The popular perception of an ice epidemic in Australia can be attributed in part to the failure of law enforcement strategies targeting methamphetamine users rather than suppliers and manufacturers, according to Burnet’s Professor Paul Dietze.
Professor Dietze believes disrupting supply would address the problem of the steady increase in methamphetamine purity, which he argues supports the impression that the use of ice is becoming more widespread.
Appearing before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement hearing into crystal methamphetamine, Professor Dietze said evidence from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey shows in fact that methamphetamine use has been stable over several years.
Referring to Victoria Police data from drug seizures, Professor Dietze linked the increase in perceived harms to an increase in methamphetamine purity from around 15 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2013, and the trend away from powder to crystal methamphetamine or ‘ice’, which is metabolised more quickly.
“Essentially for the same amount of money, you would get a dramatically increased amount of the drug,” Professor Dietze, Head of Alcohol and Other Drug Research in Burnet’s Centre for Population Health, said.
“People who were not used to using such high purity drugs were getting into much more trouble, and that is a plausible explanation for the increase in ambulance call-outs and the increase in emergency department presentations.
“All of those harms would easily be accounted for by that change in purity, as well as the change from using powder to using the crystal form, which generally is smoked. They are two things that are driving those health-related harms.”
Professor Dietze urged a switch in the law enforcement focus from targeting the user to stopping the supply of methamphetamine to disrupt the market.
He said the increased number of arrests for consumer related offences presents a problem for law enforcement and the community while having no impact on the purity-adjusted price.
“The idea of law enforcement in this area should be to drive up the price per pure gram,” he said.
“In actual fact, because that has been falling quite dramatically, we could really see this as a failure of current law enforcement strategies.
“Law enforcement resources either need to be reinvested because they have been failing, or alternatively the law enforcement strategies need to be revised so that there is a different targeting.”
Professor Dietze said there was merit in the example set by Portugal where the personal use of small amounts of drugs has been decriminalised since 2001.
“The beauty of moving towards some kind of decriminalisation, or alternatively just ramping up our current diversion strategies and so on, actually means that we can refocus our law enforcement efforts towards the provider side of the drug market rather than consumers,” he said.
“It means that, if we are going to try to disrupt the market in terms of those key things like purity-adjusted price … that is a much more sensible strategy than trying to target consumers.
“There are actually some real benefits in moving away from targeting consumers.”