A series of high-profile, wealthy Australians have been revealed to have used ice in recent weeks – highlighting the reality of the highly addictive drug's spread through all corners of society.
While most associate ice with shocking images of emaciated addicts, its reach extends far beyond the homeless and other disadvantaged groups to high-functioning, high-income, recreational drug users.
According to medical journal The Lancet, Australia has the highest estimated rates of amphetamine dependence in the world.
"Sometimes people with high disposable incomes can and do engage in drug use, and sometimes those in highly demanding jobs might use substances to help them cope, help them relax, help them work long hours and so on," said Curtin University drugs researcher Professor Steve Allsop.
"From time to time you do see headlines attesting to that."
Earlier this week, entrepreneur Geoff Bainbridge resigned as chief executive of ASX-listed Lark Distilling after The Australian obtained sexually explicit video of the multi-millionaire smoking a meth pipe.
However, Bainbridge has denied he was an ice user and claimed he was being blackmailed with the video.
The explosive story came after The Daily Telegraph earlier this month revealed the reason troubled former Seven star Andrew O'Keefe was unceremoniously axed in December 2020.
According to the newspaper, a limo driver employed by producers of The Chase Australia tipped off the network after the host pulled out an ice pipe during a trip home from a Sydney production studio.
And on Thursday this week, Denim Cooke, the husband of famous mummy blogger Constance Hall, faced court for driving with methamphetamine in his system, unlicensed and with an unrestrained child in his car, PerthNow reported.
Prof Allsop, who served as director of Curtin's National Drug Research Institute from 2005 to 2016, said surveys had shown 40 per cent of Australians admit to using illicit drugs at some point in their lives.
"The evidence is clear it occurs across all segments of the population," he said.
"Certainly if you look at the treatment services you will find all aspects of society – young, old, men, women, but also wealthy and poor."
The key difference, he said, is that wealthier people are better able to keep their drug use hidden.
"Obviously when somebody is not particularly well off, when they've got all sorts of other problems in their life, are unemployed, if they drink alcohol or use drugs the potential is for the harm to become apparent quickly," he said.
"If your health is already not very good, already you don't have much money and start getting enmeshed in drug use, obviously you're more likely to have pronounced problems – whereas if you're otherwise wealthy, your health is good, good diet, steady income, family around you, then it might not become so apparent."
Prof Allsop added that wealthy drug users typically sought help through private practitioners rather than public drug treatment services, making it harder to get a clear picture of the numbers.
"But in other countries they've used health insurance data and found people paying top cover, who are likely to be wealthier and in those higher socio-economic areas, using and getting into difficulty with drugs," he said.
Australia's particular problem with methamphetamine is due to a range of factors but a big one is geography.
In recent years, traditional heroin-producing regions in South-East Asia have "diversified" into synthetic drugs, including ice.
"It's much easier to hide a small factory than a crop that grows in the ground and can be seen by satellite, and you're not reliant on the weather," Prof Allsop said.
"Other countries have high levels of fentanyl use, we have very little, some countries have very high rates of cocaine use, we have comparatively little, so obviously part of it is what's accessible."
The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 1.2 million Australians over the age of 14, or 5.8 per cent, have used methamphetamine, with 1.3 per cent reporting use within the past 12 months.
Among methamphetamine users, half reported using crystal methamphetamine – ice – while only 20 per cent said they mainly used the powder form, speed.
While data from the survey suggests overall rates of ice usage had declined over the previous eight years, other data and hospital records indicate rates of regular and dependent methamphetamine use have increased, according to the Australian government-funded Cracks in the Ice website.
"Data from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (2016 to 2020) indicates that methamphetamine is the highest consumed illicit drug in Australia, in both capital cities and regional sites," the website notes.
"Data from the program also indicates that methamphetamine consumption rose in Australia from 2016 to 2019, however it is unknown whether this increase was due to more people using the drug over time or a smaller number of people using larger amounts of the drug over time."
Wastewater data also shows methamphetamine consumption declined sharply in all Australian capital cities from February to June 2020, likely due to the impacts of Covid-19.
"By contrast, rates of consumption appear to have continued rising in most regional areas in 2020," it says.
The shift from speed towards the more potent form ice has coincided with a rise in reported harms related to methamphetamine use.
That includes methamphetamine-related helpline calls, drug and alcohol treatment episodes and hospital admissions, dependence, psychosis and other mental health problems, and methamphetamine-related deaths.
"For example, over the decade from 2010 to 2020, hospitalisations caused by amphetamine and other stimulant use in Australia have increased from 13 hospitalisations per 100,000 people to 70 per 100,000 people," the website says.
"This accounts for 27 per cent of all drug-related hospitalisations (excluding alcohol and tobacco)."