Meth deaths double in six years
THE number of Australians killed as a result of methamphetamine use has doubled in just six years, shocking new data shows.
Professor Shane Darke from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre described the findings, released today in the academic journal Addiction, as a public health crisis.
His team examined 1649 fatalities linked to the illicit drug between 2009 and 2015 and found a mortality rate up to six times greater than the general population.
"I hear it occasionally said that the extent of the methamphetamine problem has been overstated, but I think this many identified cases over seven years shows we have a major problem," Professor Darke said.
On average, each death represented 44 years of lost individual life, he said.
There are different types of methamphetamine, generally distinguished by their appearance and purity, and the drug crystal meth - commonly known as ice - is the most popular among users.
Professor Darke found a "hidden danger" in meth-related deaths, in the form of damage to vital organs from even modest amounts of the drug.
In 22 per cent of cases, 'natural' disease like cardiac arrest or stroke were the common causes of death, Professor Darke said.
"Many users may be unaware that heart disease is a major factor in methamphetamine-related death."
Current projections indicate there are about 300,000 regular users of meth across the country.
Popular perceptions centre on violence and while deaths from accident, misadventure and suicide are high, almost half of meth users perished from overdose.
"Basically, the person becomes unbearably hot and their temperature spikes. They have trouble breathing and they may fit.
"Even a very little amount can kill you - it can engender a heart attack."
He fears the rates of death - which rose year-on-year until 2012 when they plateued at dangerously high levels - will not improve without greater awareness.
"But there are long-term impacts too," Professor Darke said.
"Even if everyone stopped using methamphetamines today, we're looking at a number of individuals with serious damage to their hearts."
Another troubling finding surrounded the 300 identified suicides in the data, he said.
When looking at the methods those people used to take their own lives, he observed unusually violent and impulsive acts.
"I've done research on suicide for many years and one thing that stood out, which I've never seen before ... is the disinhibition, impulsivity, and aggression shown in these cases.
"It's just not typical of suicide."
While meth deaths skewed fairly young, there were no commonalities when it came to location or socio-economic status, he said.
Tests carried out on wastewater last week (to determine the prevalence of drug use) showed South Australia and Western Australia were home to the nation's biggest meth users.
Almost half of those occurred in regional or rural locations and a large number of users were gainfully employed when they died.
However very few were in treatment, showing the need for greater funding for services.
"We think there are aspects of the dangers of methamphetamine that people - particularly users - aren't aware of," he said.
"This is the tip of the iceberg. I think this issue is something from which the effects will be felt for decades to come."
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Alcohol and Drug Foundation on 1300 85 85 84 or visit adf.org.au