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‘Ice Wars’ message is overblown and unhelpful


New ABC TV documentary Ice Wars shows the dark side of crystal methamphetamine use – but it’s not the whole story and will likely only fuel fear and stigma, writes Professor Nicole Lee.

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Without doubt, crystal methamphetamine, or ice, is capable of causing immense harm. That’s true for many drugs, including alcohol.

But when facts are distorted to create fear and stigma, it helps no one. Not the people who use ice. Not their families. Not the health professionals supporting them. Not the police who enforce drug law.

Ice Wars, currently airing on ABC, shows the dark side of crystal methamphetamine use. It shows the great, but difficult work that police, mental health and substance use treatment professionals do every day.

It carefully explains some of the commonly misunderstood effects of the drug. It shows the breadth of the ice problem across police, treatment services and individuals. And it shows how people are suffering and the compassionate response that is possible from health workers and police.

There’s no ‘ice epidemic’

Most of what is reported in this four-part documentary is not incorrect, but it lacks nuance and context.

It makes entertaining television, but it contains the type of sensational language that can create community fears, leading to the stigmatisation of people who use drugs and knee-jerk responses from policymakers.

We are not “under siege”, or “at war” with ice. There is no ice epidemic. Ice is not “tearing apart the fabric of our community”.

Crystal methamphetamine, commonly known as “ice”, is one form of methamphetamine. The other main form is a powder, commonly known as “speed”. They are the same chemical, but ice is more pure and therefore much stronger.

We have seen a consistent decrease over the last 15 years in the percentage of the population using methamphetamine, but a large proportion of the group who previously used speed are now using ice. From our best available data, 2.1 per cent of Australians over 14 years have used methamphetamine in the last year and about half of those prefer ice over speed.

It’s close to the truth that 1.3 million people have tried crystal methamphetamine – the figure is probably more like 850,000. It sounds like a lot of people, but it’s around 5 per cent of the population over 14 years old.

The vast majority of these people have tried the drug not more than a handful of times and are not regular users. Around 1 per cent of the Australian population have used ice in the past year. Around three-quarters of that 1 per cent have used not more than 12 times in the past year. That means only 0.25 per cent of the population use more than once a month.

Yes, there is an increased risk of psychosis among people who use methamphetamine, but 75 per cent of people who use it regularly never have any type of psychotic experience. Yes, there is an increased risk of agitation, aggression and violence among people who use methamphetamine, but 75 per cent of people who use it regularly never become aggressive while using it.

Clearly, ice is capable of causing significant harm to the person using it and to others, and significant distress to their families and friends. It’s a drug that when it is bad, it can be very bad.

But we already know the best, most cost-effective way to reduce drug use in the community is to reduce demand through effective treatment. Interventions as brief as two sessionscounselling and longer-term rehabilitation are all effective, and people who use methamphetamine do as well, or better, in treatment than people who use other drugs.

Fear and stigma help no-one

There is one significant thing we have learned from hundreds of sessions of community education, thousands of hours of worker training and many sessions of treatment with people who use ice and their families: it is counter-productive and distressing for people who are affected when the media makes exaggerated negative claims, showing only the ugly side of drug use.

One of the greatest harms to people who use drugs is the fear and stigma generated by exaggerated images, out-of-context “facts”, and name calling – “monsters”, “junkies”, “addicts”, “zombies”.

We see it every day – fear drives good people to lock their doors and close their hearts. Families and individuals become isolated as a result, and communities cast out those who need to be pulled closer.

Our research has found it takes on average five years for someone to access treatment after they first experience problems with methamphetamine. We know the earlier someone gets treatment, the better the outcomes.

Continued stigmatisation of people who use ice and their families only serves to prolong the time to treatment by making it less likely those who need help will ask for it.

Fear and stigma also make it hard for families to have an open discussion about drugs, which is crucial in prevention efforts. Talking early and openly about drugs in an age-appropriate way is one of the best protective factors for kids.

Fear messages don’t work on young people, and they don’t work on the people at highest risk of using. They just make those who would probably never try the drug more determined not to. Sometimes these approaches can even increase young people’s interest in using. Kids see the world differently from adults. When we use scare tactics on kids, if it doesn’t fall within their sphere of experience they switch off.

Fear drives poor policy, policy that focuses on “crackdowns”, “zero tolerance” and scare campaigns. None of these things is effective. We know what reduces drug related harms in the community is a focus on support, on keeping people alive and on access to treatment.

So watch Ice Wars with interest. But question, reflect, look for the good news. Remember it’s not the whole story.

And know the people who use methamphetamine and their families are, first and foremost, people. Compassion and a clear head is going to solve this problem. Not fear and stigma.

Annie Bleeker from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation co-authored this article. Nicole Lee is Professor at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University and a practising psychologist who has worked in the alcohol and drug and mental health fields for 25 years as clinician, trainer, researcher and manager. Professor Lee is a member of AOD Media Watch, a site that monitors reporting on alcohol and other drug issues in the media, and was interviewed for Ice Wars.

The article was first published on The Conversation.

Ice Wars screens on ABC on Tuesdays at 8.30pm, with the third episode on February 21. Past episodes are available on iView.

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