There has been a "dramatic increase" in harmful incidents involving crystal methamphetamine use in recent years, according to new research, amid concerns that the drug is seeing a boom in popularity in Australia.
A study led by the Turning Point Drug and Alcohol Centre, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found a 318% increase in the number of times ambulances were called to crystal meth emergencies in Melbourne between June 2010 and June 2012.
The report revealed that while there was an overall rise in all amphetamine-related call-outs, the increase was particularly stark in relation to crystal meth, or "ice".
In total, callouts rose from 130 to 590 over the two-year period, with the greatest increase observed in people aged 15 to 29.
"We have certainly seen a dramatic increase in harm while the demographic characteristics haven't changed much over this time," Cherie Heilbronn, a research fellow and co-author of the report, told Guardian Australia.
"There are certainly a range of physical and mental health issues involving ice, from paranoia and hallucinations to fast heart rate, risk of heart attack and severe aggravation."
Heilbronn added that use of amphetamines and crystal meth in Australia is high when compared to the US or Britain, with 2.5% of Australians older than 13 reporting using the substances in the past year.
Crystal meth, a crystalline form of methamphetamine, is usually smoked or applied intravenously.
The drug has risen to prominence in recent years, perhaps partly because of the runaway success of US TV show Breaking Bad, which features the travails of Walter White, a chemistry teacher who resorts to "cooking" and selling crystal meth in an effort to raise money for his family after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Geoff Munro, national policy manager at the Australian Drug Foundation, told Guardian Australia that the show may have had a minor impact on the drug's renewed popularity.
"We are very concerned about the promotion of all drugs, including tobacco and alcohol, in the media and there are legitimate questions to ask about the role of Breaking Bad," he said. "But it remains to be seen exactly what effect it has.
"I think there are probably more profound drivers, such as the number of people with no sense of future, lack of employment opportunities or mental health issues.
"It may be that it's popular because people who are already heavy drug users can smoke it. We have certainly seen a rise in inquiries about crystal meth and it's fair to say what's happening in Victoria is a good guide to what's happening across the country."
Munro added that he had heard reports of an increasing flow of crystal meth into Australia from international dealers, as well as the creation of crystal meth labs in abandoned houses in Victoria.
Detective senior sergeant Tim Hayward of Victoria police's clandestine laboratory squad said that incidents of meth labs being set up in the state were increasing "dramatically" prior to the screening of Breaking Bad.
"If people think that drug manufacturing is glamorous, they would be very surprised and probably disgusted if they had any idea what was being used to make amphetamines and the normally filthy locations where they are being produced," he said. "The drug manufacturers rarely have any formal qualifications or quality control for the drugs they produce. They are generally funding their own drug habits and trying to avoid being caught by the police.
"Victoria police can confirm that there has been an increasing trend Australia wide of clandestine drug laboratories being located. This has been the trend for over a decade.
"Victoria police continue to dedicate resources towards investigating and dealing with the problems caused by amphetamine type substances and clandestine drug laboratories. We will continue to target persons manufacturing and distributing drugs."
Earlier this month, the Victorian government announced that a parliamentary committee will investigate the supply and use of methamphetamines in the state. It is expected to release its report in August next year.
Oliver Milman in Melbourne
theguardian.com, Monday 16 September 2013
Medical Journal of Australia Ref article: Med J Aust 2013; 199 (6): 395 doi:10.5694/mja13.10149
Trends in amphetamine-related harms in Victoria
Cherie Heilbronn, Caroline X Gao, Belinda Lloyd, Karen Smith, David Best and Dan I Lubman
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