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April 21, 2021

Book review – Scattered: The Inside Story of Ice in Australia

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Scattered,-The-Inside-Story-of-Ice-in-Australia-by Malcolm Knox, Allen & Unwin, pb $32.99

Australian journalist and author Malcolm Knox has written a comprehensive, entertaining and eye-opening account of the rise and rise of methamphetamine use in Australia. He surveys its earlier history in Asia and how it came to take over from amphetamine (‘speed’) as a major illegal stimulant.

According to Knox, meth, crystal, shabu, now generally known as ice, has some pretty exciting effects for the user, at least until the psychosis, paranoia and rage set in. Its high – reputedly a much stronger rush than sex – lasts much longer than speed, and makes the user feel invincible and effective. You can knock over banks or alphabetise your record collection all day long without losing concentration. It is significantly cheaper than heroin or cocaine and, for the dealer, it can be made in a backyard lab (do not try this at home – you might blow yourself up or stain the curtains).

But – and it’s a very big but – it fucks with your brain big time. Ice sets loose the brain’s popular pleasure neurotransmitters such as dopamine in great floods. ‘But in the aftermath of neurotransmitter release,’ writes Knox, ‘the methamphetamine is involved in other chemical reactions that damage the body’s capacity to make new neurotransmitters’. Some research also indicates that long-term ice use can ravage nerve cells in many regions of the brain, resulting in slowed motor skills and memory loss, with symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. It can also lead to antisocial behaviour of the most violent kind and a lifetime of depression.

Knox is no ‘literary gentleman with a seat in the grandstand’ (Tom Wolfe, 1973) in his observations. He talks to users, cops and experts and presents a wealth of case histories, many of them not for the squeamish. Petty crims and upmarket lawyers, both cliques ice users, get to have their say.

Most of the dangers of ice are made obvious. Among the most disturbing is the peddling of ice as a party drug among youth, especially young males who are already under the delusion they are bulletproof. It is often passed off as ecstasy, which is another kettle of euphoria altogether.

Knox also points to the islands of sanity in the sea of law-and-order rhetoric that drowns the sensible drug debate we need to have: these are the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre (http://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au) and the work of Dr Alex Wodak, director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation (http://adlrf.org.au/), Wodak helped introduce the first needle exchange program to Australia and has been pushing shit uphill for decades in his bid to change the entrenched and mistaken view that the War On Drugs is working.

If you want to know more about the drugs you or your children are ingesting, then NDARC is a good place to start. Its fact sheet on ‘Methamphetamine use and health’ is a relevant wake-up call. In addition, the Australian Institute of Criminology’s DUMA project (aic.gov.au) offers plenty of data on drug trends for those who want to drill a little deeper, and the ADLRF has an impressive list of recommended reading.

(By the way, Knox’s brilliant career is enough to make any newspaper hack envious. As well as writing a slew of novels and impressive non-fiction works, Knox has been chief cricket correspondent, assistant sport editor and literary editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. In that last position he won a Walkley award, along with Caroline Overington, for breaking the story of the fake Jordanian memoirist, Norma Khouri. Jammy bastard.)

~ Michael McDonald

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