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Rural towns frontline in Australia's battle with 'ice'

Dunya News

Methamphetamine is now the country's third most commonly used illegal drug after cannabis and ecstas

GONGOLGON (AFP) - Adrian Toomey made thousands of 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 centre 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 Aus$650 (US$500) a gram for ice, compared to US$80 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 crystallised 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 communities -



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 kilometres (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 organised 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 kilometres northwest of Gongolgon.


- More research, treatment needed -



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 centre 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 behavioural 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."