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May 21, 2015

Australia's ice 'epidemic': 'service cuts, scare campaigns, stigma not the answer to complex issue'

The Federal Coalition last week announced it was laun

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The Federal Coalition last week announced it was launching a new advertising campaign aimed at educating families and the broader community about the dangers of the drug ice, or crystal methamphetamine. Health Minister Sussan Ley said it would assist the National Ice Taskforce, announced last month by the Prime Minister. See its key points in the graphic below (click twice to enlarge), and this report on criticisms the advertisements have attracted.

In the post below, UnitingCare ReGen CEO Laurence Alvis looks at the messages being sent to the community about the issue and argues we need better community and political leadership to support effective, evidence based responses. He says that service cuts, scare campaigns and the further stigmatisation of already vulnerable Australians are not what we need to address the complex issues related to methamphetamines like ‘ice’.

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Laurence Alvis writes:

The release of new Australian Crime Commission data has prompted the usual round of media coverage focusing on the statistics relating to the size of drug seizure and numbers of arrests.  The headline findings were on methamphetamines, with news outlets breathlessly reporting an overall increase in purity (in spite of this having been downplayed by the ACC as having been skewed by the contents of a small number of very large seizures) and reduction in price as the latest proof of Australia’s ‘ice epidemic’.

In spite of the fact that the ‘epidemic’ has been consistently shown to be, at best, a gross oversimplification of the complex issues relating to methamphetamine use in this country, the narrative continues to be strengthened by inflammatory reporting and political rhetoric.

While politicians at all levels have been quick to adopt the language of crisis in their public pronouncements, the Federal Government has been especially conspicuous in its simplistic approach to the issue.

In his media release on the release of the ACC report, Justice Minister Michael Keenan proudly stated that the Government has ‘invested heavily in law enforcement agencies’ as proof of its success in combating methamphetamine use.  What neither he, nor any of the related media coverage acknowledged is that supply reduction measures are only ever one component of a balanced drug policy.  No mainstream coverage appears to have questioned the effectiveness of the Government’s investment, even when the price data for methamphetamine appears to provide clear evidence that its availability continues to increase.

Minister Keenan’s release goes on to laud the Government’s current $9 million ‘education campaign’ for its message that ‘our nation’s growing addiction to this mind-eating, personality-distorting, life-ending drug was ruining individuals, destroying families, and hurting communities’.

While certainly consistent with his previous statements on this topic and the one-dimensional message of the campaign, it is hard to see how the government’s current TV ads contribute anything to public understanding of the issue. By way of contrast, the Victorian Government’s recent ‘what are you doing on ice?‘ ads, while far from perfect, at least made a useful contribution to increasing public awareness of signs of emerging dependence.  The National Ice Taskforce ads provide nothing more than the sort of fear-based campaign that has been demonstrated to make little-to-no difference to the target behaviour while increasing the stigmatisation of people experiencing methamphetamine related harms.

Adopting this sort of approach shows no willingness to consider evidence based interventions or, more importantly, the wellbeing of vulnerable and increasingly marginalised Australians.  In fact, after indulging in the inaccurate characterisation of all people who use methamphetamines as violent and mentally unstable, Minister Keenan went out of his way to single them out as ultimately responsible for the operations of organised crime and terrorist organisations who profit from the illicit drug trade.

While this ritual public shaming of people who make ‘bad decisions’ is not unusual, it is in stark contrast with Government’s response on the same day to reports that a Ministerial adviser had been arrested, reportedly for possession of an amphetamine-type substance.  While Mr Ellis does deserve, as the PM said, to be ‘given all the support and all the encouragement that they possibly can to work through those issues’, the obvious double standard in the Government’s willingness to support one Australian and vilify others engaged in the same behaviour is disturbing.

The Abbott Government’s willingness to dispense with bodies providing expert advice was an early warning of its apparent lack of interest in evidence-based drug policy.  Its continued cuts to alcohol and other drug treatment services have significantly undermined their capacity to respond to the community impacts of methamphetamine use.  The fact that it is now spending $9 million (with a further $20 million budgeted for the next two years) on a simplistic and ineffective campaign that will make it even harder for people affected by methamphetamine use to seek support (or receive it from service providers who now believe them a to be a threat to their safety) should serve as a call to action by all members of our communities.

The current National Ice Taskforce hearings give us a platform to demand more from our government.

UnitingCare ReGen is the lead alcohol and other drugs treatment and education agency of UnitingCare Victoria & Tasmania, and has been promoting health and reducing alcohol and other drug related harm since 1970. 

 

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One thought on “Australia’s ice ‘epidemic’: ‘service cuts, scare campaigns, stigma not the answer to complex issue’

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    Marie, Crikey’s input might be more credible IF first they put their fatuous ‘analyses’ of social problems on ice.

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