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Groves, Andrew --- "Rethinking the Methamphetamine Situation: Perceptions of Risk and Current Policy Dialogue" [2014] CICrimJust 21; (2014) 26(2) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 195

Rethinking the Methamphetamine Situation: Perceptions of Risk and Current Policy Dialogue

Andrew Groves[*]


The ‘war on drugs’ has engendered significant recent debate, encompassing a variety of opinions, evidence and knowledge (though often polarised), from a wide range of sources. In Australia, much of this debate has focused on the harms and risks associated with illicit drugs. Often of concern has been young people’s use of illicit drugs in nightclubs, which recent media and government reports suggest has increased and requires critical review given young people’s relative lack of knowledge and their desire for risk-taking behaviour. While there have been many attempts to address this subject, the persistence of this practice questions the effectiveness of current ‘expert’ strategies and highlights the need for a more nuanced, bottom-up approach. This article draws from mixed-method research that examined young people’s risk perceptions, leisure practices and, for some, use of methamphetamines in five key nightclubs in Adelaide, South Australia. The article provides a snapshot of the prevalence of methamphetamine use, evaluates current policy responses, and details key empirical findings, concluding that there is need for a more open and diverse policy dialogue.

Keywords: methamphetamine — illicit drug use — drug policy — young people — risk perception

The Australian drug landscape: The methamphetamine situation

In Australia, the approach to the ‘war on drugs’ has been broad, focusing on numerous putative drug ‘threats’ (see comments by Commonwealth Attorney-General Nicola Roxon in Lee 2012). These threats have most often been represented by more well-known substances, such as ecstasy (see Sindicich and Burns 2011; White et al 2006), heroin (Degenhardt et al 2007; Bush 2002) and cocaine (see Black et al 2007; ACC 2005), though the range is much larger. From 2001, there was a sudden and significant rise in the prevalence and use of methamphetamines in Australia (Sweeney and MacGregor 2012; MacGregor and Payne 2011; ACC 2010), the speed and extent of which caused widespread concern. This emergence was driven by significant changes in the Australian drug market, which saw a shift from amphetamines to more pure forms of methamphetamine (Ransley et al 2011; NDRI and AIC 2007). These changes included the increased domestic availability of pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical used in the manufacture of methamphetamines (Groves and Marmo 2009; Snowball et al 2008), and the substantive decline in the supply of heroin, associated with the 2001 ‘heroin drought’ (Bush 2002; Weatherburn et al 2001). The domestic nature of these changes reduced the effectiveness, at least in the short term, of traditional law enforcement measures enabling its spread.

In terms of the current drug landscape in Australia, the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey estimated that more than 1.5 million Australians — or seven per cent of the population aged 14 years and older — had used methamphetamines in their lifetime, with recent use remaining stable at 2.1 per cent (AIHW 2014). Though the data represents a moderate decline in methamphetamine use from its peak in 2004, both in terms of the general population and sentinel surveys of regular stimulant users (Roxburgh et al 2013; NDARC 2013), there is still cause for concern. While there was no significant increase in overall methamphetamine use from 2010, there was a shift in the main form used, with use of powder decreasing (from 51 to 29 per cent) and the use of ‘ice’ more than doubling (from 22 to 50 per cent) among current users in 2013 (AIHW 2014). There was also an increase in the proportion of users consuming methamphetamines daily or weekly (from 9.3 to 15.5 per cent), particularly among ice users (from 12.4 to 25.3 per cent). The overall figures identify Australia as a prominent site of prevalent use within the international context with use estimated at three times the global average (0.7 per cent), and greater than a number of comparable countries, most notably the United States (1.3 per cent) (UNODC 2013; see also Sweeney and Payne 2012).

Of concern is that, despite the moderate impact of a range of legislative reforms on stabilising recent rates of use (see Ransley et al 2011), methamphetamine use has not declined since 2010 and remains the illicit drug of most concern to the community in 2013 (AIHW 2014). The sustained presence of methamphetamines for particular groups in the community rationalises the need for greater evaluation of the meanings, rationales and prevalence of their use, and understanding of how this affects Australian drug policy.

In order to undertake a more nuanced approach, first it is necessary to evaluate the current response to methamphetamine use. Australia’s response to illicit drug use, generally, has been grounded in ‘expert’ assessments of the harms and risks associated with drug use (Ransley et al 2011), with responses aimed at reducing the negative effects of drug use on the community (Douglas and McDonald 2012; Duff 2004). The most comprehensive effort has been the National Drug Strategy (‘NDS’), launched in 1985 (Hughes 2012; NDS 2004), the most recent revision of which is the National Drug Strategy 2010–2015 (MCDS 2011). Broadly speaking, the NDS comprises three key pillars:

1. reducing the demand for drugs through prevention/treatment (demand reduction);

2. reducing the availability of drugs via legislation and law enforcement (supply reduction); and

3. reducing the harms of drugs to the people who continue to use them (harm reduction) (MCDS 2011; NDS 2004).

This has been complemented by the National Amphetamine Type Stimulant Strategy (2008–2011), which by its nature is more focused in its approach (MCDS 2006). These strategies have served as a foundation for substantive legislative review related to illicit drug use and manufacture, including access to precursor chemicals[1] (see Groves and Marmo 2009; McKetin 2007). These efforts have also aimed to create and/or enhance multi-disciplinary partnerships between government, health care and law enforcement agencies to foster a ‘balanced’ approach to the regulation of drug use (Douglas and McDonald 2012).

However, whether this balance has been achieved is contestable. In reality, government efforts have gravitated predominantly towards a supply reduction approach, dominated by law enforcement strategies (Ritter, McLeod and Shanahan 2013; Douglas and McDonald 2012). Many sources suggest that this is best illustrated by the allocation of resources, which disproportionately support law enforcement initiatives and neglect alternative methods (Douglas and McDonald 2012; McDonald 2011). For the period of 2009–10, the Australian ‘drug budget’ was $1701.1 million, two-thirds of which was spent on law enforcement and interdiction ($1123.3 million), compared with expenditure on treatment (21 per cent), prevention (nine per cent), and harm reduction (two per cent) measures which received significantly less (Ritter et al 2013). While it is acknowledged that law enforcement likely dominated in early strategies because of the lack of treatment options (Lancaster et al 2014), more recently the NDS has guided the development of clean needle/syringe injection rooms (Iversen and Maher 2008), treatment facilities for users (Jenner and Lee 2008), and a number of education programs (DASSA 2006a). While the uptake of these initiatives suggests movement towards balance (see Shearer 2009), much more is needed.

For example, the National Amphetamine Type Stimulant Strategy identifies the need for much greater knowledge of the context and diversity of illicit drug use (MCDS 2006); in this case why methamphetamines are used in night-time settings and by whom, especially given the level of anti-drug campaigning. This knowledge is central to moving away from an otherwise exclusive rhetoric of only harms and risk-taking associated with drug use that surely presents a mismatch between policy and reality — driving a wedge between drug users and the law and weakening policy (harm reduction) objectives (see Buchanan and Young 2000). As recently noted by Lancaster, Ritter and Colebatch (2014:147), ‘drug policy is a complex and controversial policy domain and traditional models of the policy process which present policy making as a process of authoritative problem solving by governments deny the complexity of the policy process in the real-world’. In supporting a movement away from a problem-solving approach, the remainder of this article is devoted to discussion of empirical research regarding young people’s use of methamphetamines within the South Australian night-time economy (‘NTE’). The data describes one illicit drug use context, though it is acknowledged that there are many and, as such, the findings presented should be considered in this context. However, that this article demonstrates empirically that some young people have coherent and logical risk perceptions and that those risk perceptions are not entirely exclusive from that of the experts that formulate policy suggests that there is scope for the development of a more apposite drug policy.

Rationale for an empirical analysis of perceptions of risk

The behaviour of young people has long been of concern to governments and experts,[2] particularly in relation to illicit drugs (see Holt 2005; Muncie 2002; Boys et al 2001). This article draws on empirical research that investigated the experiences of young people who attended Adelaide nightclubs and used methamphetamines, or were exposed to others’ use in this social setting.

The focus on methamphetamines

Methamphetamine is a psycho-stimulant that affects the brain and central nervous system, producing intense feelings of pleasure (Groves and Marmo 2009; McKetin et al 2006a). Even in small doses, methamphetamine can increase alertness, mood and physical activity while decreasing appetite (Lee et al 2007), factors that have contributed to its popularity among nightclubbers. Compared with other illicit substances, methamphetamine is easier to use,[3] relatively inexpensive, more accessible, and provides a more intense and sustained feeling of pleasure[4] (Darke et al 2008; UNODC 2008). These traits have fashioned methamphetamines as a sustained feature of the illicit drug landscape in Australia (Degenhardt et al 2008; ANCD 2007) and internationally (UNODC 2010; Wilkinson 2008). They have also underpinned concerns regarding the prevalence of use, specifically the level of dependence (Chalmers et al 2009), given that of the 400 000 regular methamphetamine users in Australia, nearly 73 000 are dependent (Ritter 2007). Regular use has been associated with significant harms for the user, including emotional instability, social exclusion, physical and mental health problems and economic disadvantage (Darke et al 2008; McKetin et al 2006b), as well as for the wider community through criminal activity (Degenhardt et al 2008).

It is important, however, to not only consider what a particular drug does, but also why and for what purpose. Despite recognition of the prevalence of methamphetamines in Australia, its apparent social and cultural acceptance by certain groups (for example, young people) is yet to be fully explored. Few studies have examined young people’s methamphetamine use within the social context of the nightclub (see Miller et al 2013; Pennay and Moore 2010; Duff 2005), particularly with regard to young people’s attitudes towards methamphetamine use or the associated risks. Those that have typically have engaged very small samples (see BMRP 2008; Vincent et al 1999) and, similarly to other drug studies, focused only on problematic forms of use (Topp et al 1999) and the need for ‘targeted interventions’ (see Shearer 2009), rather than the meaning of or motivations for drug use. This research was therefore a unique opportunity to examine young people’s risk perceptions and attitudes toward methamphetamine use, to identify the factors that, for certain groups and in particular settings, negate the influence of traditional reduction measures (like law enforcement).

The nightclub scene

The relationship between illicit drug use and nightclubs is well established elsewhere

(see Hutton 2010; Purcell and Graham 2005; McCambridge et al 2005) and in Australia (see Ross et al 2007; Degenhardt et al 2006; Degenhardt and Topp 2002). Miller and colleagues (2013) note that psychostimulants are the most widely consumed illicit substance within licensed venues. Drawing from the largest empirical study of licensed venues in Australia, Miller et al (2013) reported a relatively low level of self-reported methamphetamine use by the more than 6000 patrons interviewed across five cities (three per cent, n=179). However, when a smaller sample was tested (by mouth swab), a much higher level of use was identified[5] (15 per cent, n=401). Although overall rates of use have stabilised, there is evidence that drug use by young people in nightlife settings is often far higher than in the general population (EMCDDA 2002; Kelly, Parsons and Wells 2006). In South Australia, methamphetamine use appears common within nightclubs, linked to the increased use of ice (crystal methamphetamine) popular in this setting, representing a relatively large sample of distinct users (see Sutherland and Burns 2011; Donald et al 2006). This fits with recent legislative reforms (see n 1 above) and media attention (Kemp 2013; Adams 2012), which identify the nightclub as a site of consumption and considerable meaning for these young people. Understanding the role of this setting is an important component of drug policy development, especially with regard to how young people use the nightclub and cultivate risk perceptions of the activities engaged therein, including the use of methamphetamines.

The South Australian context

To understand the context of this research, it is essential to appreciate the social, geographical and political climate of Adelaide, South Australia. First, the prevalence of methamphetamine use in South Australia identifies it as one of the key sites of concern nationally (Sutherland and Burns 2012; Weekley et al 2006; DASSA 2006b). This is supported by numerous high-profile seizures and arrests (AdelaideNow 2011a; 2011b; ACS 2008; ABC 2013), the magnitude of which can be attributed to the narrower drug profile of Adelaide (Longo et al 2003) where there is limited exposure to other substances such as cocaine and heroin traditionally experienced elsewhere (Sindicich and Burns 2011). Second, as noted above, the Adelaide NTE has received significant recent media attention (Kemp 2013; AdelaideNow 2013) and policy scrutiny (SAPOL 2010; Prenzler et al 2008) concerning reports of violence and disorderly behaviour perceived to be associated with excessive methamphetamine consumption, as well as its manufacture and sale (AdelaideNow 2013). The concern regarding youth club drug use has formed part of a more extensive law and order debate occurring within the context of a ‘social conscience’ Labor Government that embraced a strong ‘tough on crime’ stance that encompassed outlaw motorcycle gangs, young nightclubbers, and methamphetamines (Rann 2008). The ‘tough on crime’ stance targeted the NTE as many incidents of violence occurred in the ‘entertainment’ precinct of Adelaide (ACA 2008). Third, South Australia is the fifth-largest state of Australia, comprising only 7.4 per cent of the total population in 2010 (22.3 million) (ABS 2011a).

The population of South Australia is approximately 1.6 million, with almost 75 per cent concentrated in metropolitan Adelaide (ABS 2011b). In June 2010, the number of 18- to 25-year-olds in South Australia was estimated at 160 973, which represents 10 per cent of the population (ABS 2011b). Coupled with the weight of recent debate and policy reform, these figures located South Australia as an appropriate and manageable site from which the findings obtained could contribute meaningful and practical knowledge relevant to state and national drug policy.


To date, there remains a mismatch between the goals and outcomes of Australia’s illicit drug policy (Duff 2005; Wellbourne-Wood 1999), in that, despite substantial policy reform and anti-drug campaigning, young people continue to use methamphetamines, particularly within nightclubs. As will be demonstrated, a major reason for this is the gulf that exists between experts’ risk perceptions and those of young people. An empirical study was undertaken to examine young people’s perceptions and actual use of methamphetamines in Adelaide nightclubs. Specifically, this research examined how young people garner meaning from and ascribe value to the role and experience of pleasure in the nightclub, and how this affects their risk perceptions of methamphetamine use in these venues. This study demonstrates a departure from traditional drug research by analysing young people’s risk perceptions without being limited to the experiences of users alone. Conceptualising the policy mismatch as a broader discussion of risk perceptions enabled a situated understanding of risk that revealed much of the meaning, nuance and milieu of the illicit drug landscape in the Adelaide nightclub scene.

To achieve this level of analysis, a mixed-method approach was employed with a sample of 549 young people in Adelaide, South Australia. Following a pilot study (n=89) that guided overall research and instrument design, the main research employed quantitative surveys, qualitative interviews and ethnographic participant-observation to collect data from 460 young people who attended five prominent Adelaide nightclubs during a three-month period in 2010. The selection of research sites was an important task guided by three sources: 1) data drawn from the pilot study used to develop a profile of the most popular venues; 2) preliminary observation of the field, information from which was cross-referenced with the pilot data; and 3) comparison with venue-classification and licensing regulations (for example, capacity, trading hours). The sites selected experienced greatest average attendance from Wednesday to Sunday, varied from restricted licences to 24-hour operation, were located in the city and, at the time of the research, were not restricted by more recent ‘lock out’ laws. A total of 54 nights were spent in the field, divided between survey distribution and participant observation. Fieldwork was undertaken on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, for four to five hours and mostly between 9 pm and 2 am, though start- and end-times were varied to ensure a random sample

In total, 457 surveys and 22 interviews of drug users and non-drug users were completed. Of the 457 respondents surveyed, 19 also completed an interview with three interviewees recruited through snowball sampling (n=460). Participants were aged 18 to 25 and were randomly selected while waiting to enter one of the research sites. Each received the Perception of Risk (‘POR’) survey, consisting of 28 questions that sought demographic data and were thematically divided into four sections that examined participants’ nightclub attendance, awareness of drug use, identification of risk, and prevalence of drug use, including methamphetamine use. The order and depth of questions was such that participants were not guided in their responses (Berg 2007; Fink 2003) and the focus of the research on methamphetamines was not conveyed to participants. This not only provided a more comfortable point of entry, but also a foundation from which to move to more central and personal topics (Fink 2003). The survey took five minutes to complete and was completed by participants in situ, providing an assessment of attitudes and experiences immediately prior to entering the nightclub. The final survey question asked respondents if they wished to participate in a follow-up interview. All interviews were conducted away from the field at a later time, to avoid the problems often associated with nightclub studies (for example, poor light, excessive noise, intoxication). The average interview length was 90 minutes.


Although this approach demonstrated many benefits, including access to a typically ‘hard-to-reach’ population, a number of limitations are noted. First, this approach cannot assess all young people who attend licensed venues or young people generally; however, random sampling and diligence in site selection provided a representative sample, consistent with previous comparable studies (see Weekley et al 2006; Longo et al 2003). Second, it is acknowledged that patron intoxication (licit or illicit) could limit the validity and reliability of data obtained. The author was careful to avoid intoxicated patrons and, to some extent, this concern was minimised by approaching individuals waiting to enter venues (though it is acknowledged that ‘pre-loading’ is a common practice: see Miller et al 2013:79).

The periods of fieldwork were varied to minimise the effects of patrons’ drinking, and individuals who were visibly intoxicated were excluded from the study. Third, that surveys were completed by participants in a relatively public environment required careful consideration regarding participants’ willingness to report sensitive information (for example, drug use), the influence of peers (for example, underreporting or exaggeration), and the proximity to other patrons and, often, law enforcement officers, specifically in terms of how these factors would impact data confidentiality, accuracy and reliability. However, the author’s role in the field, the covert nature of the research approach and survey instrument, and the broader focus on risk perceptions reasonably minimised the potential for fallacious responses.

Data analysis

A key research objective was to examine generalised risk perceptions of Adelaide nightclub methamphetamine use from the perspectives of the young people who ‘live’ this experience. A consistent challenge to youth club drug research, however, has been the limited (or often non-existent) voice of these young people in providing contextual descriptions of such experiences (Eiserman et al 2003). This study represents an original methodological approach and addresses the paucity of empirical research in this area. Specifically, the research examined the extent to which young people’s perceptions and leisure practices in nightclubs are guided by lay models of risk-thinking, the normalisation of methamphetamine use, and the characteristics, values and expectations of this social context, factors which comprised the POR theoretical framework.

Given the complex nature of the research, understanding and drawing meaning from this social context was initially challenging. The study employed content analysis, the significance of which has been well established in both quantitative and qualitative research (Tewksbury 2009; Krippendorff 2004). Using a more thematic form of content analysis (Ezzy 2002), the study examined what participants said, how they said it and, importantly, how they interpreted it (Strauss and Corbin 1998), which constituted a way to emphasise participants’ narratives, rather than the research aims. Importantly, the themes used to structure and code the data were guided by the participants, referencing the pilot study findings, the quantitative data and the accounts garnered from ethnographical field observations. Essentially, the themes were tested against the data already obtained and consequently represented the broader fields of the POR framework: normalisation, models of risk and social context. Using this framework, three themes emerged in the data that were perceived to substantively influence young people’s perceptions of risk: (1) the development of alternative forms of risk knowledge; (2) the use of risk management strategies; and

(3) a shift in leisure consumption ideals in the nightclub. The findings of this study and their impact on the development of future Australian drug policy are discussed below.

Summary of results

Of the 600 individuals approached, 457 completed the POR survey — a response rate of 76 per cent. Although no data was collected about non-respondents, no significant differences were observed when the survey instrument was pre-tested. A greater proportion of the survey sample was female (63.9 per cent), with most participants aged 18 to 21 years (74.4 per cent; average 20.4 years), compared with the qualitative sample where gender, age and drug use status (user/non-user) were evenly represented. Of the interviewees who identified as users (n=11), all but one was a current user, indicating that that they had consumed methamphetamines in the four weeks prior to the study. All participants identified as regular ‘recreational’ users. Overall, gender did not influence the levels of perceived or actual use of methamphetamines within either sample, which contrasts previous findings (Shiner 2006; Measham and Shiner 2009). It is important to note that this does not constitute evidence of a widespread reduction in the influence of gender on youth drug use (Measham 2002); rather, it indicates the limited role of gender in this drug use setting. Occupationally, the majority of participants were in part-time/casual (71.2 per cent) or full-time

(19.9 per cent) employment, which corresponds to national data (ABS 2011a). Notably, however, the vast majority of the sample were also currently studying at university

(83.2 per cent), including most of those who identified themselves as users (87.5 per cent), challenging traditional understandings of the typical drug user as uneducated and thus delinquent (Duff 2005). Similarly, in terms of residential location, the majority of participants indicated that they resided in the more socio-economically stable suburbs of Adelaide (ABS 2008).

In terms of overall drug use, participants identified comparative rates of use of ecstasy (3.1 per cent), heroin (1 per cent) and cocaine (0.9 per cent). The use of marijuana was more widespread (17.3 per cent), but within the norms of the South Australian context where it is more socially accepted than in other Australian states (DASSA 2006b). In stark contrast,

21 per cent (n=96) of the survey sample reported having used methamphetamines when attending Adelaide nightclubs. This finding is far greater than levels of use reported in the 2013 NDSHS (AIHW 2014) and other Australian NTE research (Miller et al 2013). As will be argued in the next section, this can be explained, at least in part, by the emergence of a new youth profile guided by broad consumption ideals and alternative perspectives of risk that form a response to the complex and challenging transitions into adulthood where traditional roles appear to have less influence on young people’s behaviour than previously thought (Measham and Shiner 2009). This data reveals much about the characteristics of the sample, in particular its transformation and shift away from stereotypical descriptions of deviance (Williams and Parker 2001; Shiner and Newburn 1997). Given the limited scope of this article and its aim to encourage greater current policy dialogue in light of this shift, the remaining discussion of the research findings will concentrate on the qualitative analysis of the three key themes and their impact on Australian drug policy development.

Alternative perspectives of risk

Previous research has claimed that the risks of methamphetamine use are objective, wideranging, and negative in their impact on the user and the community (Degenhardt et al 2008; Darke et al 2008; McKetin et al 2006b). This perspective has produced a series of ‘expert’ risks, used to rationalise a range of drug policies in Australia. However, the findings of this study identify an alternative youth perspective of risk informed by a bottom-up approach that has shown that these young people develop and employ a process of risk ‘knowledge acquisition’ within the nightclub. This is not only homogeneous across the sample (drug users and non-drug users), but also provides insight into how these young people typically use the nightclub. An important feature of this process is that, in contrast to experts’ claims that young people are ignorant or in denial (Kelly 2005; Peretti-Watel 2003), these young people’s risk perceptions do not invalidate or ignore expert risk (Duff 2004; France 2000). How young people build risk knowledge instead incorporates expert risk models within a framework expanded and enhanced by personal experiences, shared risk knowledge and an understanding of the social context of the nightclub. As noted by one non-user:

[T]here are ads on TV that you can watch, as well as drug websites — if people want to find out about drugs they can just Google it and there is plenty of information. I guess that’s one of the benefits of growing up in this era, there is always plenty of information on how to use drugs properly and reduce the risks that way. I think most people do that — I would (Emmy, aged 21, non-user).

Crucially, this practice was common regardless of whether or not participants used drugs, with many references to the availability of information and its role in guiding behaviour within the NTE.

Central to understanding the relationship between young people and risk is identifying whether the knowledge gained by these young people is operationalised in order to manage their use of the nightclub. Indeed, another policy mismatch is that not only do experts doubt the acquisition of risk knowledge, but they do not accept that it can be used to guide appropriate forms of behaviour. However, in describing a common theme among many of the interviewees, another non-user stated:

I’m not sure how the government could be aware of a lot of the stuff that goes on. They need to focus more on what’s happening on the ground and actually try to understand how young people view the use of drugs (Daniela, aged 21, non-user).

This perception was identified as a major hurdle to overcome in establishing and maintaining an effective dialogue with this sample of young people.

A further implication of the development of risk knowledge is that it demonstrates awareness of risk within the nightclub. Specifically, these young people do not consider the Adelaide nightclub scene to be a risk-free environment. Instead, this knowledge is used to develop a series of risk management strategies, through which they perceive they can not only control their behaviour and limit the likelihood of negative outcomes, but also distinguish themselves from those who fail to take control. As suggested by one user:

[Y]ou are there to have a good time, so you don’t want people around who have had way too much and are just getting messy. They’re the ones you notice ’cause everyone’s aware of them and keeping their distance. The ones being responsible don’t get noticed. So staying away from the dodgy people — the ones who are drunk or off their faces — is important (Michael, aged 25, user).

That risk is linked to young people’s perceptions of control affects the use of methamphetamines and how this consumption relates to the overall use of the nightclub. The data reveals that the overwhelming majority of participants do not perceive Adelaide nightclubs to be risky because of methamphetamines (91.1 per cent) despite their prevalence. This was attributed to the protective function of social group membership where individuals attended nightclubs in large groups of friends who guided their experience, which for some included the use of methamphetamines. In addition, very few participants felt at risk in nightclub venues because of drug use generally (8.3 per cent), with violence (56.5 per cent), drink spiking (35.9 per cent) and alcohol misuse (35.0 per cent) seen as greater risks. What this describes is a ‘subtle and complex framing of risk taking’

(Bunton et al 2004:9), which links risk to perceptions of control as well as the social context of the nightclub, the people within it, and the meaning(s) that drug use can provide for young people, rather than the use of drugs themselves. This is further evident in the fact that these perceptions were consistent across the sample regardless of whether participants used methamphetamines, suggesting the normalisation of methamphetamine use.

Risk management and the use of methamphetamines

In describing the development of risk knowledge, this group of young people not only reveal a pattern of methamphetamine use and a typical use setting, but they also demonstrate how this use occurs. Specifically, although they are aware of risk in the nightclub, they continue to use methamphetamines, or associate with others who do, guided by risk management practices. This is a strong indication that they perceive that methamphetamines can be used ‘sensibly’ (Parker et al 2002) and that this is an essential element of the nightclub experience. Therefore, what should be of interest to policy-makers is the range of risk management strategies that these young people employ, four of which can be identified.

As Bunton, Crawshaw and Green (2004:170) note, young people often ‘handle risks by sticking together’; going out in familiar social groups is perceived as a powerful macro-level protective mechanism that provides a trusted source of assistance should negative outcomes be experienced. As was found in the quantitative data, group membership when going out is important for most nightclubbers (83.4 per cent), associated not only with the social nature of the nightclub and the meaning/purpose participants ascribed to ‘having a good time’, but more often articulated as a function of the desire for safety:

Going out together [with friends] is really important ’cause I know that if something goes wrong and my boyfriend is not around then they’ll also be there to help. I mean, we always go out in the same group and we’re a really good bunch of friends (Simone, aged 18, non-user).

At the meso level, the value of this practice was extended in how participants interacted with other patrons while maintaining intra-group risk management standards. Whether operationalised through line of sight, SMS text messaging, or rituals and routines

(for example, purchasing drinks or attending the bathroom in groups), ‘looking out for each other’ was a practice frequently exercised:

Within our group — I’ll either have my boyfriend, my best friend, or someone that will be looking out for us. It’s not like a formal buddy system or anything; it’s just about looking out for each other (Emmy, aged 21, non-user).

Risk management was also evident at the micro level, where, regardless of whether or not they used drugs — though arguably the significance is greater for drug users — individuals engaged in detailed and accepted (within group) practices by which knowledge was transferred and safety prioritised. As illustrated in the following accounts and the practices they describe, the process of ‘teaching’ was considered a collective responsibility, undertaken in consideration of both the meaning of participants’ methamphetamine use (for example, pleasure) and its risks:

I was always very careful about dosage ... in terms of what I was taking, how much and when. And that’s something that [our group] felt was really important; when we went out we were always careful about what each other was doing. I was never one of those people that would just be like ‘let’s see what happens’ ... And if it was new gear then I was always very careful about testing it, so one of us would have a night off the gear and watch the others (Ariel, aged 24, user).

[My friends] would always make sure I had lots of water and that the dose was right ... spread out over an evening. I never liked the idea of something hitting me really hard and suddenly — it needed to be gradual and so they made sure that’s how it happened. I always had a firm appreciation that if I wasn’t cautious then something bad might happen, although I was never afraid of turning out to be that person whose teeth fall out or gets scabs all over their face — my friends would never let that happen (Nathan, aged 25, user).

‘Chilling out’ was also widely practised by drug users and non-drug users alike, conceptualised as a method by which to regulate the consumption of pleasure, licit or illicit. An important and common feature of this practice was participants’ consideration of the social and physical context of the nightclub and its relationship with risk and methamphetamine use:

I always made sure that I took the time to just chill out. I tried to encourage the others to do it as well — it was a personal quirk of mine, and I think that is one of the reasons why I never had a bad experience. Just taking time out always made me feel a lot better the next day as well as on the night itself. I’d try to drink water as much as possible, and avoid beer as it just dehydrates you too much. I mean, if we’re at home then we’d drink like fish ... you’d just drink whatever and if you crash then you can just go to bed — there’s no real risk involved. So it’s just about being careful when you go out ’cause of what can happen because there are other people and situations involved (Tim, aged 25, former user).

What is drawn from these accounts is that these risk management practices are not only important in practical terms for health and safety, but also in a conceptual sense as they distinguish between recreational and problematic use. The majority of participants disagreed with the suggestion that most drug users ‘cause problems’, citing dependent or excessive use as the overriding concern, viewed as a breach of social values and of the wider meaning of the nightclub, which has two key implications. First, the different levels of use identified by these young people challenges expert risk by revealing a perceived practical and moral difference between recreational and problematic use not recognised in Australian drug policy. To claim such a difference would represent a bold — and incorrect — statement that implies that recreational use is less harmful than problematic use. While this claim is not made here, there is value in acknowledging the existence of alternative perspectives of use and what they mean for these young people. Otherwise the messages of harm reduction stated in drug policy, while fundamentally positive, will continue to be inconsistent with the experiences of the young people they seek to engage. The second implication is that these young people’s efforts to control their methamphetamine use suggest a cultural shift in how they view the nightclub experience generally and the role of drugs within it. How this guides the use of the nightclub speaks to a social context of use and the development of a new profile of drug user that has moved away from traditional conceptions of ‘wild’ and reckless drug use, which has numerous implications for Australian drug policy.

The meaning of club drugs: The emergence of a new youth profile

Consistent with international trends, Adelaide nightclubs have emerged as a space in which young people have the opportunity to engage in social interactions, motivated by a shared goal of extracting meaning from leisure. Traditionally, experts have viewed young people’s pursuit of leisure in this space as a symbol of rebellion against the norms, values and attitudes of the wider community (Hunt et al 2006; Kerr et al 2007). However, the majority of the young people that comprised this sample do not see their nightclubbing or their methamphetamine use in this way, but as a legitimate counterbalance to the pressures and expectations of society typically associated with work and study. These young people gain meaning through consumption in the nightclub, which functions as an escape from their ‘real world’, but not at the expense of it (see Perrone 2006). Notably, this appears consistent for nightclubbers generally, even if they use methamphetamines. For these individuals, it is how their use enhances other aspects of this setting such as dancing, drinking, socialising and listening to music. Those who do not use methamphetamines nonetheless expose themselves to an environment where they know that others are using the drug.

As such, what has emerged in Adelaide is a new profile of user that has greater awareness, knowledge and understanding of risk, and engages in a form of drug use that is more controlled than experts have previously acknowledged (Shewan et al 2000; Kelly 2000). Moreover, their behaviour is consistent with the social purpose of the nightclub and the meaning associated with its use as not only understood by them and other methamphetamine users but, importantly, also those who choose not to use methamphetamines. One user articulates this purpose and how methamphetamines contribute to it, reinforcing the distinction that he perceives exists between recreational and problematic use:

It’s common these days for people to use meth in clubs — it’s only a problem when you get home and you drop another 5 or 6 points, that’s serious, it’s not something most users would agree with. I mean, if you take a couple of points then you’re up all night — you don’t need to be popping or smoking anything more when you get home, that’s when it becomes a problem (Alex, aged 23, user).

Notably, non-users’ attitudes towards methamphetamines also appear to reflect a shift away from more deviant conceptions of drug use (see Becker 1963):

Young people use meth to have fun, relax, interact with people, catch up with friends and just have a good night. Using [meth] gives you energy that Red Bull just cannot compare with. I mean, it’s the weekend, you’re free and so you wanna make the most of it and stay out as long as possible. Young people don’t use meth just for the sake of it — it has a purpose (William, aged 22, non-user).

A key contribution of this research, therefore, is that young people’s methamphetamine use and associated risk perceptions should be considered within a wider understanding of the nightclub as a site of diverse forms of leisure consumption, where the broader meaning associated with the use of the nightclub affects (regulates) levels of drug use. Understanding that nightclubs perform an alternative function for these young people as sites of broader identity, meaning and safe leisure consumption is crucial to examining their perceptions of risk. Specifically, changes in the meaning and social context of such use suggest the development of a new youth profile in Adelaide nightclubs that has moved away from subcultural notions of deviance and delinquency often associated drug use generally. Indeed, this new profile encompasses a youth cohort guided by broader consumption ideals, where there is little difference between the values, attitudes and behaviours of methamphetamine users and non-users.

The demographic characteristics of the sample support this, as South Australian nightclubbers are a homogeneous and largely conservative group. Adelaide nightclubbers are predominantly white and, in comparison with other populations such as in the United Kingdom (Winstock et al 2001) and the United States (Hunt et al 2005), can be considered less ethnically diverse and closer in cultural and behavioural practice. In this study none of the participants identified as Indigenous. Interestingly, the young people do not come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds but reside in more affluent areas of the city and report higher levels of education and employment than previous accounts of drug-using youth (see Lloyd 1998; Becker 1963). The data suggests that although some young Adelaide nightclubbers use methamphetamines, they are integrated in a range of mainstream networks and appear to have adapted their drug use to ‘fit in’ with these networks. In fact, methamphetamine users are, in most respects, difficult to distinguish from non-users, highlighting the need for a different policy approach to reduce the prevalence of methamphetamine use. Specifically, it is important to recognise the implications of this social group of well-heeled young people who can afford and choose to go out to nightclubs in Adelaide, some of whom use methamphetamines. It is recognised that policy is not only made for those who are able to manage the risks, but for all, which highlights the need for policy development moving forward to embrace an approach that expands putative forms of risk knowledge to include sources other than what is considered ‘expert’. Nonetheless, it is necessary to view the following recommendations cautiously while acknowledging the limitations of this research.

Reviewing the policy dialogue in South Australia

Expert conceptualisations of risk in relation to the use of methamphetamines have been accepted, almost exclusively, and yet this study and national data (AIHW 2014) report their continued use by young people, suggesting that this approach is not working. Although difficult, the current study was possible in South Australia given the smaller, networked nature of the community, and it may not only aid agencies in this setting but also serve as a catalyst for policy review in other jurisdictions. To start this dialogue, a series of recommendations are made that do not propose a set of specific policy changes, but do advocate the need for policy development that will enable certain at-risk groups from falling through the gaps in existing policy.

The need for a revised drug policy perspective

This research identified that many young people in the Adelaide NTE experience methamphetamine use very differently from how it is conveyed in government policy and anti-drug campaigns. Current drug policies do not acknowledge that young people can be rational, responsible and self-aware, and divest them of the capacity for the identification and understanding of risk. This has rationalised the use of zero tolerance policies, largely unchanged over the last decade due to the fear that less punitive approaches may send the wrong message to young people and the community and increase the uptake of drug use (Douglas and McDonald 2012; Duff 2004). However, zero tolerance is an unrealistic target as, although being ‘tough on [drug] crime’ is a useful political tool, it fails to take into account the social context of the nightclub as a place where drug use plays a limited role and then only for some young people. As such, while Australian drug policy is seemingly committed to harm minimisation, in practice, because government efforts are too often embedded within law enforcement approaches and sanctions, their value is limited. However, this is not justification for ‘leaving them alone’ for fear of the longer-term consequences of punitive sanctions. On the contrary, this study highlights the need to reopen debate to discuss the full range of options available to governments, specifically more effective investment in harm minimisation. For example, experiences in other jurisdictions suggest that there may be value investing in forms of control typically associated with licit substances (most commonly, alcohol), including changes to substance classification or increases in support services (Winstock 2012; Wilkins 2002), to reflect new patterns of use. Although perhaps considered radical in the current political environment, support of safe-use practices or the encouragement of moderation, for example, rather than strict zero tolerance would represent a more meaningful and inductive approach to harm minimisation where the protection of both individual and community wellbeing, regardless of the form that this takes, is paramount.

Education and lay knowledge

Central to a bottom-up approach is a knowledge base that grows through the coalescence of alternative perspectives, including both expert and ‘lay’ knowledge, which can then be used educate young people and the community. (One example has been the website <> run by the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre (Hughes 2012), though a broader focus is needed.) How this knowledge is then translated into practical risk management strategies is also fundamental and requires understanding of the specific use settings. For example, friends were identified as a valuable source of information for participants, guiding much of their behaviour regardless of whether they used methamphetamines themselves. Policy initiatives that encourage and assist the development of these socially embedded — or ‘peer to peer’ (Duff 2004) — education strategies are needed to communicate knowledge in a way that not only matches young people’s experiences, but that will also be accepted by the young people who these strategies seek to target.

Another valuable task would be to empirically evaluate the risk management strategies already embraced by young people in Adelaide nightclubs. While this is dependent on experts’ acceptance of other forms of knowledge, drug policy would arguably benefit from analysis of these practices and their integration into a broader harm-minimisation approach. And while we need to be careful not to suggest that methamphetamine use is ‘OK’, we need to be more reasonable about how we view the use of illicit drugs and the young people that use them. This could encourage departure from scare campaigns that assume a linear relationship between drug use and serious risks, and that stigmatise youth. It may also create an environment in which treatment could still be provided in serious cases of abuse, but would also allow the development of ‘intermediate’ strategies, such as on-site drug testing and collaboration between nightclub venues and healthcare workers. These initiatives have been discussed in relation to the use of ecstasy (Duff et al 2007); a similar discussion with regard to methamphetamines would be an important step forward.

A grounded approach

Many sources have identified the need for a comprehensive review of drug policies involving greater collaborations between, but not limited to, healthcare workers, development practitioners, educational institutions, families and community leaders in partnership with law enforcement agencies (Douglas and McDonald 2012; Caulkins 2007). However, to assume that this does not already occur is naive, especially given the linkages and collaborations outlined in the most recent NDS report (MCDS, 2011). Yet, one potential resource that is often underutilised, as articulated by many participants, is active involvement in policy dialogue of the young people the policies target and who have often been marginalised within policy debates. As noted by Hughes et al (2010a:2), in order to create principles of ‘good governance’ in Australian drug policy, what is needed is ‘consultation, trust and negotiation, rather than top down decision-making’. This may help governments to identify how to better responsibilise young people in their own efforts to regulate consumption or to make better choices, knowing that for some such autonomy may still result in illicit drug use. There has been some effort to bridge this gap in relation to young people’s use of cannabis in Australia, with an online awareness campaign launched in October 2012 (ADF 2012). In discussing the risks of cannabis, the campaign involved young people (through a range of interactive media such as Facebook) in a community-wide approach to increase awareness, foster debate and strengthen the knowledge base. As yet,

a similar response to methamphetamines remains off the Australian drug policy table, as evident in the NDS 2010–2015 (MCDS 2011).

Alcohol versus illicit drugs: Widening the focus

The final recommendation calls for internal consistency in how drugs — licit and illicit — are considered and managed (promoted/prevented) in the NTE. Policy-makers’ current practice of addressing licit and illicit drugs separately is confusing and prevents meaningful discussion. Specifically, there is need to acknowledge and explore the nightclub as a site of diverse leisure consumption and one that has been built on ‘legal’ forms of drug consumption (alcohol), given that too often it is the ‘elephant in the room’ in evaluations of this social setting. Similarly to other night-time economies, notably in the United Kingdom (Buchanan 2011; Measham 2006; Buchanan and Young 2000), Australian drug policies have been constrained by what Measham (2006:258) labels a ‘neglect of the broader socioeconomic, cultural, and political contexts surrounding changing patterns of consumption’. Consequently, on one hand, alcohol consumption is encouraged and supported by government policies of economic development, but, on the other hand, illicit drug use is regulated by strict policies and law enforcement practices. This is concerning, given that the majority of participants in this study identified alcohol misuse and alcohol-related violence as far more dangerous and more frequently experienced in the NTE, adding weight to the argument that a discursive approach is needed that focuses on the misuse of drugs, regardless of their legal status. This would require a full-scale review of the current drug classification system, as has been proposed elsewhere (Buchanan 2011; NZLC 2011) — a substantial and politically sensitive task given the range of economic and political interests at stake. Nonetheless, it is one obstacle standing in the way of development of a more realistic and more effective harm-minimisation approach to methamphetamine use that should, at the very least, warrant consideration.


By examining the nightclub as a site of leisure consumption, risk and control, this study revealed that young nightclubbers are nuanced social beings who use the nightclub for a range of social and cultural purposes that sometimes include the use of methamphetamines, which appears accepted by many of their peers. The research demonstrates a mismatch between experts’ and young people’s risk perceptions in the Adelaide nightclub scene, which questions the effectiveness of drug policies in this setting. This data has demonstrated that there is a small sample of young nightclubbers who are educated, economically responsible, motivated to remain part of their community, and who use methamphetamines (and some who do not). Significantly, these young people are also aware of the associated risks and harms, and continue to use methamphetamines or interact with others who do so because they have developed complex support networks and risk management strategies that they perceive allow them to control their leisure consumption.

However, just because these young people have different views does not make such views correct or invalidate expert assessments. While drug policy has for too long been focused on punitive responses, the normalisation of particular forms of drug use among certain populations is not evidence enough to rationalise an overhaul of drug policy. Indeed, the findings of this study present a number of key points that may be useful in examining and responding to a particular sector of the community. Although greater work is needed to quantify the shift in forms of methamphetamine use and its impact, it is more about the fact that policy has persistently failed to account for such shifts and the groups that evoke them. As such, there is a need for a revised approach to Australian drug policy that addresses the changing nature of methamphetamine use in certain settings, particularly nightclubs, and incorporates lay perspectives and experiences as part of a bottom-up approach to encourage open dialogue in the development of more realistic harm-minimisation strategies. Movement toward an open, inclusive and destigmatised process that understands young people’s perceptions of risk and experiences in relation to methamphetamine use should be a primary goal of Australian drug policy, one that may also act as a catalyst for the development of more comprehensive harm-reduction responses to illicit drug use generally.


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[*] Research Associate, Centre for Crime Policy and Research, Flinders Law School, Flinders University,

GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001, Australia. Email: The author thanks Marinella Marmo and the anonymous referees for providing thoughtful and constructive comments on an earlier draft.

[1] See the Controlled Substances (Drug Detection) Amendment Act 2008 (SA), Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act 2008 (SA) and the Law and Justice Legislation Amendment (Serious Drug Offences and Other Measures) Act 2005 (Cth).

[2] In this article the terms ‘government’ and ‘expert’ are used interchangeably, though the concept of ‘expert’ is not intended to encompass all expert opinion regarding illicit drugs; rather, its use reflects governments’ ‘expertisation of risk’.

[3] There are numerous ways in which to use methamphetamines (Drabsch 2006), which is important in terms of their use in recreational environments like nightclubs, where easy and safe consumption is desired by users.

[4] Compared with heroin, where the intensity of the ‘hit’ can last from 10–15 minutes, the effects of methamphetamine can last for up to 12 hours (Focus Adolescent Services 2008).

[5] Although a distinction between methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy) was not possible using the testing method employed by Miller et al (2013), the disparity in levels between self-report and test results suggests greater levels of methamphetamine use than was self-reported.

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