As in the United States, the authorities in Australia are struggling to cope with what has been described as a meth epidemic. This is so much the case that Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently launched a task force to tackle the growing meth problem, saying, “As a citizen and as a parent I am appalled at what is happening on our streets and in our homes.”

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Yet, while it is beyond dispute that Australia has a serious meth problem on its hands, it is questionable whether a term such as “epidemic” gives a balanced view of what is actually happening.

Meth (Methamphetamine) is a potent and highly addictive stimulant that comes primarily in a powder or a crystalline form (known as “crystal meth” or “ice”). The chemical composition of these two forms is the same but the potency varies. Ice is the stronger and purer form.

METHAMPHETAMINE, THE MONEY SPINNER

Its market potential – with continuously high profits, low production costs, low risks and the ability to capture new addicts quickly – maintains meth’s attractiveness to criminal groups around the world. While illicit meth use is correspondingly a worldwide problem, Southeast Asia has become a major and growing production center. For example, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia used to be primarily transit countries but now report significant illicit manufacture of methamphetamine.That production impacts upon the lucrative markets of Australia, resulting in Australia having one of the highest rates of meth use in the world.

In this respect, Australia’s problem of proximity to major production and supply areas mirrors the United States’ problem of accessibility from Mexico where high quality meth is cheaply produced.

Nevertheless, overall methamphetamine use in Australia has remained stable since 2001, at about 2% of the population.

In other words, the number of people who use methamphetamine has not greatly changed in the last ten years or more. What has changed is the way methamphetamine is used and this has created a significant adverse impact upon users, the police and medical services and the community as a whole.

PREFERENCE FOR CRYSTAL METH DOUBLES

The purity of ishutterstock_250342093ce available on the streets has increased markedly, making it a more economical purchase for users. and the number of meth users preferring crystal meth (ice) to other types of meth doubled, from 27% in 2007 to 50% in 2013.

There has also been a significant increase in smoking as the main method of consumption, from around 20% of regular users to 40%.

PURITY OF CRYSTAL METH INCREASES

Increased purity results in a more powerful drug. With more ice being used, there’s been a resultant increase in people seeking treatment at drug and alcohol rehabs. The proportion of treatment admissions where methamphetamine was the principal drug of concern doubled in the four years from 2009 to 2013.

Victoria, for example, reported an 88% increase in ambulance calls in its metropolitan areas and a 198% increase in calls for meth-related incidents in regional areas, with people in regional areas being twice as likely to use methamphetamine as those in major cities.

METHAMPHETAMINE-RELATED CRIMES

Arrests for methamphetamine-related crimes increased by 30% between 2010 and 2012. A review of more than 80,000 Queensland roadside drug tests between 2007 and 2012 found meth to be present in 41% of positive results.

While the percentage of Australians using meth has not changed, the number of meth users favoring its more powerful form, crystal meth, has increased markedly, most likely driven by increases its purity, perceived “value of money” and ease of supply.

This change has impacted significantly upon Australia’s police, health and emergency services and the community as a whole, not to mention the users themselves and their hard-pressed families.

The solution, as ever, lies in improved drug education, in spotting early signs of abuse and addiction and taking swift action to seek help.