Ice in Australia: an online survey of attitudes and experiences

In 2015, NCPIC undertook a survey of more than 11,000 people to test views and experiences of ice. Scroll down to read the full report.

Summary

  • In 2015, NCPIC conducted an online survey about experiences and perceptions of ice. This survey report includes responses from 11, 636 participants.
  • The 2013 Australian Drug Strategy Household Survey reports approx. 2.1% of Australians used methamphetamine in the previous 12 months. Of note, NCPIC survey respondents perceive prevalence of ice use to be much higher.
  • NCPIC’s survey indicates while males and females do share some reasons for using ice, females are more inclined towards using to escape reality and to manage troubling issues and thoughts.
  • Respondents who haven’t used ice but would consider trying it, perceive the danger and addictiveness of ice to be at lower levels than those perceived by users and respondents who won’t try ice.
  • Twenty-six percent of those respondents who tried ice felt addicted less than one month after starting to use multiple times per week.

Introduction

Less than a decade since the last spike in use of crystal methamphetamine (ice), Australian health and emergency professionals are joining the increasing cohort of media and government agencies concerned about the personal and community harms resulting from ice use. While the 2013 Australian Drug Strategy Household Survey reported lower rates of use (at that time) than most Australians would anticipate1, the growing devastation caused by this drug, and the recent shift towards use of its most potent form, is becoming ever more evident.

The 2013 Household Survey indicates 2.1%, or 400,000, Australians aged over 14 years of age had used methamphetamine in the previous 12 months, with approximately 50% of those people having used ice. Australia has one of the highest rates of use of methamphetamine in the world. While use of ice has increased since the 2010 Household Survey, its rate of use remains much lower than drugs such as cannabis, which was used by 1.9 million people in the previous 12 months, and ecstasy (used by 2.5% of Australians in the previous 12 months) 1.

Methamphetamine is available in a number of forms, including speed which is powder or pills, base which is a paste, and crystal or ice which looks similar to quartz. Ice is generally the most pure form of the drug, providing the most intense high and the greatest potential for addiction. In Australia, the 2013 Household Survey reports ice became the most used form of methamphetamine over the previous 12 months, replacing powder1.

In 2014/15, the Australian Federal Government announced the establishment of the Ice Taskforce, in response to the concerns reported about ice use across the country.

The Ice Taskforce is responsible for delivering a National Ice Strategy, in conjunction with the States and Territories, as a means of guiding the approach to ice prevention, treatment and education in Australia. As an initial action, the Ice Taskforce delivered an ice awareness campaign via traditional broadcast and digital channels in 2015, similar to its previous 2007 campaign.

As part of its interim report on the use and impacts of ice on the Australian Community, which was presented to the Council of Australian Governments in July 2015, and informed by community submission, the Taskforce identified six main areas of action. The first of these identified areas was primary prevention2.

To inform future approaches to prevention-based education and awareness campaigns, the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) undertook an online survey which aimed to provide greater insights into experiences and attitudes of Australians, both users and non-users.

Method

NCPIC developed an online, interactive survey and promoted via Facebook advertising, targeting 13 to 48+ year old Australians. Targeting did not include any behavioural or interest preferences, in an effort to reduce bias as much as possible.

Respondents to Facebook advertisements were asked to follow a link to the online survey, where they were initially presented with an overview of the survey, confirmation of anonymity, the aims and completion time requirements.

The survey covered a range of areas, including knowledge of ice, perception of prevalence of use, access to the drug, experiences using ice, perceptions of addiction and harms, perception of users, and a wide selection of demographics that enable development of more robust audience profiles for future communication and education campaigns. In addition, the survey tested a variety of communication channels, prevention-based messages and past campaigns for effectiveness.

The survey was open for approximately two weeks, during which 11,636 responses were collected; 21.1% (n=2,452) from the 13 – 18 year old age group, 39.7% (n=4,620) from the 19 – 27 year old age group, 25.9% (n=3,011) from the 28 – 37 year old age group, 11.9% (n=1,380) from the 38 – 47 year old age group and 1.5% (n=173) in the 48+ age group. As Facebook advertising was used to carefully target only Australians, and the survey was aimed at all Australians over the age of 13, no qualifying questions were required. 

The survey was presented in two sections, with 6,620 respondents completing all relevant questions in the initial section, and 4,470 completing the final section which assessed messaging and campaigns.

Findings

Demographics of respondents

The survey achieved quite an even balance between genders, with the number of male respondents (49.6%), only slightly higher than female (48.9%), and a small number of individuals who did not identify as either male or female (1.5%).

Of those aged 19 years and over, the majority identified as heterosexual, with a small portion (n = 1,129, 14.6%) who identified as homosexual, bisexual or ‘other’. Of all participants, 6.8% (n=674) identified themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Just over half of all respondents do not have dependent children, and most fell into household income brackets of $25,000 – $49,999 and $50,000 – $99,000, with 22.5% of adults noting a household income of under $25,000 annually.

A vast range of industries were represented; construction was most highly represented at 14.7%, followed by stay-at-home parents, unemployed, hospitality, students, retail, healthcare, and mining. Most industries recorded response rates of over 200 respondents, and the majority around 200 to 500 respondents each. Regarding educational achievement, of adult (19 years and over) respondents, 30.6% identified TAFE as their highest level of education, 30.4% noted Year 10, 25.4% noted Year 12, and 11.5% reported they had a university or postgraduate degree.

Of those aged 18 or under, most had achieved Year 10, with a quarter having achieved Year 12 and 6.5% TAFE – it is worth noting, that some respondents would have been too young to have completed any of these levels of education. Almost half of young (under 18 years) respondents noted they come from homes where they consider finances to be comfortable, whereas 31% said their household didn’t have much money to spare. More than half (58.6%) are being raised in two-parent households, with 32.9% in single-parent homes.

Respondents represented all states and territories, with greatest representation in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. The largest portion of respondents (40.9%) lived in the city, with just under a third in regional centres, a quarter in small towns, and 3.2% in very remote areas.

Access, use and addiction experiences

Of all respondents, 45.7% indicated they have tried ice, 3.3% said they have not tried it, but either will try it or they are not opposed to trying it, and 51% have not tried ice. While the rate of having tried the drug is high compared to the overarching Australian population, this can partly be attributed to self-selection based on an interest in the topic, which was an advantageous result, as it allowed for greater insights into the opinions and experiences of ice users.

In examining those who have tried ice, men (53.2%) were more likely to have tried the drug than women (38.8%). Adults with education concluding at Year 10 or TAFE were more likely to have tried it than people with undergraduate or postgraduate degrees.

The rate of use was almost the same between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and non-Indigenous people, with close to the same portions (just over half), indicating they were not interested in trying the drug. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ most commonly reported age of first use did peak somewhat younger (around 15 – 17 years of age) than non-Indigenous people (around 18 years). People who identified as homosexual, bisexual or ‘other’ were slightly more likely to have tried ice (57.7%), compared to heterosexual respondents (52.2%). Heterosexual people were also more likely to be uninterested in ever trying ice (46.2%) than homosexual, bisexual and ‘other’ respondents (39.2%).

Of those who identified as living in the city, 49.4% had tried ice, compared to 42.1% in small towns and 45.3% who lived in remote areas.

In respondents aged under 18 years, those who noted their household income was lower were more likely to have tried ice (26.3%) than those who noted their family was comfortable to well-off (16.6%).

In general, the most commonly reported age of first use peaked around 18 years of age, but did vary depending on demographic background. Both females’ and males’ age of first use peaked around 18 years of age, though females did also have an earlier, smaller peak at 16 years. Age of first use for people whose highest level of education was TAFE peaked at around 18 years, while those with university qualifications peaked around 19 – 20, with a smaller, second peak around 24 – 25 years of age.

Those respondents educated to a high school or TAFE level were more likely to use ice daily (12.1%), compared to those with university qualifications (5.8%). Weekly use was also higher for the TAFE educated group.

Around 11.8% of both males and females reported using ice daily. Both genders identified trying the drug for similar reasons; because their friends did it, they were curious, or to party harder. Once again, reasons for continuing use were similar (liking the feeling of being high, to party and socialise, to escape reality of issues). For females, using to escape reality (44.8%) and because they have thoughts and issues they don’t want to deal with (42%) was much more common than in males (32.7% and 27.7% respectively).

Reasons for ongoing use of ice by gender – all respondents

Reason

Male

Female

I like the feeling of being high

58.0%

55.4%

To party and socialise

55.4%

44.2%

I want to escape reality

32.7%

44.8%

I have issues and thoughts I don’t want to deal with

27.7%

42.0%

To feel confident

26.0%

31.6%

I feel like I think more clearly

20.0%

22.3%

All my friends use it

19.4%

20.1%

I used it a bit and now can’t stop

17.5%

26.0%

To help me focus at work

15.6%

12.8%

Of those respondents who had used ice, the most common occupational group was construction (18.1%), 12.1% were unemployed and 9.2% were stay-at-home parents. It is worthy of note that given prevalence of reported use in the survey was well-above average, these figures don’t represent prevalence within these industries, but do give an indication of ratios across occupations.

For stay-at-home parents who said they had used ice, 32.7% identified as being from a small town, which contrasted with the geographical trends in the main group. Many only tried ice once or used it rarely, but 11.2% used daily and 13.5% used multiple times each week, thus around a quarter were using in a risky manner. Of note, the reasons for continuing to use were slightly different than other groups (though reasonably consistent with other females), with wanting to escape reality (47%) and having issues and thoughts they don’t want to deal with (44.1%) at higher rates. Of this group, 33.9% said they felt addicted less than one month after they started using multiple times per week.

Ever use of ice by occupation – respondents 19 years and older

Construction

18.1%

Other

14.3%

Unemployed

12.1%

Stay-at-home parent

9.2%

Hospitality

8.1%

Full-time student with or without part-time work

5.8%

Mining

5.6%

Retail

4.9%

Health Care

4.0%

Manufacturing

4.0%

Transport

4.0%

Administration

2.6%

Agriculture

2.2%

Education

1.7%

Finance

1.5%

Media and Communications

1.1%

Wholesale

0.8%

Younger respondents were more likely to know someone who may be able to provide them with ice or know how to get it. While only around half of adult respondents who were potential users identified as knowing where to get ice, 71.2% of those aged 18 years or younger who identified as potential users said they know where they can obtain the drug.

Of the group who identified as not having tried ice but being open to trying it in the future, 39.9% were aged between 16 and 18 years, making them a younger group than those who identified as not being interested in trying ice. Many (61.1%) of this group were also single or just dating, with almost 40% married or defacto, compared to those not interested in ice, of whom, half were married/defacto and half single. More potential users identified as being homosexual, bisexual or ‘other’ (25.2%) than in the group not interested in using ice. Education levels were higher for those adults who would not try the drug, with 17.2% having completed university compared to 7.6% of people who may use ice, but this may also be due to the younger age of the potential user group.

Of all respondents, 26.4% of those who had tried ice felt addicted less than one month after starting to use multiple times per week, 7.6% felt addicted after one month, 25.4% felt addicted between two and 12 months, and 40.5% never felt addicted.

Drug education

The survey indicated that largely, the population does know what ice is, though a small portion (5.8%) did think it is plant-based. In general, among adults, it seemed those who have tried ice or would consider trying it, have lower levels of education than those who have not and do not intend to try it.

In contrast, in respondents aged 18 and under, those who would try ice (but haven’t yet) were most likely to indicate the incorrect answer to the question ‘what is ice?’, with 15.9% thinking it is plant-based. While not a large difference, it does potentially indicate young people need greater education in the fact that ice is synthetic and the chemicals it is composed of are dangerous.

Within the survey, most respondents were well aware of short and long-term side effects of ice use. What was most interesting is that those people who indicated they would consider trying ice were very aware of even the most troubling side effects. This included knowledge of aesthetic effects such as potential skin sores.

The level of education was not associated with a correct understanding of what ice is and what its side effects are, groups with high school or TAFE qualifications were as knowledgeable as those with tertiary and post-graduate qualifications. Likewise, respondents split by gender, age (under and over 18), and education all identified similar means of obtaining information about ice, consistently noting friends, news/media, social media and websites as their key sources of information.

Perception of prevalence of use and danger associated with ice

In Australia, ice use has consistently been reported as being at epidemic levels throughout 2014 and 2015. Potentially due to this, and information sources such as friends and social media, there is a poor understanding of patterns of ice use.

While the 2013 Household Survey reports lifetime (ever) use of methamphetamine at 7%, and recent use (last 12 months) at around 2% (ice use making up approximately 50% of this) 1, over one third of the NCPIC survey’s respondents believed 10 – 30% of Australians have tried ice, and a quarter (24.7%) believe 31 – 50% have tried it. A further fifth believe 51 – 100% have tried the drug. Only 18.2% of respondents didn't perceive use to be higher than it was. In terms of communication, the use of terminology like ‘epidemic’ in the media and common reporting, in addition to the prevalence of coverage and official responses may have contributed to this misconception.

Respondents were asked to rate how dangerous they believe ice is to a user’s health. Of note, of those who haven’t tried ice and believe they won’t ever try it (non-users), 70.5% rated it as extremely dangerous, while 38.3% of those who have used it (users) rated it the same, and only 26.2% of those who haven’t used it but may (potential users) agreed.

Also noteworthy, 43.7% of non-users thought users are extremely dangerous to others, 19.2% of users agreed, but only 15.8% of potential users thought the same. Similarly, 80.6% of non-users rated ice as extremely addictive, 55.3% of users agreed, and 51.3% of potential users thought the same. It is interesting to note users thought ice more addictive, dangerous to health and that users are more dangerous to others, than those respondents who had not yet used ice but would consider it.

These results point to a ‘potential user group’ that appears to perceive the danger-levels of ice use at much lower rates than even users. This also indicates the potential for past-users to help educate potential users on the realities of the drug. The fact potential users also see the drug as very addictive but would still consider trying it suggests this factor may not be a strong deterrent.

Ice users by frequency of use

While the same number of males and females reported using ice daily (11.8%), males reported higher ‘occasional’ use than females. The age groups of respondents who most commonly reported using daily or occasionally were 19 to 27 years of age (45-47% in both groups), with a secondary group in the 28 to 37 year old category.

Frequency of use of ice by gender – all respondents

Frequency

Male

Female

Occasional use (once a month, a few times a year or once a year)

22.6%

14.8%

I rarely ever use it

20.6%

23.2%

I only ever used it once

17.4%

24.0%

Daily use

11.8%

11.8%

A couple of times a week

11.5%

13.0%

A couple of times a month

5.6%

5.4%

A couple of times a fortnight

4.4%

4.1%

Once a week

4.2%

2.2%

Once a fortnight

1.9%

1.5%

Of daily users, 26.3% said they were unemployed, with 14.5% in construction and 8.9% stay-at-home parents. For occasional users, 22.2% were in construction, 9.9% in mining and 8.1% in hospitality.

More daily users (7.8%) identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander than occasional users (4.5%), and slightly more daily users said they are homosexual, bisexual or ‘other’, than occasional users. Age spread for daily and occasional users was very similar.

Daily users generally noted incomes at the lower end of the scale, with just over a third earning under $25,000. Slightly more than half earned between $25,000 and $100,000, and around 14% earned over $100,000.

Occasional users had higher incomes, with 13.6% earning under $25,000, 59.9% between $25,000 and $100,000, and just over a quarter earning over $100,000. While daily users were most likely to work in construction, be unemployed or stay-at-home parents, occasional users mostly identified as working in construction, mining or hospitality. Geography made little difference in terms of daily or occasional use, with both groups reporting very similar spreads across urban, regional, rural and remote locations.

Daily users were less well-educated than occasional users, with more daily than occasional users completing their education at Year 10 (47.6% and 33.7% respectively), and more occasional users having completed university (7%) than daily users (3.5%).

More than half of respondents who identified using occasionally said they did so because they like the feeling of being high (52.5%) and to party and socialise (68.7%). Daily users liked the feeling of being high (57.9%) but also noted they used ice to escape reality (52.1%), because they have issues and thoughts they do not want to deal with (51%), and because they used it a bit and now cannot stop (50.6%). In line with this, 40.7% of daily users said they felt addicted within a month of using multiple times a week.

Reasons for ongoing use of ice by frequency of use 

Reason

Daily user

Occasional user

I like the feeling of being high

57.9%

52.5%

I want to escape reality

52.1%

24.0%

I have issues and thoughts I don’t want to deal with

51.0%

18.1%

I used it a bit and now can’t stop

50.6%

1.8%

To feel confident

38.0%

20.0%

To party and socialise

35.1%

68.7%

All my friends use it

28.0%

11.7%

I feel like I think more clearly

27.7%

13.7%

To help me focus at work

25.1%

4.6%

More daily users rated ice as being extremely dangerous to a user’s health (42.3%) compared to occasional users (25.3%), and slightly more daily users (47.9%) rated ice users extremely or very dangerous to other people compared to occasional users (44%). While more daily users than occasional users felt ice is extremely addictive (62.2% and 43.1% respectively), around 80-90% of both groups rated it as very or extremely addictive.

Perception of prevalence of use was consistent with the overarching sample, in that perception was much higher than reality. Almost a third of daily users thought 31-50% of Australians have tried ice, a further third thought 51 – 71% have tried it, and 12.6% thought 71 – 100% have tried ice. Occasional users were closer to reality, with 37.2% thinking 10 – 30% of Australians have tried ice, and 26.7% believing 31 – 50% have tried ice.

Perception of message credibility

Compared to similar surveys conducted on cannabis, trust in government messages and campaigns was higher, however a strong level of scepticism still remained. As expected, those people who tried ice or would try ice were more cynical, many believing government messages are exaggerated and ‘only tell the bad stuff’, though in contrast to cannabis, many did still believe they are ‘probably true’. This perception of government will be a key issue to consider in future campaigns. The types of organisations that were more trusted to deliver messaging about ice were identified as hospital and health professionals, past users and scientists/universities.

Conclusion

While this survey is not from a random sample, so does not inform prevalence, it does provide valuable insights into the opinions and ideas of ice users, as compared to non-users and potential users. It clearly highlights that there is a subset of respondents who are open to use of ice, despite being accurately aware of short and long-term side effects. It suggests this group may underestimate the level of addictiveness of ice, believe it to be less dangerous to health, and users less dangerous to others, compared even to those respondents who identified as daily users.

Though prevention and awareness should largely be aimed at young people due to peak ages of first use, trends in the survey indicate a need for education, awareness and support in other groups. Stay-at-home, low-income parents with less education, living in country areas indicated notable levels of trying ice and use compared to other groups. The highlighted main reasons for use in this group – to escape reality and deal with unwanted issues and thoughts – indicate a need for further support in this area. Likewise, industry trends indicated a need for further focus on primary prevention in fields such as construction, mining and hospitality. 

Also of note, a vast majority of respondents indicated a strong understanding of short and long-term side effects, with many either having already selected, or identifying they may select to use ice in the future. This points to awareness of potential side effects possibly not being a strong enough deterrent for trying and using the drug as they believe it won’t happen to them, and a need to further examine the effectiveness of other messaging in education campaigns.

Ice is a destructive, dangerous drug for which prevalence of use is growing. This market research survey has provided some initial insights into the mindsets of users and non-users in Australia, and identified a need for further exploration of message targeting, content and methods of delivery in order to inform primary prevention approaches. Further research is also required to develop interventions at all stages of the ice use cycle, with a focus on early interventions.

 

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2013. Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat. no. PHE 183. Canberra: AIHW.
  2. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (2015). National Ice Taskforce present its interim report to the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Sydney. Available from: http://www.dpmc.gov.au/taskforces/national-ice-taskforce [12.08.2015]