Ice and the outback: Meth in rural Australia

December 2016
Professor Ann Roche, NCETA

There has been extensive media and political attention directed towards the issue of ‘ice’ or crystal methamphetamine use in Australia over the past year or two.  Some of that attention has focussed on anecdotal reports of high levels of use in rural communities.  Media stories have devoted extensive coverage to purportedly higher levels of use in country towns relative to metropolitan centres.

Until now there has been no empirical data to support the speculation that methamphetamine use might be higher and more prolific in rural than metropolitan Australian communities.  NCETA however has recently undertaken further secondary analyses of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey data for the years 2007, 2010 and 2013 to examine the question of whether use is in fact higher in rural Australia and also whether it has increased at a greater rate than in metro centres.  The study by Roche and McEntee, ‘Ice and the Outback’ reporting these findings is available for advanced view in the Australian Journal of Rural Health.

NCETA’s study found that there is indeed a higher level of methamphetamine use in country Australia, and that the rate of increase since 2007 has been statistically significantly greater than in cities.  Both lifetime and recent (i.e., use in the last 12 months) use of methamphetamine were significantly higher among rural Australians compared to those living in cities, as was the recent use of crystal methamphetamine.

It is clear that there has been a disproportionately larger increase in methamphetamine use, including crystal methamphetamine, in rural locations compared to other locations.  In some ways this is not a surprising finding as AOD use has traditionally been higher in rural communities for a range of reasons.  Factors that contribute to higher rural AOD use in general include lower educational attainment, low socio-economic status, higher unemployment and isolation.  These factors may also apply to the increased level of methamphetamine use.

Like their city counterparts, rural Australians who were most likely to use methamphetamine were the 18 to 29 year olds.  However, in contrast to city dwellers, there was a higher proportion of employed young people using methamphetamine in the country, whereas in the city prevalence was higher among unemployed people. This finding is both a little perplexing as well as encouraging.  It is encouraging because the workplace offers an ideal site for early and brief intervention with scope to curtail some of the more potentially severe, debilitating and chronic consequences of using methamphetamine.  Workplaces, in addition to providing captive audiences (no doubt noted by drug distribution networks), also offer inherent motivation factors related to job retention, safety, productivity and duty of care.

The early manifestation of associated problems such as low grade mental health problems, e.g., anxiety, depression and mood dysregulation may be detected through the workplace or presentations to primary care settings. Similarly, there is scope to address common problems such as poor diet, disrupted sleep patterns, and dehydration.  Greater vigilance and early intervention is strongly recommended in this regard.

As most methamphetamine now used in Australia is the purer and much more highly concentrated crystalline form (i.e., ice), in preference to the less concentrated powdered form (i.e., speed), early intervention becomes an imperative.  Moreover, evidence also suggests that the vast majority of ice is now imported into Australia from China and Asia, rather than being locally produced. Importation means that many local law enforcement disruption mechanisms may be less effective and alternative control mechanisms may be needed, especially in rural and remote locations.

The higher level of crystal methamphetamine in rural communities also raises the question regarding how this might have come about in terms of access and availability to the drug. There is speculation that rural communities may have been deliberately targeted by organised drug distribution networks flagging the need for whole of community responses. Clearly there is a need for a greater focus on the needs of rural communities in terms of general prevention strategies and specifically to circumvent the further expansion of problematic and potentially harmful use of a very potent drug.


Roche, A., & McEntee, A. (2016). Ice and the outback: Patterns and prevalence of methamphetamine use in rural Australia. Australian Journal of Rural Health, Advance online publication, doi:10.1111/ajr.12331.