The high cost of ‘ice’

Adelaide again attracted the unenviable moniker of ‘Ice Capital of Australia’ in the media in March with the release of the latest Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission analysis of drug use across Australia.

Adelaide’s methamphetamine (or ‘ice’) consumption, calculated through a sophisticated analysis of wastewater, was the highest of the capital cities again.

One statement in the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program: Report 4 underscores the extent of the ice problem in Australia.

“To put the size of the Australian methylamphetamine market into context, the total combined estimated weight of cocaine, MDMA (commonly known as ‘ecstasy’) and heroin consumed annually equates to around 60 per cent of the estimated weight of methylamphetamine consumed annually,” the report says.

With the consumption of methamphetamine – 8,387 kilograms a year – showing no signs of declining, understanding the social and economic costs of ‘ice’ and other illicit drugs is important in shaping a public policy response.

The SA Centre for Economic Studies’ Deputy Director, Steve Whetton, played a key role in developing that understanding as the lead author of a 2016 study published by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University.

The analysis in The Social Costs of Methamphetamine in Australia 2013-14 estimated the social cost of ice use in Australia at more than $5 billion. The figure did not include the additional costs for partners and children of ice-dependent users or the costs to methamphetamine users themselves.

To put that figure into context, Australia is said to have an ‘obesity epidemic’ which cost the country $8.6 billion in health, medical and related costs in 2011-12.¹ Another major health issue, tobacco use, is estimated to cost Australia $35 billion a year.²

The NDRI report says that “Australia has one of the highest reported rates of methamphetamine use worldwide” and is particularly vulnerable to large shipments of ice by being located close to major suppliers in Southeast and East Asia.

In line with this supply trend, the number of Australians reporting the use of crystalline methamphetamine (or ‘ice’), has doubled in Australia since 2010, overtaking less pure forms of methamphetamine, and being associated with heavier patterns of use, more health and social problems and double the number of dependent users.” ³

The shift towards the purer form of methamphetamine, crystalline methamphetamine, and an increase in smoking the drug rather the injecting it, saw the number of methamphetamine-dependent users increase from an estimated 73,000 in 2003 to an estimated 160,000 a decade later.

In line with the increased use of ‘ice’, the NDRI report says methamphetamine-related hospital admissions, arrests and treatment episodes all doubled between 2010 and 2014.

The NDRI study, a collaboration also involving researchers from Flinders University’s National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction and the University of NSW’s National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre, analysed a wide range of methamphetamine-related issues including the costs of health care, crime, road accidents, workplace issues, rural and remote use, and the impact on users’ partners and children.

Some numbers from the NDRI report tell much of the story with methamphetamine use estimated in 2013-14 to be responsible for:

  • 678,262 GP visits per year and related health care costs, totalling $200 million
  • Premature mortality, costing $781 million
  • 474,200 victims of violent or property crime, plus courts, prison and victim costs, totalling $3.2 billion
  • Road crash hospital, victim compensation, workplace disruption and property damage costs, totalling $125 million
  • Workplace accidents and absenteeism costing $289 million
  • Child maltreatment and protection costing $260 million
  • Prevention, harm reduction and treatment costing $110 million.

The NDRI study concludes that its best estimate is that methamphetamine use cost Australia more than $5 billion in 2013-14 with, potentially, up to $12 billion in costs to partners and children and up to $8.6 billion in internal costs to methamphetamine users.

Clearly, from the range of these estimates, there is considerable uncertainty as to the exact cost. Regardless of the precise figure, it is apparent that the harms and resultant costs of methamphetamine burden the social and economic fabric of Australia.

And that’s an issue that will prevail long after a catchy headline.

The Social Costs of Methamphetamine in Australia 2013-14 report can be found here.

¹ A Picture of Overweight and Obesity in Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017.
² Tobacco control: key facts and figures, Federal Department of Health, 2017.
³ All comments in italics are taken from The Social Costs of Methamphetamine in Australia 2013-14.

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