There is no doubt methamphetamine can cause harm, and no doubt most who work in drug policy aim to help drug users. But when politicians hijack drug issues and overplay them for political purposes, that too can cause harm.
The rhetoric coming from some of our federal political leaders about ice is disturbing and needs to be balanced with sensible evidence-based discussion about both the dangers of methamphetamine and the dangers of responding to this problem from a position of fear.
As Flinders University researcher Nicole Lee has made clear, there is no “ice epidemic” in Australia. According to the range of surveys conducted nationally, population prevalence of ice has not gone up. In fact, most surveys show it has gone down.
Ice is not our “nation’s addiction” as federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan claimed recently. Only a small proportion of Australians who use methamphetamines fall into a category of dependent users.
This is not to discount the fact that those who use methamphetamine are using the drug more frequently. Or that the emergence of a drug market dynamic increases the risk of harm.
Methamphetamine is not a “mind-eating” drug, as our illustrious minister of rhetoric, Keenan, has pronounced. Any drug at high doses will cause nerve damage; however, methamphetamine is as toxic to the brain as a wide range of other substances. Alcohol is a more worrying neurotoxin, which is used far more widely and at more hazardous levels.
One of the greatest harms that our politicians and community leaders can commit is to create fear about drug users based on reports of what a drug can do to people. In recent news reports ice users have been labelled as “aggressive zombies” and a range of other fearful terms.
What are the effects of fear?
My concern about this kind of rhetoric is three-fold. First, labelling drug users in this way creates fear and makes it more difficult for families to have open and honest discussions about a drug when so much fear is attached to it.
One of the best protective factors for preventing harmful drug use is having a supportive and well-informed family environment. Fear-mongering makes it more difficult for parents to have open and honest conversations with their children.
Judging from the discussions parents and friends are having with me, people are afraid and they are aware that fear-mongering simply makes it worse for people managing drug use in their family. This is especially the case for people in rural and regional communities, where the stigma of a drug-using child can have substantial ripple effects for the entire family.
Second, fear is a terrible basis on which to drive drug law. We learnt a powerful lesson from the way United States lawmakers in the 1980s introduced excessive mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offences. These sentences for crack possession were significantly harsher than sentences for possession of powder cocaine.
These laws were introduced in the erroneous belief that crack was more harmful than powder cocaine. The laws were repealed in 2010 and, 25 years later, the US prison system is still recovering from this dangerous example of drug laws made in an environment of fear.
Third, if a government goes over the top in its rhetoric about the harmfulness of drugs, it will be harder for the government to be taken seriously next time it faces a drug issue. Of particular concern is that every time a government makes an outlandish claim about the harmfulness of drugs in the absence of evidence, it reduces the capacity of future government campaigns to influence the public.
Many governments have learnt the hard way – through wasteful and expensive public information campaigns – that trying to shock the population with scary language and images does not resonate with the experience of drug users, rarely changes behaviour, nor improves family conversations about drugs.
A recent Victorian drug market analysis by Paul Dietze and colleagues at the Burnet Institute suggests that the price per pure gram of both ice and powder methamphetamine has dropped over the past few years.
The same research suggests also that the purity of methamphetamine fluctuates dramatically from around 10% to 80%, and that perhaps it is the fluctuations in the purity that may be causing the harmful effects among users.
The current evidence about the harmfulness of methamphetamine is not so much about ice, it’s about methamphetamine. It’s not about harm to the general community, it’s harm to a segment of the meth-using population who are using more frequently.
Mindful of this research, suitable responses should be focused on targeting existing methamphetamine users. Scare campaigns simply won’t work with this group, which leaves me wondering why the federal government is ramping up its rhetoric about ice.
Warnings of an “ice epidemic” carry their own harms. Our political and community leaders should be very wary of elevating fear. Although there are many unknowns in this difficult policy terrain, one thing we can be sure of is that elevating fear won’t help methamphetamine users.