Ru­ral towns are the front­line in Australia’s de­vel­op­ing drug battle against ‘ice’


Adrian Toomey made thou­sands of Aus­tralian dol­lars a day as an “ice” dealer in Dubbo, a fairly typ­i­cal Aus­tralian town north­west of Syd­ney, sup­ply­ing the drug to ev­ery­one from bank work­ers to school teach­ers.

Be­fore he was jailed for deal­ing, Toomey, 38, was not only sup­ply­ing but also us­ing ice — a pu­ri­fied ver­sion of the stim­u­lant metham­phetamine that is highly ad­dic­tive.

For two- and- a- half years he skipped meals and sleep.

“When you are on it, you just feel un­beat­able,” he said, sit­ting on his bed at Orana Haven, an Abo­rig­i­nal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter at Gongolgon vil­lage in a re­mote area of New South Wales state.

“You just wanna do any­thing. (I would go for) two or three days with­out sleep — just smoke and sell ice.”

Like many other towns, Dubbo has been caught up in an epi­demic that many fear Australia is strug­gling to con­tain, as syn­di­cates in­creas­ingly switch their fo­cus from big cities to re­gional and re­mote com­mu­ni­ties.

While pol­i­cy­mak­ers and com­mu­nity work­ers de­bate how best to tackle the prob­lem, one se­nior po­lice of­fi­cer has even sug­gested the drug could bring the coun­try to its knees.

And with users pay­ing up to AU$ 650 ( NT$ 15,709; US$ 500) a gram for ice, com­pared to AU$100 in China, it is easy to see to why Australia has be­come an at­trac­tive mar­ket for in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal groups.

The gov­ern­ment says about 400,000 Aus­tralians out of a pop­u­la­tion of just 23 mil­lion use metham­phetamine. Of them, it es­ti­mates around half are on ice, the crys­tal­lized form of the drug.

Metham­phetamine is now the coun­try’s third most com­monly used il­le­gal drug af­ter cannabis and ec­stasy.

So se­ri­ous has the prob­lem be­come that Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott this month set up a na­tional task force to fight what he called “a drug epi­demic way be­yond any­thing that we have seen be­fore now.”

“This is some­thing which is very much hap­pen­ing in re­gional com­mu­ni­ties right around our coun­try, even in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties,” he said.

Au­thor­i­ties are not only wor­ried about the sharp in­crease in the drug’s pu­rity, which boosts its ad­dic­tive­ness, but also the jump in the fre­quency of use.

The fact that it can be smoked, rather than in­jected, also makes it a wor­ry­ingly easy step up from softer drugs such as mar­i­juana.

A Big Im­pact on Small


The epi­demic is hav­ing a “very big im­pact on small com­mu­ni­ties,” with the need to get a fix tear­ing apart fam­i­lies and driv­ing up crime, said Norm An­der­son, who runs Orana Haven, around 650 kilo­me­ters (400 miles) north­west of Syd­ney.

Its in­tro­duc­tion in com­mu­ni­ties that have a his­tory of al­co­hol abuse and where jobs are scarce has cre­ated a “very volatile” mix, An­der­son said.

“The anec­do­tal ev­i­dence I’m get­ting from peo­ple who’ve lived out here (in this re­gion) most of their lives is that this is the worst they’ve seen.”

Com­mu­ni­ties vul­ner­a­ble to the drug in­clude those in ru­ral and re­gional ar­eas, youths and Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, an in­quiry by the south­ern state of Vic­to­ria found last year.

An Aus­tralian Crime Com­mis­sion re­port in March said de­spite record num­bers of drug seizures, the mar­ket for ice was grow­ing, with an “un­prece­dented level of or­ga­nized crime in­volve­ment” by in­ter­na­tional car­tels and do­mes­tic gangs.

Peter van Dyke, 38, a re­cov­ered ad­dict who works at Orana Haven, said he was shocked by the toll ice is tak­ing on small towns.

“It’s destroying (com­mu­ni­ties) thor­oughly. You hear in Bourke ... I hear they are rob­bing from their own peo­ple, they are rob­bing from old peo­ple,” he told AFP of the town about 100 kilo­me­ters north­west of Gongolgon.

More Re­search, Treat­ment


Po­lice in the state of Vic­to­ria say one in five metham­phetamine users com­mit­ted a vi­o­lent crime in 2013-14.

Data showed a “sig­nif­i­cant rise” in the fre­quency of use and avail­abil­ity in the state, with re­lated of­fences al­most tripling over four years to 3,748 in 2014.

Many users do not come into con­tact with po­lice so the ex­act ex­tent of the prob­lem re­mains un­known.

New South Wales po­lice com­mis­sioner An­drew Sci­p­i­one has warned about the chal­lenges fac­ing front­line of­fi­cers and paramedics grap­pling with the su­per­hu­man strength and ag­gres­sion the drug gives users.

He said the sit­u­a­tion was so acute “it’s not an over­state­ment to say that it could bring us to our knees as a na­tion” if not ad­e­quately ad­dressed.

“We just can’t ar­rest our way out of this prob­lem,” he wrote in a re­cent Syd­ney Daily Tele­graph col­umn, call­ing for ed­u­ca­tion, treat­ment and com­mu­nity sup­port.

A key com­pli­ca­tion is the lack of treat­ment ser­vices in coun­try towns.

An­der­son said his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion unit, which can take 17 clients over­com­ing var­i­ous ad­dic­tions, mostly ice use, was the only cen­ter in an area al­most as large as Bri­tain.

Re­becca McKetin from the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, who stud­ies metham­phetamine ad­dic­tion and treat­ment, added that lit­tle re­search had been done in re­gional ar­eas.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem is the high re­lapse rate, even if users are able to ac­cess treat­ment ser­vices.

There are no phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ther­a­pies to treat users. And while cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy has been shown to be ef­fec­tive, it re­quired skilled clin­i­cians rarely avail­able in coun­try towns, she added.

“Most of our un­der­stand­ing (on treat­ment ser­vices) is based on what’s go­ing on in the big cities be­cause drug use, like heroin use, has been con­cen­trated in the big cities,” said McKetin.

“We need a new model of care and we need to un­der­stand how that’s go­ing to fit in a ru­ral and re­gional con­text.”

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