Scott Wilson has walked a hard path in his return to light and life. A self-described “polydrug” user and alcohol abuser for many years in his youth – which he says brought him into contact with both law enforcement and health agencies constantly – he witnessed his young niece die as a result of ice. He watched nephews incarcerated due to the same drug. Over the years, he saw, too, the slow decline of already vulnerable Indigenous communities and family networks in urban and regional South Australia, crumbling from within as a result of methamphetamine’s slow stranglehold.
But Wilson survived, worked hard to overcome his addictions and came out, drug-free, on the other side. Now, as the chief executive of the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council South Australia, he is committed to helping others like him to do the same. He also wants to open the nation’s eyes to the devastating social and cultural fallout of ice abuse. It is destroying “thousands and thousands” of people, he says, particularly across Indigenous Australia.
According to current figures, around 2.3 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over reported using methamphetamines in the past year – this figure is in line with the general population’s rate of 2.1 per cent. Methamphetamine use in remote Aboriginal communities is reported to be at 0.8 per cent of the remote area population, and like the general population, the greater percentage of users are in the cities.
While alcohol and cannabis are still the two most abused substances in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, experts said ice was fast closing in.
But Wilson, and many other drug and alcohol workers on the coalface of the fight against ice, say these figures don’t reveal the full picture.
Associate Professor James Ward from the South Australian Health and Medical Institute said there had been a "massive escalation" in ice use in regional and remote areas in recent years, at the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Conference in Adelaide last year (which featured, over 300 Indigenous drug and alcohol workers looking at ways of tackling the growing ice epidemic).
While alcohol and cannabis are still the two most abused substances in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, experts said ice was fast closing in – a warning that’s been sounded by other drug and alcohol workers at the coalface of Indigenous addiction from Rockhampton to Fremantle.
Wilson, a guest speaker at the conference, warned that intergenerational use of the drug in many Indigenous communities saw it being used by entire family groups, from grandparents to grandchildren.
He first noticed the emergence of multi-user ice families in Adelaide almost a decade ago, as he told Indigenous media. Grandparents in these families were typically aged in their 40s or 50s, with grandchildren as young as 14 addicted.
“I think the problem for Aboriginal folks and why it has a big impact is we tend to come from big extended families,” Wilson tells National Indigenous Times. “A lot of them do live in small discrete communities that might be made up of a handful of families. If you get one or two members of a community of 400 or 500 people it can have the impact on that whole community.
“And when it comes to Indigenous communities, what disturbs us is that often siblings or family members may be using ice. We are talking about multiple users. The losses are so great - people lose their cultural connectivity and end up missing out on many important events as they literally disconnect from their own community because of the drug’s impact.”
Speaking to SBS, Wilson said the havoc ice was wreaking on already vulnerable Indigenous communities showed no sign of stopping.
“It is a very serious problem [for Indigenous Australia]. Clearly in Adelaide, it is a major health crisis and is responsible for fuelling crime and violence for a number of years. In regional and rural communities it took awhile, but it is now firmly entrenched in the community.
“For example, when we opened a residential rehabilitation service in Port Augusta three years ago, a majority of clients were coming in due to issues around alcohol abuse. But this year, almost 100 per cent of our clients are coming due to ice.”
"People start to think they are bullet proof and they can handle it. It is simply not the case."
In a call for the urgent provision of more frontline resources this year, Wilson painted a grim picture of what he was seeing across the community. “All too often we hear the same sad story. It’s tough for people to get off ice because of the psychological addiction and the intense cravings people experience. Also because ice is often throughout their community, it’s hard for people to get away from the drug. Some people think ‘one little blast’ won’t hurt. It does.
“What constantly shocks me is that pretty much all the ice users I’ve met believe they are in control. This contrasts to people who have issues with alcohol who often know there is a problem. We are talking about people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s all seeking help.
“It has become a vicious cycle. This drug sadly changes the way people think. People start to think they are bullet proof and they can handle it. It is simply not the case. Ice is happening at a very alarming level. So many families are being damaged.”
The result? Rising rates of everything from critical health issues such as heart problems and dementia “occurring at an earlier age” to “increased incarcerations, entrenched unemployment and the cycle of poverty and violence that will take a long time to work through”.
Wilson told Indigenous media that an elder in Adelaide first drew his attention to the problem. “We noticed in 2007 that there was starting to be a problem, here in Adelaide, and that was basically because one of our elders used to come in and say she couldn’t work out why people were trying to remove the old incandescent light bulbs,” he said. “This was before people had ice pipes. They used to knock off the bayonet part of the light bulb, put the meth in the bottom, heat it up and then inhale it.
That same year, he says, experts started developing more targeted resources to address the problem in these communities. More resources are urgently needed.
“The only treatment option is the residential rehabilitation service we run in Port Augusta that covers a 900,000-square kilometre footprint. And, as there is no service in that region for non-Indigenous folk as well, we take them too.”
Wilson welcomed news in October that the South Australian government had announced funding for a further 18 residential rehabilitation beds in Mt Gambier, the Riverland and Whyalla. This year, the Victorian state government also announced nearly 100 new rehabilitation beds will open and addict support services will expand as part of an $81 million investment that will also include employing 34 Indigenous health workers to help Indigenous communities.
“The only treatment option is the residential rehabilitation service we run in Port Augusta that covers a 900,000-square kilometre footprint."
He is keen to see more particularly culturally-sensitive and community-led interventions, which also offer access to clinical intervention and medical services. Culturally-targeted programs have included the likes of the Victorian government’s 18-month pilot program last year to link mainstream specialist services with Aboriginal services, as well as services offered through the Mallee District Aboriginal Services (MDAS) in Victoria.
Wilson is not a fan, incidentally, of the Federal Government’s Healthy Welfare Card which has now been imposed on two communities where there are many Indigenous people and may be extended nationwide. The card sees 80 per cent of a participant’s welfare payment directed straight to the debit card which cannot be used to pay for alcohol or gambling. He feels the idea of rolling the card out nationwide would be a huge mistake because it didn’t get to the heart of reasons behind substance abuse, and was impacting on people’s self-esteem.
So what had been fuelling the problem with ice, in his view? Price and accessibility are key factors, he says. As he told the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Conference last year: "I could go from Darwin to Adelaide and not have any problems in any of those towns in being able to score – you could do the same whether you're in New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria.”
He says that “in some parts of the country, this drug is amazingly easy to obtain and is as cheap as $5. Without question, thousands and thousands of regional Australians are being impacted [as a result]”.
Then there are the wider issue of cultural disadvantage and socio-economic factors, Wilson insists.
In the end, we need to think big, creatively, laterally. This is a critical Australia-wide problem. “The overall approach has to change.”
For more information about ice, access the online toolkit providing information and resources about crystal methamphetamine (including where and when to get help): Cracks in the Ice.
If you or someone you know is in need support, please:
- contact Lifeline on 13 11 14,
- contact the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015 or
- visit Real Drug Talk.
Explore the reality of living life below the poverty line. Watch all six episodes of Struggle Street series two on SBS On Demand now.
Struggle Street series two was produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.