Editorial: Health or crime issue, the worst is to come

A national study into ice-related deaths that has made headlines this week has highlighted in measurable terms how much of a health issue the dangerous drug poses. But bad as these death figures are, there is a danger they obscure a much larger risk.

The death rate even though it has doubled to 280 in 2015 probably doesn’t reflect wider health or social costs. Interestingly, only 43 per cent of these deaths represent overdoses, which on a sheer numbers scale would not make it necessarily more alarming than similar heroin deaths. 

Laid against other causes of death it pales against some of our other significant causes of premature death like alcohol, tobacco or for that matter suicide or the road toll. But a life lost is still a life wasted, so the headlines don’t speak nearly enough about the significance of this cost. Cities like Bendigo are all well aware of the crime related aspects of the drug; the seemingly endless chain of recidivists through magistrates courts, the theft and deranged behaviour which has become an easy hallmark of ice use.

Along with the fat profits made by organised crime for its production, we begin to see the breadth of a bigger problem disproportionately concentrated in the regions. Even given its severity, it adds further evidence that it must be tackled primarily as a health issue, where police cannot arrest themselves out of the problem.

Lead report author Professor Shane Darke highlights it as a health time bomb, whose great threat is not only in these death numbers but the dangers of what is to come.

"With so much public attention focused on violence, many users may be unaware that heart disease is a major factor in methamphetamine-related death," he said.

"Without increased awareness of the connection between methamphetamine use and cardiac and/or cardiovascular disease we could expect to see a significant increase in cases of this kind in the coming years."

If most users are young males, the damage – particularly from recreational use – may not yet be apparent. If 'natural' disease, suicide and accident comprised half of all deaths recorded in the six-year study period, the worrying unanswered question is how many of these future deaths are waiting in the wings, to act as a blight to future young lives? It also shows investment in both education and rehabilitation, while they may have shown some success, must be considered only the fist step to address the problem.