When ICE Was legal

Australia’s ice “epidemic” has led to a flurry of media attention, particularly regarding the impact of ice use on violence and addiction.

Given the recent focus on problematic ice use it may surprise many that this drug used to be widely available in Australia.

The Need for Speed

Methamphetamine (or ‘ice’ in its crystallised form) is part of a collective group of drugs called ‘amphetamine-type stimulants’ including other drugs such as levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine (collectively known as ‘amphetamine’) as well as ephedrine, a stimulant derived from the plant Ephedra.

Amphetamine was first synthesised in 1887 by Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu who was looking for a synthetic dye. Methamphetamine was synthesised in 1893 by a Japanese organic chemist named Nagai Nagayoshi.

Most currently illicit drugs in Australia were not under police control until the 1960s.

Amphetamine was available in chemists as the pharmaceutical Benzedrine from the 1930s until the 1950s purporting to be a treatment for narcolepsy, obesity, low blood pressure, low libido and chronic pain. Similarly, methamphetamine was sold in diet and “pep” pills in Australia under the brand Methedrine until the 1960s.

Both amphetamine and methamphetamine were also used to promote wakefulness and endurance amongst soldiers in World World 2 in Japan, Germany and the United States. Adolf Hitler was an avid fan of amphetamine, allegedly becoming addicted to the substance in the final days of the war.

So how did we get from over-the-counter meth to police raids? It’s complicated.

Breaking the Ice

The reason amphetamine-type stimulants were eventually criminalised was largely driven by historical forces rather than measurable harms.

Before federation in 1901, very few laws regulated the use of drugs in Australia. The first Australian drug laws in the early 20th century-imposed restrictions on opium, primarily as a means to discourage the entry of Chinese people into the country.

Australia’s earliest drug laws focused on the “narcotics” of opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine and cannabis. It wasn’t until Australia became a signatory to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances that amphetamine-type stimulants were uniformly criminalised when used recreationally.

The rationale for the 1971 Convention was ostensibly due to the growing understanding of the health implications of many psychoactive substances. In the case of amphetamine-type stimulants, this emerging understanding included knowledge that heavy abuse could result in drug-induced psychosis.

However, early legal scholars such as Dr Terry Carney were noting as early as 1981 that Australian drug laws were being largely influenced by the commercial interests of pharmacies as well as international relations, rather than local concerns regarding harms.

“Drug policies have been ‘reactive’ responses rather than the product of political vision or leadership” noted Dr Carney, “the policies have been conformist rather than innovative”.

Indeed, some scholars see the beginning of the ‘War on Drugs’ in Australia and abroad, as a political backlash against the emerging civil rights and hippie movements of the 1960s.

The Prohibition Paradox

The irony of Australia’s ‘prohibitionist’ approach to stimulants is that it likely made things a lot more dangerous for users and society as a whole.

Stimulant usage in Australia was at a peak in the 1960s, but usage was largely of moderate purity, therapeutically-prepared amphetamine – which carries lower risks of dependence and psychosis than other forms.

Since prohibition, the usage of amphetamine-type stimulants has waxed and waned however the purity and type of stimulants used has shifted into more dangerous preparations. Of most concern is the shift in illicit markets away from powder-based amphetamine (“speed”) to crystallised, high purity methamphetamine (“ice”) in the early 2000s.

As a result, Australia has been experiencing a paradoxical pattern of lower rates of amphetamine-type stimulant usage, but increasing amounts of drug-related harms including drug-induced psychosis, hospitalisations and dependency.

The Australian experience is an excellent example of what is referred to in criminology as the ‘iron law of prohibition’ – where criminalising a substance increases the purity of drugs on the illicit market. A good example is how during alcohol prohibition in the United States, bootleg moonshine became the preferred product of choice to be smuggled by organised crime.

Whilst it may seem logical to have criminal laws against ‘dangerous drugs’ such as ice, it’s important to keep in mind that this is an oddity of recent history.

We should be able to think critically about our current approach to illicit drugs and ask whether the ‘War on Drugs’ cure is worse than the disease.