“There is no ice epidemic,” says Associate Professor Lee, from Flinders University’s National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction. “Although the number of people who use ice has doubled in the last few years, it is still only 1% of the population and is primarily existing users of methamphetamine switching from the powdered form ‘speed’ to the crystal form ‘ice’.
“Oversimplification of the issue has stigmatised users and diverted attention from real solutions to the so called Australian ‘ice epidemic’.”
Associate Professor Nicole Lee also says the current war on drugs approach is not the answer and that the tsunami of negative publicity about the drug only serves to marginalise users and prevent effective responses.
“Two percent of the population has used methamphetamine in the last 12 months – a figure that has not increased in the last 15 years – and about half of those users use ice as their main form,” she says.
“They are the same drug, but ice is stronger. It’s a bit like the difference between drinking light beer and spirits. Most users of methamphetamine, around 70%, use less than once a month.
“They don’t identify with the extreme images we are seeing in the media and are likely to ignore any messages presented that way. Harm reduction messages to prevent overdose and acute harms are most important for this group.
“It just isn’t the case that everyone that uses methamphetamine is addicted to it. We think about 10-15% of people who use methamphetamine will become dependent on it, which is similar to cannabis. But for those who do become addicted to the drug, it’s very hard to get off it.”
According to Associate Professor Lee, methamphetamine causes significant damage to the brain that results in a long recovery period and a high relapse rate.
“Methamphetamine releases huge amounts of dopamine – some estimates are 1,200% on baseline levels,” she says. “Dopamine is the pleasure chemical in our brain, but high levels are associated with psychosis and low levels are associated with depression – the two most common mental health problems among methamphetamine users.
“We also need dopamine for parts of our brain we use for thinking, planning, decision making, concentration, memory and emotional control.
“The damage to these systems is not permanent but it does last a long time. It can take 12-18 months for the brain to get back to normal levels, and in the first 6 months people who quit can feel worse than those who are still using.
“The road to recovery is a long one with about 80% of people who try to quit relapsing within one year.”
While South Australia is leading the way by providing treatment for more of its meth users than any other state (27%), Associate Professor Lee said that without significant injection of resources into the treatment sector, we could see a worsening of the problem.
She said that although no medicine is available to treatment methamphetamine dependence, very effective psychological treatments were available, but that services are unsure how to implement them.
“The sector is chronically underfunded already, with services recently cut further,” says Associate Professor Lee.
“Investing in early intervention, specialist treatment and post-treatment aftercare is the key to dealing effectively with the current ice problem.”
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