Ice Addiction in Australia

More Treatment Options and Less Stigma Could Ease Australia’s Ice Epidemic

Ice addiction among Australians is reaching epidemic proportions and taking a devastating toll on its users, as well as their families and communities. The need for ice addiction treatment and rehab facilities is urgent, and law enforcement and health agencies are struggling to meet the demand for resources to cope with the crisis.

Ice’s Devastating Impact on Australian Society

The Guardian recently reported that ice is the most-consumed illicit drug in Australia, with over 8 tonnes ingested between August 2016 and August 2017: more than all other hard drugs combined. Commonwealth-funded task force Cracks in the Ice reports that one in 70 Australians has used methamphetamines in the past year, and 6.3 percent of Australians over the age of 14 have used the drug in their lifetime. Ice is quickly becoming the drug of choice for habitual meth users, with a 7 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 in those who reported it as their drug of choice.

Children as young as 13 are using ice, falling victim to intergenerational drug use. And the damage that ice causes to small communities is clearly illustrated in remote areas of Australia where illegal drugs were once uncommon – in recent years, methamphetamine use in small Australian communities has climbed to 2.5 times that of large cities.

Rural Victoria’s ice problem is an example of how the drug has torn communities apart: ABC reports that ten years ago, Victoria police reported just 135 ice possession busts; that number has climbed to 6,000 this past year. Relatives of addicts are afraid to leave their houses, and those who attempt to address the problem by setting up treatment facilities are the object of anger for attracting addicts to their small towns.

But the stigma around ice use is a barrier that prevents addicts from seeking addiction treatment in Australia. In addition to packed facilities, people struggling with addiction must contend with societal attitudes that label them as weak, lazy and bad people who don’t deserve compassion. Ice addicts in Australia wait an average of ten years to get help. During that decade, they struggle through their daily tasks, which puts all Australians at risk. A recent study by SafeWorks Laboratories found that 240,000 workers in Australia attended work high on ice in 2017, some of whom work in safety-sensitive fields. Workers interviewed recall smoking ice on breaks to stay awake and trying to hide symptoms like paranoia and a lack of concentration.

How Did We Get Here?

The spread of ice in Australia has been fuelled by geopolitical and national factors. Drug distribution routes are becoming increasingly global in nature, and most ice on today’s Australian market originates in China, where it’s manufactured on a large scale and shipped through other Asia-Pacific countries. To a lesser extent, it’s also manufactured in clandestine laboratories known as “clan labs” domestically by motorcycle gangs and other criminal networks, then distributed to remote communities via Australia’s large network of deserted roads, which have earned the name “ice highways.” As such, regional communities seem to be the hardest hit – evidenced by the fact that rates of ice abuse in Western Australia are higher than the national average.

Australia’s History of Methamphetamine Addiction

Meth has been around in various forms since 1893, and was used widely by German forces in World War II to promote wakefulness and productivity. Pills containing methamphetamine were popular in the 1950s and 1960s to aid in weight control and depression, but due to its addictive properties, it’s now a controlled substance in many countries. Only one major pharmaceutical drug containing methamphetamine (Desoxyn) is currently manufactured; it’s used to treat ADHD and obesity.

Ice, also known as crystal meth, was first produced in the late 1970s. Because it’s easy and cheap to produce, criminal organizations increasingly chose to manufacture crystal meth in the 1980s, and production has only increased since. And though meth is easy to produce, because of its combination of highly volatile chemicals, meth labs are at a high risk of exploding. Street meth is particularly dangerous for drug users because the chemicals it contains vary widely, making it impossible to reliably measure its purity and strength.

The Cruel Cycle of Meth Abuse

Meth is most often heated up and smoked using a pipe, but it can also be snorted, injected, or taken in pill form. It provides a quick rush followed by an intense high, but its effects fade within four to 16 hours. Meth users will often binge on the drug, using it continuously for up to 16 days, until they no longer get a rush from the doses.

When users have binged to the point of no longer being able to experience a high, they will enter a phase called “tweaking.” During the tweaking phase, users feel empty and lose their sense of self. They perceive things that aren’t there, including bugs under their skin, which leads to uncontrollable scratching and self-mutilation. Users in this phase are often in a psychotic state characterized by sleeplessness and aggression.

After tweaking (which can last for days), users crash and become immobile. They enter into a deep sleep and wake up days later in the grips of a severe hangover. Exhaustion, dehydration and the need to relieve the symptoms in any way possible often lead to another meth binge.

If someone who has formed a dependency stops using, meth withdrawals will begin to set in. Withdrawal symptoms include intense cravings, the inability to experience pleasure and suicidal thoughts. Needless to say, this process is agonizing, which is why many habitual users turn to using again to relieve their pain. Meth addiction is an extremely difficult cycle to break, characterised by painful episodes that further incite the addict to continue using.

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Meth Use

Physiologically, a meth high results in rapid heart rate, loss of appetite, increased blood pressure, overheating, twitching and dilated pupils. Meth users experience an immediate rush upon consuming the drug. A person who is high on meth will feel more confident, powerful and energetic as dopamine floods the pleasure centres of their brain. Some users feel intense euphoria, while others are removed from their emotions.

A person who is high on meth often believes that they are smarter or more productive than others, which leads to aggressive and argumentative behaviour. Meth users can become paranoid and distance themselves from friends and family for long periods of time. While the behavioural effects of meth ultimately depend on the individual, most addicts in the throes of a high lose their grasp on reality and become unaware of how others perceive them.

The mid- to long-term effects of meth use are harrowing. Common signs that a loved one’s meth addiction is spiralling out of control include “meth sores” from picking at imaginary bugs on the skin, rapid weight loss, tooth decay, erratic sleeping patterns and hygiene and personal care issues. Meth use also makes mental health conditions like depression and anxiety much worse, and suicidal impulses among active and recovering meth users are common.

Prolonged meth use causes visible aging, and this process is mirrored within the body. Common ailments among heavy meth users include disease of the brain, heart or lungs; damaged blood vessels and permanent psychological impairment. Additionally, meth users are at risk of contracting HIV and Hepatitis B or C because of the risky behaviours meth fuels.

Long-time meth use also results in financial instability as addicts lose their jobs and attempt to procure the drug by any means necessary, including selling possessions or performing sex work. Some users will even offer up their houses as meth labs in a pinch, which makes homes permanently inhabitable and could result in deadly explosions.

Ice Overdose is a Constant Concern

In addition to all the shattering effects of meth abuse, addicts are also at a high risk of overdose. Because meth is made by many different suppliers using different materials, potency can vary, so users are never quite sure what they’re getting. The most common cause of death in relation to a meth overdose is heat stroke, causing organs to fail. Heart attack and strokes are also significant risks, as is liver failure and haemorrhage.

There is no pharmaceutical antidote, so the best thing to do is to call 911 if you suspect an overdose. Common signs to looks for include seizures, paranoia, trouble breathing, loss of consciousness, agitation and chest pain. If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, seek emergency care immediately.

How Can Ice Addiction be Effectively Treated?

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of ice addiction is the intense stigma that surrounds it. More public awareness campaigns are needed to change societal attitudes, and addicts need to know that there is no shame in seeking treatment.

Addiction is an incredibly isolating experience, which is why inpatient treatment for ice addicts has shown the best record of success. With inpatient treatment, those struggling with addiction can find a supportive community with other recovering addicts, and discuss their experiences in a safe space.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based method of treatment for ice addiction. CBT helps patients learn to replace negative thought patterns with positive behaviours and coping strategies, and identify the source of their negative beliefs.

Getting the Help You Need

If your loved one is coping with an ice addiction, the most important thing you can do is encourage them to seek treatment. In some cases, you can consider arranging an assisted intervention. A counsellor can meet with your family and then speak with the addict, attempting to get them to agree to treatment. Regardless of the level of involvement you choose to have with your addicted loved one, it’s important that you take care of yourself and your family by consistently attending counselling. All too often, an addict’s inner circle becomes depleted in the process of dealing with the situation, which helps no one.

If you’re struggling with addiction and you’re ready to get help, Siam Rehab’s beautiful facility in Thailand offers a safe space where you can get back on the right track. We offer one-on-one and group counselling, mindfulness meditation and assisted detox, all in a supportive, nonjudgmental environment. Our amenities include a fitness centre, pools and nutritious, chef-cooked meals to nourish you back to health.

We also offer innovative methods of treatment such as equine-assisted therapy and art therapy, with a special emphasis on physical activity to ensure that you leave treatment feeling mentally and physically stronger.

If you’re ready to take action to address your ice addiction, the first step is just a phone call away - contact us today to find out how we can help.