Photo by Flickr user michelle.irish
In my second year of university I was at the house of an occasional user—also a student, but at a different university—and she offered me her pipe. It was at her parents’ place, we were meeting up before we went out to a party, and there was no chance of getting arrested. But that wasn’t why I was intimidated. It was ice. Shard. It sounded tough and I was not tough. It even looked mean—a jagged, cloudy sharpness resting in a glass cylinder. I almost certainly failed to keep the fear out of my eyes but time kept passing and the pipe was still before me. I took a deep drag.
I can’t describe how it felt except to say that I was unhappy and shy back then, but not that night. I remember the smoke smelling like a burning motor and how it made me combustive. I wasn’t walking around with any secrets, I had a huge smile perched above my chin and I wasn’t willing to take people’s shit. The dubious likelihood of anyone caring enough to offer shit to a lanky guy in pale-blue jeans a size too big for him never occurred to me. Nothing mattered except that I was powerful, at last. I was in the Inner West, but I felt that if I swung my hips too quickly my dick would make a dent in the Opera House.
Only as it wore off did I become needy. I wanted more of it. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to go back to the way I normally feel.”
I haven’t done ice since. So as far as war stories go, my experience isn’t impressive. But my point is this—in 2007 I was part of the 2.3 percent of people the National Drugs Strategy Household Surveys listed as having used amphetamines or methamphetamines. Tall, awkward, never-to-try-meth-again me is a member of that faceless numbering, alongside my friend and the other recreational users, right there with the addicts and the twenty-year ice veteran on a bed in St Vincent’s Hospital, covered in his own scratch marks, twitching his way towards death.
Calling ice an epidemic is a misuse of language; it’s a deceptive metaphor. Ebola, an actual epidemic, is not contracted voluntarily. Referring to the growing use of a drug in the way we refer to virulent contagions removes the notion of agency from a series of human decisions. And using the language of plagues, saying things like “the drug doesn't discriminate”, makes it seem as though the key to preventing the worst instances of drug abuse is a simple “law and order” issue; a matter of quarantining inanimate crystals. And it’s hardly the only mistake the media makes in its reports about ice.
For instance, you will occasionally come across an article featuring testimony from addicts who got “hooked” after a single hit of ice. People who have no experience of drugs no doubt find this prospect horrifying – as if all it would take for the life of a loved one to spiral into the ravages of addiction and out of control would be to have some stranger slip a needle into their arm. That’s certainly how I would’ve interpreted the testimony, because the journalist hasn’t made clear the distinction between physiological addiction and an emotional dependence.
If you don’t like your life or yourself, if you’re depressed, a massive dopamine hit—ice mainlined into the blood—feels like a cure because it is a cure, albeit a temporary one. And the truth is you don’t even need to feel upset for the rush of ice to be better than your regular existence. However temporary, for as long as the high lasts, ice will make you genuinely happy. You will lose your hang-ups, any sense of fear, you’ll be sexually confident (and have the stamina to support that confidence); if you’re ambitious you’ll concentrate like you never have before, you’ll be better at studying and better at your job. It’s obvious why you would to want to stay in that condition, and seek desperately for the drug that will allow you to do so, even if your body doesn’t yet suffer from the withdrawal of its chemistry. This experience of dependence is what people refer to when they talk about self-medication, the use of substances to modulate your mood and self.
Of course many users are addicts, in the classic sense. But there are also people who use ice recreationally, or to treat what they feel is an underlying emotional or psychological deficiency. Not all such users are dependent or addicted in a physiological sense, and not all will become such addicts. So it makes no sense to speak of an “epidemic” when the presentation of addiction is so varied and variable, and its root causes likewise.
Not making this sort of distinction and denying the other complex psychological and social factors that contribute to the spread of illegal drugs is irresponsible. For every story that manages to capture the full picture there’s a bunch of hastily written beat-ups, reliant on unexamined statistics, horror stories, or quotes from a police commissioner that aren’t contrasted with any other source. Sometimes, you might even encounter a journalist so naïve that they begin their article with several paragraphs wondering what could possibly be the appeal of a powerful stimulant.
Other troubling social problems are being repeatedly, even systematically ignored in an effort to demonise ice. A nineteen-year-old given the pseudonym 'Jake'—who was the face of a Four Corners program that aired this Monday and that received online news coverage—was cooking meth by the age of 15. He was involved with bikies and smoking ice even earlier than that. His is a disturbing story, but using it as the opening for a report on how ice is ravaging rural Australia is problematic. As the program mentioned, Jake’s life was in trouble before ice came along. The turning point for him wasn’t when he was introduced to methamphetamine; it was when his father abandoned him with his mentally ill mother at the age of eleven. Such an experience would make anyone vulnerable to any number of negative influences. Surely the narrative of his life is not about the scourge of ice but rather the breakdown of a family, and perhaps the lack of adequate services in his town that might’ve helped him when he needed it most.
The way ice is often covered in the media may be paralleled with the war on drugs. Both are motivated by the belief that illicit drugs are an evil that need to be eradicated from the earth. Drug abuse is a serious problem, but we’re at the point that many people are recognising that the war on drugs is fundamentally flawed because humans like to take substances that adjust their consciousness. They always have, and they always will.
Methamphetamine isn’t bad. It’s not a creeping death or a pandemic. It’s a dust, liquid, or crystal that people like to smoke, snort, and inject. Our relationship to such things is complex, and sometimes dark. We should accept the complexity, and talk about it honestly.
Follow Girard on Twitter: @GirardDorney