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On thin ‘ice’

Are we in the midst of an ice epidemic? Was the Prime Minister correct to say, when launching the National Ice Taskforce, that ice (methamphetamine) is our “worst drug problem” that it’s a “pernicious and evil” drug, and is “far more addictive than any other illicit drug”?

Or is this another cycle of drug alarm and groupthink? Recall, “reefer madness”, the “killer weed”, “the next crack cocaine”, “the meth mouth”, “the faces of meth” and “hashish assassins” ad infinitum.

On 8 April, Leigh Sales introduced the ABC 7.30 Report saying: “Revelations of ice use and suicide in the Australian Navy have shocked the Defence establishment and Australia’s political leaders.” This followed the previous night’s tragic report by Louise Milligan of nine suicides of young sailors at the West Australian naval base, HMAS Stirling.

No doubt, these perplexing and disturbing events demand reflection on the underlying causes of mental distress and suicide. But these important questions were conflated with “ice”, a spin-off from the PM’s announcement of the task force.

Next day, on Radio National’s AM program, Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, himself a military veteran, was interviewed about the parliamentary inquiry he had instigated into mental health in the military community. Again “ice” was dragged to centre stage, not by the Senator but by Fran Kelly, the interviewer. Other media have been even more caught up in the “ice” frenzy.

But where do the amphetamines, methamphetamine, stand in relation to alcohol?

The population prevalence rate of methamphetamine use in 12 months is 2-3 per cent compared with the 83 per cent for alcohol.

Alcohol use disorders occur at 15-20 times the rate of methamphetamine disorders.

For every methamphetamine-related death there are 65 alcohol-related deaths; for every emergency presentation there are 30 alcohol-related presentations; for every ambulance emergency call-out there are 25 alcohol-related call-outs.

Many suicides are underpinned by illicit drug use, including methamphetamine, but alcohol intoxication and dependence is a far more potent factor in suicide worldwide. Of attempted suicides presenting to hospitals, 50 to 80 per cent had been drinking heavily or were intoxicated at the time and at post mortem alcohol is the drug most commonly found.

I am not disputing that amphetamine drugs are harmful. They can cause psychotic disturbances; about one in seven admissions for schizophrenia have a concurrent stimulant disorder. They cause anxiety, aggression and depression, on withdrawal, as well as affecting the cardiovascular system. But these are features too of alcohol intoxication and dependence as well as there being a veritable textbook of alcohol-caused mental and physical conditions and harm to others.

Policing and law enforcement are important especially to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable people. They can’t solve the “ice epidemic” despite the current wave of interdictions and arrests. Community-based solutions are needed – supports for families and children, educational and work opportunities for young people, early intervention and prevention, access to primary care interventions and to treatment and rehabilitation services; none of which are given priority compared with resources devoted to law enforcement.

Notwithstanding the need for action on illicit drugs, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from the larger and more pressing problem: alcohol and its associated harms. Not by the media eager to sensationalise every story and not by political leaders, driven to distract us in order to control the next news cycle.

This is an abridged version of a post which first appeared on John Menadue’s blog ‘Pearls and Irritations’.

Ian Webster

Ian was the FARE Chair from 2001 to 2009. He is a consultant and Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine of the University of New South Wales. He is Patron of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, Chair of the Australian Suicide Prevention Advisory Council, NSW Expert Advisory Committee on Alcohol and Drugs, and Governing Council of The Ted Noffs Foundation.


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