Patterns of use and harms associated with specific populations of methamphetamine users in Australia - exploratory research

5. Understanding the broad context of methamphetamine use

Page last updated: February 2008

Some broad influences that influence all the target groups were identified in the research. These can be categorised into two areas:

  1. Knowledge of and attitudes to different methamphetamines and
  2. Geographical differences.
Each of these influences are discussed in detail below.

5.1 Knowledge of and attitudes to different methamphetamines

Official definitions of the three main forms of methamphetamines - speed, base and ice/ crystal meth – often clearly differentiate the drugs in terms of appearance and purity of methamphetamine. 'Speed' is commonly identified as white powder and is recognised as similar to the drug consisting of amphetamine sulphate which was available prior to the relatively recent growth of methamphetamines in Australia. While it is recognised that what is known as speed currently consists of methamphetamine, it is generally regarded as having low levels of purity (about 10%)15.

The name 'base' is used to describe the substance that contains a greater level of purity of methamphetamine (about 20%)16 and is more of a paste or 'toffee like' in appearance. Base is commonly thought to be a shade of brown in colour. Ice/ crystal meth is recognised as the highest in levels of purity of methamphetamine (towards 80%) and is identified by its crystallised, white appearance.

Users themselves also clearly articulated these differences and readily discussed the different forms of methamphetamine in terms of purity, intensity and length of the highs and comedowns. These differences in the experiences of taking these different forms of methamphetamine were commonly described by respondents using a wave-like pattern (Figure 1).

Differences were also often defined on a linear scale in terms of purity. Both in 'official' definitions and in the perceptions of many users, a large gap was believed to exist between the purity and strength of speed/ base and ice. Figure 2 illustrates this perception, with speed and base considered relatively close together in purity of methamphetamine and therefore the subsequent high and low, and possible risks of using the drugs. In contrast, ice was thought to be at the far end of the spectrum in terms of purity of methamphetamine, and was perceived as much stronger, with a greater high and low, and with greater risks to using.

However, descriptions of what is available and used do not always fit these perceived definitions. This was illustrated by the differences in the name that some respondents gave the methamphetamine they were taking and their subsequent description of it. The following are two examples of this.

A respondent, who claimed he used 'speed' on a regular basis and claimed to never want to try base or ice, described the drug he was taking as:

"Sometimes it's powder, or it's gooey, sometimes it's harder ... it can be brown, pink, white ... sometimes it's stronger too ..."
Similarly, a regular rave party attendee who used base and claimed he would never try ice, described the base he was using as follows:

"It can be soft or it can be hard, depends what's around ... usually brown ... you've got to see how strong it is too."
While the general perception among many younger and recreational users was that 'if it's not white and crystalised, it's not ice', these descriptions indicate that the perceived gap in 'purity' is not so clear cut in reality. As the above examples indicate, many who claimed that they would never use ice may actually be using drugs much stronger and with greater risk than they believe.

Experienced users were more aware that the three forms of methamphetamine do not fit clearly into the commonly believed definitions of appearance and purity levels. They were more aware that a broad range of methamphetamines were available that varied in strength along the linear scale of purity. Figure 3 indicates that while 'speed' occupies a place at the lower end of the scale and 'ice' occupies a place at the higher end, the section in the middle is more fluid and made up of various permutations of methamphetamines that may not always fit the perceived definition of 'base'. Top of page

The quotes below from more experienced users also illustrate this:

"It's just meth ... its purity depends on what ingredients the cook can get his hands on and how long he's got to do it ... it could be base, really strong base or ice ..."
"Wet, dry, crystal, paste – depends who's made it and the recipe they've used, what website they got it from."
The commonly held perceptions of how different ice is to speed and base by younger, less experienced users carries some implications for how information about the drugs are presented. As many see ice almost as a completely different drug than what they use:
  • they may not see the information on ice as relevant to them as they assume they are only taking other methamphetamines, not ice
  • they may feel they are relatively safe in their use of speed and base as they draw a line between these drugs and ice and
  • they may not link certain risks with their drug taking, thinking that the risks only apply to the more pure form of methamphetamine (ice)
"It's speed, not ice".
This is not to say that the established definitions should be challenged. Defining ice as a much stronger methamphetamine with greater risks appears to be a valuable awareness and prevention measure. Many younger, less experienced methamphetamine users found the information in the recent ice campaign as relevant and credible and readily cited it as a reason not to use ice. However, in development of targeted interventions and information strategies, it will be useful to understand that while many hold the perception that a large gap exists between speed/ base and ice, the permutations of methamphetamines that are produced in reality do not fit established perceptions and definitions.
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Figure 1: Perceived differences in the three identified forms of methamphetamine

Text equivalent below for Figure 1: Perceived differences in the three identified forms of methamphetamine

Text version of Figure 1

This graph shows the intensity of speed, base and ice over time. All show a wave-like pattern with a high followed by a low. Ice has the greatest high and low, speed has the smallest high and low, and base is in between. Top of page

Figure 2: Perceptions of forms of methamphetamine on a linear scale of purity

Text equivalent below for Figure 2: Perceptions of forms of methamphetamine on a linear scale of purity

Text version of Figure 2

This figure shows that on a spectrum from 0% to 100% speed and base considered relatively close together in purity of methamphetamine and on the lower end of the range in terms of: the high; and possible risk. While ice is considered to be much stronger and is on the high end of the spectrum.

Figure 3: The actual linear scale purity

Text equivalent below for Figure 3: The actual linear scale purity

Text version of Figure 3

This figure indicates that on a spectrum from 0% to 100%:
  • Speed (white powder) occupies the lowest end of the spectrum;
  • Ice (white, crystal) occupies the higher end of the spectrum; and
  • Base (everything else, made up of various permutations of methamphetamines that may not always fit the perceived definition of base) occupies the middle section.
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5.2 Geographical differences

A number of differences were noticed across geographic areas. These related specifically to the reported availability of different forms of methamphetamine in specific geographic areas, and in the names used to describe the different forms.

Geographic differences and claimed availability of methamphetamines

These findings have been based on the differences in claimed availability that existed across user groups in each jurisdiction, regardless of frequency of usage and concern levels.

Respondents in Western Australia claimed that ice was the primary methamphetamine available, with some references to base. A similar trend emerged in Queensland, where ice was claimed to be the most commonly available. In contrast, the dominant methamphetamine in terms of availability and usage in South Australia was base, although it was commonly called 'meth'. Ice was known to be available in this state but was more difficult to get. In all these jurisdictions it was claimed that powered speed was not able to be obtained at all.

In New South Wales, it was claimed that both ice and powdered speed were readily available, and there were claims that base was becoming more available and more frequently used. The trend was similar in Victoria; however users tended to refer to base as a paste, and call it 'smokeable speed'.

Interestingly, many of the more experienced methamphetamine users commented negatively on the move away from powdered speed to other forms of methamphetamine. As stated by one,

"If speed was available I'd choose that over ice any day. There's no such thing as speed anymore, it's all methamphetamines now."
The apparent differences in availability and supply across geographic areas were exacerbated in regional and rural communities. Inconsistent drug supplies meant that most methamphetamine users would take whatever permutation of methamphetamine that was available. The quotes below illustrate these points.

"If you can't get goey, you get whatever they're selling as goey."
"It's easier to get ice in (regional town) now than it is to get marijuana."

15 NDARC, 2006, 'Methamphetamines, Mental Health and Drug Law Reform.' 2006, NDARC Fact Sheets,
16 Ibid.