ZOE* began using the drug commonly known as ‘ice’ when she was about 23 years old, when she would take it every now and then on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve.
“Then I progressed to once or maybe twice a weekend and then as my usage increased, my socialisation increased,” she says.
‘Ice’ – also known as meth, crystal meth, glass, shard, shabu or tina in the LGBTI community – is the purest form of the stimulant drug, methamphetamine.
When taking ice, a massive amount of dopamine – more than any other narcotic- is released in the brain and users feel pleasure, clarity, alertness, higher energy and an increased sex drive. The come down off ice includes effects such as poor concentration, fatigue, depression, increased appetite, irritability, increased heart rate and an inability to sleep. Unlike other stimulant drugs, the withdrawal symptoms from methamphetamine can last much longer – leading some people to use the drug in order to do things like go to work.
Despite being available in Australia for decades, ice has been under an intense spotlight in recent years with Federal and State governments and police setting up task forces to combat the use of the drug.
According to figures from the National Drug Survey, ice use amongst meth users doubled between 2010 and 2013, but only about two per cent of the Australian population use methamphetamine.
Media images of ice use paint a frightening picture of what could happen to a person and the people around them if they used the drug.
The public was inundated with news stories and advertising campaigns including the Department of Health’s ‘Ice Destroys Live’. These narratives painted ice users as violent and dangerous.
It created a climate of fear in the community of people who use ice. This is despite the fact that alcohol is more likely to cause injury, violent behaviour and death.
While ice-induced psychosis is a well known side effect of the drug, only about one quarter of users will experience it in any given year.
Based on the campaign against ice, you might believe all users are hopelessly addicted, violent, unemployed, homeless people who will steal from you to pay for their habit.
But the reality is many people use ice for a lot of different purposes and you probably know some of these people.
Zoe is a legal associate professionally renowned in her field.
For eight years of her career she was a regular ice user, occasionally snorting a line before heading into the office.
“All of my friends (that use ice) were all professional. I know people who are architects, executive managers at big banks, managers of government organisations and they all use at the same frequency as I did, if not more,” she explains.
“I still know people that are in those positions, that are continuing to use at the same rate.
“It was one of those things we talked about stopping, we talked about how we knew we weren’t going to do this forever.”
Zoe and her friends would use drugs socially, “instead of going round to someone’s house for a cup of coffee or drink you could go to smoke a bowl”.
“I know my friends were fucked but you give people leeway, my friends were good people, they did all have to hold down jobs,” she explains.
“We had to keep our jobs to pay for drugs… but we were not going to break into your house to steal from you to pay for drugs.”
Zoe says ice did not improve her life and had negative side effects such as a rough come down, which made her cranky and edgy. But people presumed her mood swings were the result of her high-pressure career.
“It’s just that I was so good at my job, I was well respected in my job and being cranky and overworked came hand in hand with my job,” she explains.
“When I was exhausted people thought I was working hard.”
The majority of methamphetamine users only use occasionally, according to Will Tregoning, the founder of Unharm, an organisation dedicated to campaigning for safe, positive and ethical drug use.
“So the stereotype of regular and dependent use is something that is at the extreme of both the actual nature of the behaviour… only a minority of people use more often than once a week,” he said.
“The case of a person who’s using methamphetamines in the context of a life that includes many other things isn’t dominated by methamphetamine use is in fact, the norm.”
Tregoning describes the government’s campaign against ice as part of Australian society’s overall attitude towards illicit drugs.
“There is a persistent myth that illegal drugs are a special category that have the power to possess people and by using them they take possession of you, almost like the imagery of possession by a demon,” he explains.
“That drugs have a power over people that makes them unable to resist. That mythology needs to be perpetuated in order to justify the whole enterprise of prohibition.”
Long-term activist Christian Vega was about 18 when he used ice for the first time. It was to help him with his professional life, and he says it’s important to recognise that people use methamphetamines for different reasons.
“There’s different ways people use methamphetamines, they might use it recreationally on the weekends, for other people it might be linked to their sex life… and then there’s some people who use everyday, who treat methamphetamines like a cup of coffee,” he explains.
“It’s the only way they get up in the morning or to engage with the world.
“I think the first time I used amphetamines in the late 90’s… I was a homeless street based sex worker at the time and methamphetamines was a way people stayed awake at night and stayed warm, it allowed them to keep working.
“That’s not an uncommon experience to use methamphetamine to enhance work performance.”
Vega, who now works in the health sector as a community worker in a regional area, has trouble accessing affordable mental health services. Because his body does not metabolise alcohol well, he could not rely on that as many other people do so ice can be a tool to help him deal with day to day life.
“I didn’t have alcohol as an option to socialise or unwind, you know go out there and engage with people and have fun, all of those reasons people use alcohol. I’m still a human being, I can’t switch off those needs that people have, that’s how I started using illicit drugs,” he says.
“If people can’t resolve psychological and emotional issues for themselves, they need to find a way to still engage with everyday life, you still have rent to pay and food to put on the table.
Those things won’t wait while we try to resolve the issues we haven’t been able to.”
In 2013-2014, about 40 per cent of treatment for dependence on a drug was for alcohol and 17 per cent was for methamphetamines in Australia. Yet the stigma around alcohol use and dependence in not as intense as it is for ice users.
“What we know is that stigma always goes hand in hand with silence,” Will Tregoning says.
“That has an effect of getting in the way of safety, using secretly or privately can lead to more dependent forms of use.
“Using secretly you break down the possibility of promoting safety, the main way safety gets promoted within communities of people who use drugs is by word of mouth, by people who are more experienced.
“Obviously a novice is going to be much less able to manage risk.”
* Zoe’s name was changed to protect her identity.