which increases the health risks. The proportion of meth/amphetamine users using it daily or weekly rose from 9.3 per cent in 2010 to 15.5 per cent in 2013, and 32 per cent used it at least once a month. People who mainly used ice were far more likely to use it on a regular basis with a quarter (25%) using it daily or weekly (up from 12.4%) compared with only 2.2 per cent of those who mainly used powder, according to the survey.

The unfortunate reality is there will always be a small percentage of people who misuse drugs and become dependent (no one chooses to become addicted). People’s life problems stay the same; it’s the drugs they use that change. What’s happening now is that illicit drug users are more likely to use ice.

Which drugs are most prevalent in the community is often due to supply and demand. It’s no coincidence that as heroin use has declined, amphetamine use has increased. In 2003, 45 per cent of Odyssey House clients were admitted with opiate dependence and 15 per cent for amphetamine dependence. Now, in 2014, admissions for heroin are at their lowest ever (11%), while amphetamines are at their highest (40%).

Seeking help for amphetamine dependence

It’s important to remember someone can have a serious amphetamine addiction and still function well and appear relatively normal.

Not everyone with a drug problem is climbing the walls, acting aggressively or picking their skin. This unhelpful stereotype may discourage people from seeking assistance because of the stigma involved; some may even feel they are not worthy or deserving of recovery. Others may not believe they have a problem or think their drug use is not serious enough to warrant treatment.

You have a problem when your drug use is taking over your life and adversely affecting you and others, when you feel you need alcohol or other drugs just to function and you’re more focused on using and perhaps hiding your addiction than on working, studying, enjoying hobbies, being with family and friends. That’s when you need help.

The good news among all the hype is that dependence on amphetamine-type stimulants can be treated successfully.

Our staff are specially trained to deal with the challenges posed by ATS users, who may initially exhibit challenging behaviours and may have mental health problems that underlie their drug use, are caused by their drug use, and/or are brought on by withdrawal. The first 12 weeks in treatment can be particularly difficult, which is why long-term residential therapy is recommended for many people with serious or long-standing addiction issues.

So, the facts about ice support the existence of a growing and serious problem, but they do not support an “epidemic”. We should not to allow methamphetamine use to displace concern for other forms of drug use, particularly alcohol, which causes more harm and costs individuals, the community and government far more than illicit drugs.

Regardless of which drugs are most prevalent or generating the most headlines, it’s important that professional help is available from services such as Odyssey House to assist affected people and their families overcome their dependence and live healthy, happy, productive lives.