ABC’s ‘Ice Wars’ message is overblown and unhelpful

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, airing over the next few weeks 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 policy makers.

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% 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% 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% of the Australian population have used ice in the past year. Around three quarters of that 1% have used not more than 12 times in the past year. That means only 0.25% of the population use more than once a month.

Yes, there is an increased risk of psychosis among people who use methamphetamine, but 75% 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% 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 sessions, counselling 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 counterproductive 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 outcast 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.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

27 responses to “ABC’s ‘Ice Wars’ message is overblown and unhelpful

  1. Sorry but you are being far too sensible and factual. It’s much better to scream hysterically and, with pitchforks and blazing torches in hand, shriek nonsense catchprases about zero tolerance. We all know, that is absolutely every adult person able to read a single sentence knows, that zero tolerance and prohibition has never worked and will continue not to work.

    You are absolutely correct, in no way minimising anything of course, simply stating facts. We need education, rehabiliation and honesty. Unfortunately for many this is about control of others, what people “should” be doing in their eyes and emotional attachment to a policy of fear and ill education.

    The fact is that it has been proven repeatedly that the just say NOers make no impact on drug use, except to ensure that drug abusers don’t get help out of terror of jail or other recrimination. People die because society prefers that to actually doing something useful. But the main thing is, they get to claim the moral high ground.

    Good article, thanks for writing.

  2. Bravo! As someone who knows nothing about ice, I found the ABC program sensationalist and shallow with little real exploration of the wider issues. I wasn’t better informed by it which is the least I we should expect from a good documentary.

  3. A young adult male friend of a family near us took crystal methamphetamine one afternoon, then got into an argument with his friend, stabbed him in the leg with a pocket knife and told the young women in the house he was going to kill them. After they ran out of the house he drove a four wheel drive at high speed around the neighbourhood, running into street signs and up footpaths , trying to find the girls. We called the police who arrived quickly after the young man arrived back at the house, and it took six of them to wrestle him into the back of the van, and he broke away once. He was locked up overnight to calm down and then released. This is the problem we are facing, with young people experimenting with a drug they have no idea how they will react to, and the general public at risk of extremely dangerous and irrational behaviour, especially when cars are involved. The police and health workers have to deal with all of the fallout. Not enough can be done to ensure these drugs are not easily available to the public or to inform young people of the risks and support to get them off the drugs as soon as possible. Any tolerance towards drug taking as a social activity is abhorrent. I agree with the comments about alcohol, but ice can contain anything and has a completely unknown effect on the user. It’s impossible to overstate the danger of illegal drugs, and one young adult being severely affected by drugs is one too many.

  4. The show may be stupid, and I agree it is, but that doesn’t mean this article too is not stupid. Your “apologetic” approach to “ice” in this article is incredibly green. What planet are you living on? Have been into an emergency ward lately? Walked home from work in the city after dark? All drugs are not created equal. Those of us who have experienced ice’s affects on loved ones know this, and despair such silly generalizations about it being just another innocuous drug as espoused here. Also, such twaddle, that fear messages don’t work on the young – please note, just because you can reference something with a hyperlink doesn’t mean it’s true – the world leading low smoking rate in Australian youngsters is direct proof that well directed and co-ordinated “fear” campaigns can work.

    1. I’m deeply sorry for your problem of having a loved one with a negative encounter with ‘ice’. I hope they soon make a full recovery.
      I think the author has a much better overview of the situation than either of us.
      At least she is taking the hysterical tabloid sensationalism out of the topic. Also, representing one of the peak bodies studying the effects of drugs in the community she is better positioned than either of us to put it in the context of the harm it’s doing in society. Statistically alcohol and misused prescription medications cause far more harm in our community than ‘Ice’.

  5. ” showing only the ugly side of drug use.”

    As opposed to the beautiful side of drug use????

    If the program makes potential users have second thoughts I reckon it passes muster.

    I’m wondering how you would have rated the 1987 “Grim Reaper” commercial raising awareness of the AIDS problem. Maybe you would have considered it to be overblown and unhelpful as well.

    1. The ‘Grim Reaper’ ad campaign seemed to me high camp comedy particularly the bowling alley scene. Cheapening an iconic image of death by duplicating it to many ‘grim reapers’ takes all the power away from the archetype and instead turned it into ‘Pythonesque’ nonsense.

  6. I agree with the article, but also agree with Rob that you make the drug look pretty damned attractive, even safe-ish especially to young eyes.
    We should be able to handle the truth wherever it lies but need to be careful not to demonise users or to desensitise people to the possible danger. I certainly don’t know the answer but must say that I am particularly alarmed at older, supposedly, wiser people taking up this drug as it makes their creaky, painful bodies easier to drag out of bed for work. I have seen substantial numbers of people hitting rock bottom and am told by some of them the story you have told, that it’s not so bad and most people handle it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to carefully point out the potential dark side and resulting trauma.

  7. Very disappointing show. In true Murdochian tabloid style, it seems to assume that all views have attention deficit syndrome, keeps jumping from one location to another, so just as one story is getting interesting, it leaps somewhere else: “Meanwhile in Lismore…” And what’s with the constant ‘ominous’ background music – “look out, an ice monster is about to rise up and grab ya!” The author of this article is too kind – structurally and stylistically, ‘Ice Wars’ is like ‘NZ’s most stupid drivers’ and other commercial TV rubbish.

    Tony above: how do you know the person who jumped in front of you was on ice? I had a woman jump in front of my car only last year around 5 pm near Caulfield Racecourse – as far as I could tell she was not on ice or anything else, but having a furious argument with her boyfriend and decided to show him what he could be missing if she was dead. Luckily, I hit the anchors in time and she jumped back out of the way. But I don’t really know what caused her to act the way she did, and neither do you in your case. Anecdotal evidence of one or two incidents doesn’t prove anything.

    Agree totally with this article’s author that the undoubtedly bad situations presented in this show are shown entirely context-free. However, my impression is that some towns are genuinely doing it really tough – instead of tabloid junk like this program stigmatising whole towns, these places need proper resourcing, police, medical, social etc.

    A good ABC documentary series could have examined all drugs in society, with each drug given one episode , starting with the ‘ravages’, ‘carnage’ and [insert tabloid cliche here] of alcohol. It far outweighs the damage caused by ice and all the rest put together. But now in the new era of ‘ABC/IPA TV’, I guess we will be a long time waiting for an intelligent examination of drug abuse in society, and its possible remedies, on the ABC.

    1. To Not Our ABC,
      I had gone to pick my wife up from her employment at about 10.30pm. Driving back through the main street on our coastal town a group of younger males were gathering on the walkpath. On my approach one of them , in an extremely agitated state ( and threatening manner ) leaped onto the street as I was approaching in my car ripped his shirt off ( as I said in an earlier post ) . He stood defiantly in the middle of the lane. All this happened very quickly ie seconds. It’s lucky for him I missed him because I was not going to stop. My first impression later after I calmed down was he was drug affected. If I had have hit him I would have driven to the local police station.

      Yes, I did not know officially if the dude was on “ice”.I was not going to hang around. I had never seen this type of behaviour before. He could have died that night. I think it was a reasonable enough assumption to suspect drug use.

      Yes, the program was like Highway Patrol or NZ’s worst drivers etc but I have had dealings with “ice affected people” and they ARE usually abnormally agressive. Anyone who takes the drug is an idiot and a public menance.

  8. Ask Jacqui Lambie and her experience with a family member, also look at people going to Out Patients in public hospitals, trying to scratch their eyes out, or just plain abusive and uncontrollable, or sitting in a line of traffic while their kids jump out into oncoming cars. Not nice but ice.

  9. Nice trolling, Rob.
    You won’t ‘roll the dice’, because you are supported by the society you live in, in terms of material wealth, education and the love of others, to the extent that you are mentally healthy and secure within yourself about ‘the high’ not being worth the risk of harm. Good for you; you have successfully implemented your own private harm minimisation scheme. Since you enjoy sarcastic questions so much, here’s one for you; does your harm minimisation scheme encourage you to use?
    …and in case you don’t like rhetorical questions, here’s an answer; no self-evidently it doesn’t, because the most that harm minimisation can ever do is, wait for it; minimise harm. Only a truly poisonous harm-loving hater can twist one of the few demonstrably effective strategies available to us in this context, a genuine social good, and assert that it encourages what it seeks to alleviate. In PR terms they’d call your rant slick. I’d call it harm, which as you well know is the point of the article.
    Happy trollin’.

  10. Only 25% of users experience psychosis, anger, hostility, aggression? Are you kidding?
    That’s a pretty damning statistic for me!

  11. Thanks for this level-headed commentary. As someone with a family member who was badly affected by ice use but managed to extract themselves from it through a mix of determination, resilience, support and love from friends and family and (not least) cutting off contact with those who were not helping, we do need to remember that users are PEOPLE – and people who love and are loved. They are not outcasts, they are our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and parents and friends… often beautiful, creative, intelligent and loving people who make a few mistakes and become captured by something that has the potential to destroy them.

    More services and support, and better access to them for users and their families are needed – and compassion for all of us affected.

    And another thing: sensationalised reporting and language doesn’t help. Nor does the constant use of TV footage showing people using ice – this is a major trigger for people trying to give it up and just makes their job (and the job of those supporting them) even harder. I’m appalled that such an investigation by the ABC would lack so much understanding and compassion – please minimise the use of this footage, there is no need to linger on it, and it is incredibly unhelpful to those who are struggling with their addiction.

  12. It took a while. But with the help of Murdoch specialists the ABC is learning how to be more like This Day Tonight. Well-done, Aunty! Not.

    1. Ummm…’This Day Tonight’ was an ABC program in the 1970s! Kinda showing your age aren’t you? Guess you mean Today Tonight. Always helps to get the details right if you are going to criticise. Then you point of view might be worth listening to

  13. There are lies, damned lies and finally, statistics.

    Quoting percentages does nothing to further the argument that the ABC’s “Ice Wars” is overblown and unhelpful. You need to live in a town where ice IS an epidemic, and then you’d see how inaccurate your comments are. Ice users in a small town bring down the whole culture, stretch police and health resources to their limits and expose all residents to serious crimes (theft, assaults, traumatic confrontations). I live in Wellibgton and the coverage by the ABC barely scratched the surface.

    Good on the ABC for raising public awareness about Ice, and shame on academics using statistics to deny that this is not at epidemic proportions in Australia. Get out of the lecture halls and into society to see the reality.

  14. Thanks for your article, I live in a rural area and drug abuse is a problem partly because govt agencies have relocated many drug dependent younger people to this area.
    Of course alcohol is the most abused drug and it’s shame full that this fact is not emphasised in the general news about ‘ice’
    The combination of amphetamines and alcohol is definitely a big cause of violence behaviour

  15. You’re comments are biased subjective and clearly simply your own opinion, they present as il-Informed and you lack the patho-physiological knowledge to make these assumptions regarding the neurological effects of Methyl-amphetamine . It is not like “speed” it effects different neurological receptors, it is highly addictive and as you are aware addiction effects individual people differently. As a clinician with 20+ years experience working in health care, in emergency departments and in the community I interact with police, paramedics and the agencies tasked with treating addicts. I found the ABC “documentary” to be a realistic representation of the current social issues that prevail when Ice is involved, if anything from my experience they have somewhat sanitised its effect on the health care and legal systems. Maybe you should get out from behind the desk and get your hands dirty?.

    1. Ice is a basically a more purely refined methamphetamine. What are you talking about ?
      It is the same drug . They are all a form of”Speed”.
      The amount , frequency and administration methods are the only difference.
      Up till about 1970, Methedrine ( Methamphetamine) and Dexedrine were used for weight loss and were quite pure, being pharmaceuticals you manufactured .
      I’m unsure why you are calling scientistific factual and less hysterical comments ” biased”

    2. “You’re comments are biased subjective and clearly simply your own opinion”
      “il-Informed”

      Sorry mate, but I’m having a hard time believing you have any kind of education, let alone a medical/clinical one, when you can’t differentiate between “you’re” and “your”, let alone hyphenating and capitalising “ill informed”. I’m not even going to touch on your syntax.

      If you want to have an opinion and disagree, fine, but don’t lie and pretend you’re some kind of expert. It compromises the perception of actual expertise.

  16. ” 75% of people who use it regularly never become aggressive while using it.”

    I had a guy rip his shirt off and jump in front of my car as I was doing 60kph.
    Missed him by a fraction after I swerved then I kept going. This was late at night.

  17. That’s really great. So, statistically, if “75% of people who use it regularly never have any type of psychotic experience”, I could roll the dice in the hope of a great time. After all, I’ve heard it’s a wonderful high. While you say fear messages don’t work to stop people from using, the bigger question is does your harm minimisation message encourage people to use? Any study and statistics on that?

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