The ABC’s Ice Wars documentary purports to illustrate the realities of crystal methamphetamine – or ‘ice’ – use in Australia, but many have expressed concerns about the sensationalism of the programme and its negative portrayal of users.
An ‘Ice Epidemic’?
The first criticism of the documentary is that it exaggerates the impact of ice on society, claiming Australia is “under siege” by the increasing use of a drug that is “tearing at the social fabric” of the nation.
Fleshing out that criticism, drug experts including Dr Nicole Lee, who is an associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, point out that ice is just one of many forms of methamphetamine (or ‘meth’). They emphasise that there has been no overall increase in the use of meth over the past 20 years.
“In fact,” Dr Lee explains, “[the number] has come down, from a high of about four per cent in 1998, and it’s around about two per cent of the population now.”
It is estimated that 2.1% of Australians over the age of 14 have used meth in the last year, and about half of those prefer ice over the powdered form of the drug known as ‘speed’.
This means an estimated 1% of the Australians in that age bracket have used ice over the past year, which critics of the ABC programme suggest does not amount to the country being “under siege” by the drug.
An Addiction Epidemic?
Of the estimated 1% who have used ice over the past year, three-quarters used it less than 12 times during that period. Only 0.25% of the population used the drug at least once per month.
Like many other drug experts, Dr Lee suggests we treat habitual use as a health issue, rather than criminal law problem – an approach which has paid dividends abroad.
Ice-Fuelled Violence Epidemic?
While accepting the use of ice can lead to psychosis and increased aggression, critics of the ABC documentary accuse it of exaggerating the risk.
They point out that that 75% of people who regularly use methamphetamine never experience a psychotic experience, and the same percentage never become aggressive as a result of using the drug.
Obstacle to Reform
Media organisations can wield significant power when it comes to shaping public policy.
There are concerns that exaggerating the dangers and risks associated with the use of drugs will impede the formulation and implementation of policies which reduce harm to users and the community.
It is feared that by pointing the finger at ice and claiming it is “tearing at the social fabric” of society, the media makes it less likely that governments will implement meaningful reforms which, again, have proven in other countries to benefit both users and the general community.
A recent study by the Australian Journal of Psychiatry found that those who use methamphetamines respond at least as well to treatment programs as those who use other types of illegal drugs. Reporting which exaggerates the threat posed by illegal drugs can decrease the likelihood of funding for rehabilitative programs, and lead to an increased emphasis on punitive measures.
Effect of Stigmatisation
Portraying drug users as “the enemy’ and a danger to themselves and society has proven time and again to be counterproductive to rehabilitation.
Indeed, such negative stereotyping makes it less likely that habitual users will seek help to overcome their health problem, and can reduce their self-worth which can, in turn, isolate them from society and make the problem worse.
As Dr Lee points out, a compassionate and understanding approach more likely to reap results.
“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”, Dr Lee says.
“When the public come at the problem from compassion, and not fear and voyeurism, it is clear that investment in treatment and support provides far better economic, health and social outcomes than policing, courts and prisons.”