Is Australia “On the Rocks”? Trends and Patterns of Methamphetamine Use and Implications for the AOD Sector

August 2015

Research staff:

  • Professor Ann Roche
  • Associate Professor Nicole Lee
  • Dr Ken Pidd
  • Dr Alice McEntee
  • Dr Jane Fischer
  • Victoria Kostadinov 


Why did we undertake this research?

In response to emerging political and public concern with methamphetamine issues, as well as media reports of an ‘Ice epidemic’, NCETA developed a program of work to:

  1. examine the patterns and trends of methamphetamine use
  2. identify evidence-based prevention policies, workplace practices, and treatment and service options to address methamphetamine use and harms
  3. determine the impact that changes in methamphetamine use may be having on the alcohol and other drug (AOD) and health and welfare sectors
  4. develop workforce development initiatives to improve the capacity of the AOD and associated health and welfare sectors to respond to methamphetamine use
  5. disseminate evidence-based information and resources to the AOD sector. 


What did we do?

NCETA undertook secondary analysis of several national datasets including the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), National Minimum Data Set (AOD Treatment Specialists), and Hospital Morbidity Data. 

Data from the 2013 NDSHS was examined to ascertain who was using methamphetamine, type and mode of use, and how often people were using methamphetamine. NCETA researchers also compared data from the 2013 NDSHS with data from the 2004 NDSHS. 

Data is useful for informing the strategies which may be used to treat and prevent ice use amongst the population. Australia has good data which may be utilised to inform us of the scale of the problem and help develop strategies to address the problem. 


What did we find out?

NCETA’s analysis of the NDSHS datasets revealed that the overall national prevalence of methamphetamine use has been relatively consistent for the last 10 years. Since 1995, the proportion of Australia’s population which uses methamphetamine has hovered around the 2% mark, peaking at 3.7% in 1998. However, the relative stability in the proportion of Australians using methamphetamine does not mean there is no need for concern. Closer scrutiny of the available data is required to see what has changed and what is contributing to increased problems.

There have been recent shifts in the type of methamphetamine used, the mode of administration, and the frequency of use. For example, speed, which is a powder form of methamphetamine, was once the dominant form of methamphetamine used. However, since 2010, ice, the crystalline form of methamphetamine, has become the main form of methamphetamine used.

Increased ice use is concerning because it:

  • is purer than other types of methamphetamine
  • contains a greater concentration of the psychoactive elements
  • is usually smoked.

Smoking methamphetamine means the psychoactive elements pass the blood/brain barrier more quickly and result in a more powerful, quicker ‘hit’. Any drug which provides people with a greater intoxicating impact is cause for alarm as it has the potential to reinforce the pleasure reward which may increase risk of dependence. A possible increase in dependent ice users is also reflected in data which shows that, since 2010, there has been a significant increase in people who use methamphetamine on a weekly basis (9% vs 16%). Frequent use of any psychoactive substance increases the likelihood of problems being encountered and places pressure on health and community services to provide intervention and treatment options which are suitable for people with problematic methamphetamine use.

Providing evidence-based intervention and treatment options for methamphetamine use is one of the challenges currently facing the AOD sector. Since 2009/10, specialist AOD treatment service episodes for methamphetamine use have almost quadrupled. Historically, services have been targeted towards those who use depressants such as heroin and alcohol. Treating stimulant use often requires longer and slightly different patterns of treatment than used previously. As such, methamphetamine use presents a challenge for services and treatment providers and better training and support for the workers in those services is required.

Another cause for concern is that a number of vulnerable populations have also been identified as using ice at increased levels. For example, the number of women who use methamphetamine on a weekly basis is now similar to the proportion of men who use methamphetamine on a weekly basis. This is unusual. For most drugs, the ratio of male to female users is traditionally around 2:1. In addition, a statistically significant decrease in the age of ice users, and young Indigenous people aged between 15 and 24 presenting at a higher rate for care than non-Indigenous people are also factors which should be off concern to policy makers, the community, and the treatment sector.

There are also a range of macro factors which may contribute to the public concern surrounding the use of ice, as opposed to other forms of methamphetamine and/or drugs. The price of ice has significantly decreased while its availability and purity have increased. A report by the Australian Crime Commission also highlighted changes in terms of the supply chain of the drug. Previously ice was manufactured and supplied at a local level. Now, there has been an increased supply of ice at an international level intensifying the criminality involved.


Where to next? 

NCETA is continuing to expand its methamphetamine research program to inform the development of public health policies as well as improve the available treatment and prevention responses. Although data provides a general understanding, NCETA is looking for a broader understanding of methamphetamine use, patterns, trends, and responses. 

The perspectives of the broader community, users and their families, and treatment providers are also required to enhance our ability to formulate effective responses. As such, NCETA is conducting a workforce development needs assessment with alcohol and other drug services (see New Projects: Methamphetamine Training Needs Analysis) and expanding our workplace consultancy programs to assist workplaces and employees respond to methamphetamine-related issues. In addition, it may be necessary to explore:

  • whether policies such as roadside and workplace testing are encouraging people to shift their drug use to less detectable substances
  • the intervention options available for those who use methamphetamine less frequently. Although this cohort is not likely to seek treatment, they are still at risk of harm and we do not want to see this group become more frequent users over time.