• A crystal meth pipe, commonly used to smoke the drug crystal methamphetamine, or "ice". (AAP)Source: AAP
The rise of methamphetamine use across Australia has hit the headlines this year, with some labelling it an “ice epidemic”. But is it destroying remote Aboriginal communities?
By
Myles Morgan

Source:
NITV News
17 Dec 2014 - 3:02 PM  UPDATED 18 Dec 2014 - 1:50 PM

The extent and effects of ice usage in Indigenous communities became a political football this year.

In October, high profile Indigenous academic Marcia Langton said the use of the methamphetamine ice is widespread in Indigenous communities.

Marcia Langton’s calls were backed in federal parliament by West Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who also said the drug risked destroying a generation of Aboriginal people.

It sparked an angry reply from Indigenous Northern Territory politician Alison Anderson who said it was a thinly veiled attempt to garner support for the controversial Forrest Review.

"At the moment it's very low in the bush communities, that's not to say it won't go into those communities but one of the limiting factors for its spread into those communities is probably the economic issues."

Earlier this year, SBS reported on increasing ice use in the Kimberley region of West Australia. 

Is ice reaching remote Indigenous communities?

So how much evidence is there of an ice 'epidemic' in Australia's Indigenous communities?

It costs about $100 to buy one hit of ice. It's usually high in purity and drug users say it's increasingly easy to obtain on the streets in Australia's cities.

In 2012-13, over two tonnes of amphetamines were intercepted in Australia's mail. It's the most common method of getting ice onto the streets.

But, does that addictive mail reach remote Indigenous communities?

"At the moment it's very low in the bush communities, that's not to say it won't go into those communities but one of the limiting factors for its spread into those communities is probably the economic issues," said detective Superintendent Tony Fuller of the Northern Territory's Drugs Squad.

"It's a pretty expensive drug and, given that most of our communities have a low socio-economic level, we're hoping it doesn't get into communities."

According to NT Police there isn't an ice epidemic, but the major centres like Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine are seeing an influx of the drug.

"There's certainly a number of Indigenous people that do use ice in Darwin and in other major centres,” said Superintendent Fuller.

"We're not showing a demonstrated increase in clinic attendances for people with ice related health issues."

"Physically, you can actually notice them. They're very drawn, they have a lot of sores on them. It's more about their persona when you're speaking to them. They're very paranoid and a lot of people will spend three or four days on ice without sleeping and that's what’s scary for us, they're not rational. These people become violent very easily.”

Across the Northern Territory border in Queensland's tropical north, Apunipima Cape York Health Council services thousands of Indigenous clients. According to this Aboriginal health service, the drug ice isn't presenting as much of a problem as other drugs like alcohol and marijuana.

"We're not showing a demonstrated increase in clinic attendances for people with ice related health issues," said Apunipima's Dr Mark Wenitong.

"The problem there is we wouldn't see that until a little way down the track and by then it'd be too late".

In New South Wales the latest figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) show that in the 12 months from September last year, there were 6,429 amphetamine-related arrests in the state. That figure's up nearly 26 per cent from the year before.

 

Don Weatherburn from BOCSAR said the illicit amphetamine data may represent increased numbers of users, or, the same number of people committing more crimes.

"We certainly know those who are using are using more frequently," Dr Weatherburn said.

Indigenous people are already at a disadvantage. They're generally unhealthier physically and mentally. And, First Nations people are more likely to try drugs than other Australians.

Even for healthy people, ice is highly addictive and dangerous.

"It keeps people alert, awake for a lot longer. There's a downside to that, people crash. The body's not geared to be up for 24 hours, 48 hours at a time", said Gino Vumbaca of the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs.

It doesn't just affect people's immediate health. Ice users can become psychotic and attack family members or those trying to help them. They're also likely to turn to crime so they can fuel their habit.

The Council says the ice problem in Australia can be overcome with a big picture approach.

It did an informal survey of Aboriginal health services earlier this year. Of the 150-odd respondents, nearly 80 per cent said amphetamines like ice are turning into a significant issue among their Indigenous clients.

'Stats not convincing for remote communities'

The statistics are much more certain for Australians in densely populated cities, but they're far from convincing for remote Aboriginal communities.

The Council says all the media attention given to ice could cause something of a moral panic. It says people who are drunk, psychotic or just plain angry could wrongly be described as ice users by members of the public, further tainting the evidence.

"What we don't have is a regular monitoring of drug and alcohol use in communities, in regional and particularly remote communities," said Gino Vumbaca.

"What we don't have is a regular monitoring of drug and alcohol use in communities, in regional and particularly remote communities."

The federal government has established a national Anti-Gangs Squad to stop criminal networks profiting from making and selling amphetamines. It says it's also giving $80 million to Customs and Border Protection to crack down on ice being smuggled into the country.

In December the Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said the government would make ice a priority issue.

Minister Nash has instructed the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs to investigate the "rising use of the drug ice" and report directly to her.

State and local government also have their own initiatives. The Victorian Government has created a website to tackle the problem.

WATCH Myles Morgan’s report on NITV News tonight at 5:30pm on Channel 34.