Friday, 10 April 2015

"They're all on ice!": Is it really being used by everyone, everywhere and the 'root of all evil'?

Earlier this week Prime Minister Tony Abbott launched a new task force aimed at tackling "the growing scourge of ice," and was quoted as saying that "it's far more potent, far more dangerous, far more addictive than any previous illicit drug." He then went onto state that "... this is a drug epidemic way beyond anything that we have seen before."

Now I'm not going to dispute that methamphetamine is a serious issue in this country (I have already written a number of blogs on the topic including one earlier this year discussing a Herald Sun story called 'Ice Hits Schools' and another attempting to explain why this drug is so problematic) but we are now moving into a ridiculous situation which is bordering on moral panic!

We've seen the tabloid press go into overdrive on this issue. We've seen stories about footballers in regional Victoria using ice to "feel like Superman as they run out onto the field", "dealers giving out free samples to kids" in Moree, and even babysitters in Darwin being paid for their services with the drug! I'm not saying that there may not be an element of truth to some of these stories but I think the media really does need more evidence than "I've heard from people on the street ..." before making some of the claims that we've recently seen. It is not surprising then that many of the people I meet when I travel around the country are convinced that ice is being used by a huge proportion of the population, is absolutely everywhere and is incredibly cheap and causes otherwise law-abiding people to commit a range of crimes from burglary to murder.

I've really been debating whether to share the following story - it's most probably the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me - but it clearly illustrates a growing issue that I believe we need to start acknowledging ...

Recently I was asked to do an interview with SBS TV for their nightly news program - I agreed and arranged to meet the reporter and cameraman at the entrance to a park near my home. I live in inner-city Sydney and have done for almost 25 years. I'm always careful and have never really ever encountered a problem. I walked over to the park a few minutes early and stood and waited.

When I saw the man walk across the road at the lights I knew he was going to be trouble. Ignoring the oncoming traffic he stepped out in front of a car onto the road, slamming his hand onto the bonnet when the driver pulled up to avoid hitting him. For no apparent reason he then hurled abuse at a woman on the other side of the road. 

I followed the advice I give to young people in a school setting and watched where he was going in my peripheral vision but avoided any eye contact, hoping he would just keep walking. He didn't - he walked straight towards me shaking his clenched fist demanding to know what I was doing. He accused me of waiting to do a drug deal and wanted to know what drugs I had on me. I used every method I knew of to try to 'talk him down' - I didn't argue with him, I lowered my voice and tried to slowly move away from him but he had me pushed up to a fence and one fist centimetres up against my chin. I always say to young people, if in doubt - run away, but I couldn't even do that unless I physically pushed him and I truly believed at the time that that could have even matters worse. I was terrified! 

Amazingly I did manage to keep quite calm and kept repeating that I was waiting to do a TV interview and that the crew was on their way. Finally he dropped his fist and took a step back which gave me the opportunity to make a move away from the fence. I spotted the reporter (who had just pulled up in a car) and walked towards her asking her to get back into the car as quickly as possible. The man was following me and was becoming more agitated - she could obviously see the fear on my face and jumped back into the car and opened the door for me. I jumped in and locked the door just as the man smashed his hands onto the roof.

After the interview ended I went to the local police station to report what had happened. The police officer listened to my story, asked a few questions and took a few notes and then finished the discussion with the statement "They're all on ice in this area ...!"

Now the only part of this story that I haven't mentioned is that the man wreaked of alcohol. His face was only centimetres away from mine - he was drunk! Could he have been on ice? Absolutely, but how in the world would this police officer have known whether he was or wasn't? It was also highly likely that the man had significant mental health problems - he was obviously drunk but were there other issues at play as well? When I spoke to the officer I had made it very clear that the smell of alcohol was very obvious but that had been totally disregarded - it had to be ice - they're all on ice!

So what's my point?

Once the media has latched onto a drug issue they flog it to death - they did it with heroin in the 90s and they're doing it now. They focus on one substance and just don't acknowledge that there are usually other drugs in the mix. There are very few drug users who use one substance exclusively - they use them in combination. This is called polydrug use. It's so easy to explain unacceptable or bizarre behaviour by saying "they're on ice", but have they taken anything else (e.g., have they been drinking?) or could they have pre-existing mental health problems? No, we're simplifying complex problems down to a nice sound-bite - "they're on ice." Sadly, the result of this is that we're starting to see something I predicted a year or two ago - the use of an 'ice defense' in court cases, i.e., "the ice made me do it!"

As I see it, the major problem with how we're talking about methamphetamine or ice at the moment is that very few people are providing a context when they talk about the drug. We're hearing stories of individuals and communities that are being adversely affected by ice use but these are not told in the context of the wider population, i.e., methamphetamine use actually appears to be steady according to the national data that we have. The latest data doesn't support that there is use is 'spiralling out of control'! By all means talk about the problem (I'm not saying that there isn't one) but at the same time it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of the population (93% according to the latest NDSHS) have not used this drug and aren't likely to in the future. The press conference that we saw yesterday did nothing but terrify people - as much as there should be an acknowledgment of the problem, some words of assurance would have been helpful.

It's going to be interesting to see what actually comes out of the PM's task force. I hope we just don't see another mass media campaign telling us how scary ice is (I think most people, even the users of the drug know that!) - instead, we need to identify why certain communities have been devastated by this drug (usually those with high unemployment and a range of social issues - much like the American towns that experienced similar problems with 'meth' in the 90s) and then attempt to respond as best as we can. I know it sounds cynical but it's much easier for a minister to do a media event and announce the roll-out of another television advertisement, launch an accompanying website and associated material rather than actually try to really deal with the problem, i.e., provide such communities with the support they need to help solve a range of long-term social issues that often leads to problematic drug use ...

2 comments:

  1. I would like to see more money put into treatment services for all alcohol & drugs and money for effective treatments for psycho stimulants. Paul is right. Improving the social disadvantage would help with the D&A problems in the community. I did notice however there were a much high percentage of meth users on the Gold Coast when I was working on a homeless team than the 3.5% reported

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  2. Thanks for your information, it really very helpful.. illegal drug stats

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