How To Defeat The Ice Epidemic In The Bush

Rural and regional Australia has a crystal methamphetamine problem.

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It’s true that alcohol and tobacco are more commonly used and take a greater toll on our health system; but the use of “ice” is an acute public health issue that can’t be ignored.

The escalating use of this drug has been raised with me in just about every regional community I’ve visited in the last few years. The Australian Crime Commission has warned that problems stemming from ice are reaching pandemic proportions.

In Victoria, community leaders have reported children as young as 12 being exposed to ice. The manager of an Aboriginal service drug and alcohol nurse unit in the Mallee has warned that the drug is infiltrating the local Koori population with devastating effects. Meanwhile in my home state of New South Wales, some regional centres are finding that ice use has risen by up to 180 per cent. More and more young people in the bush are succumbing to ice addiction and some clinicians have warned that the age of the average user is dropping.

The pattern is replicated nationwide. This harmful drug is not going to just go away.

Trying to isolate drug use from the economic and social conditions that lead to abuse is a fool’s game. When rural and regional areas suffer from a lack of employment opportunities they become “hot spots” for ice use. Hopelessness and despair can easily lead to addiction. Sadly this is precisely where services to help these people are lacking. There are fewer police to catch suppliers, the courts are over-stretched, and there is a lack of community workers and rehabilitation services.

So what should be done?

We should always aim to disrupt the organised criminal elements, including outlaw motorcycle gangs, who profit from trafficking. But on its own this is not enough; people in the throes of addiction are always able to find more.

I doubt the easy option of harsher criminal sanctions will work. Evidence from around the world (most notably Portugal) is clear – throwing people behind bars won’t solve the problem. Crime statistics indicate that Australian drug seizures and arrests are at an all-time high but drug use patterns in Australia haven’t fallen. Police know that a spike in burglaries and other crimes is directly related to ice addiction. Offenders guilty of these crimes should of course be held accountable. But simply locking more and more people up is hugely expensive and does nothing to arrest the growth in new addicts who join the growing queue.

It costs $300 a day to keep someone in gaol; money that could be spent on addressing the underlying causes behind addiction and resulting crime. In any case our prisons are hardly in a position to take on a greater load. Already the New South Wales Government has decided to re-open the Bathurst gaol to accommodate a huge growth in prisoner numbers, a move that has cost tax payers $4 million.

We need to think differently.

There are organisations that are showing great results in turning young lives around. In the Southern Highlands Mission Australia runs Triple Care Farm, a unique residential program for young people experiencing homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness and acute behavioural problems. What the Farm has achieved is extraordinary. Six months out from their stay some 77 per cent of former residents have met their substance use goals. On top of that, 82 per cent were engaged in employment or education.

What works, they say, is that staff members always seek to get to the bottom of why residents are turning to drugs. It is this approach which must drive policy nationwide. A health-based rather than a criminal justice-based approach is the key.  

Instead of focussing exclusively on the potent chemical “hook” of ice and other drugs we need to examine the circumstances that drive people to addiction. In many respects addiction can be seen as an adaption to a given environment. At Triple Care Farm I learnt that over half of the young people residing there reported a history of recent homelessness. Many came from broken homes and had been subject to abuse. With this mindset in place, the problem of combating drug use becomes a lot more complex. It steers policy towards identifying the problems plaguing communities and providing support to vulnerable individuals.

Labor strongly opposes the Abbott Government’s attempts to tear away at the foundations of Australia’s support structures. Their cuts-at-all-cost plan is only making things tougher for people in the bush. This means that those at risk, like the young people I met at Triple Care Farm, are the ones who are left behind. We can’t just shift the burden to the criminal justice system. It costs too much and our police officers and judges are not equipped to deal with the ice addiction crisis in its entirety.

Australia’s National Drug Strategy, approved in February 2011, was an important step forward in preventing and treating illicit drug use. It is due to expire this year; this is an opening that must be seized.

When the Government finally gets around to renewing the strategy, it is vital that the circumstances facing people in the bush are at the fore. Unfortunately, the Minister responsible for rural and regional health as well as alcohol and drugs policy, Senator Fiona Nash, has frequently been locked out of key health decisions such as the GP Tax. So far she has promised to “take a stocktake of what was working” on ice addiction and gather more evidence. Senator Nash must convince her colleagues that firm plans are needed, not simply more reviews and reports.

Ice is an exceptionally addictive drug that will always be available to communities in rural and regional Australia. It is cutting across state borders; it is taking our towns one by one. We can’t stamp it out, but what we can do is give people the support they need to improve their lives and look forward to the future with optimism. Only then can we tackle this problem head on.

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