Rampant methamphetamine use is devastating regional Victorian towns and some of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, with senior police describing the drug as the most harmful they have seen and health workers reporting children as young as 12 being exposed to it.
Pressure is growing on the Napthine government to implement a statewide strategy to deal with the impact of rising methamphetamine use, particularly in rural and regional areas where the effects of the drug are particularly noticeable.
At present, Victoria is without a dedicated strategy to tackle the use of amphetamine stimulants, with the most recent amphetamine program expiring last year and a new one yet to be unveiled.
However, Mental Health Minister Mary Wooldridge told Fairfax Media on Thursday that the government was aware that use of methamphetamine - or ice - was increasing and that $1.1 million in new funding had been allocated for prevention, education and treatment programs.
The money will pay for research on ice use across the state and education campaigns aimed at apprentices, post-secondary students and Aboriginal communities. A tailored diversion program for first-time offenders using ice will also be developed.
A Fairfax Media investigation has found that the criminal justice system, police, emergency service workers, drug and alcohol counsellors and public health specialists are all reporting sharp increases in the use of methamphetamine over the past two years and are struggling to cope with its effects.
Yet-to-be-released government data shows ambulance call-out rates for country Victorians affected by methamphetamine doubling in 12 months - albeit from relatively low numbers. Methamphetamine-related ambulance call outs in Melbourne also rose sharply between July and December 2012, continuing a trend.
“It’s fair to say we are not prepared and have yet to grasp the scale of the problem,” said a well-placed government source who requested anonymity.
Drug rehabilitation programs in Victoria are overwhelmingly focused on opiates rather than methamphetamine. Waiting lists for detoxification programs are months long in some places.
Fairfax Media’s investigation found:
•Children as young as 12 are being exposed to ice in Mildura and community leaders suspect the drug is linked to a spate of recent youth suicides.
•Methamphetamine has been identified as a significant factor in violent crimes by parolees that have yet to be publicly detailed, including child rapes and bashings of elderly people.
•Family Court of Australia Chief Justice Diana Bryant says ice is increasingly showing up as the drug of choice in cases involving substance abuse. Victorian Coroners Court data shows methamphetamine-related overdose deaths more than doubled from 14 in 2010 to 34 in 2012.
•Victoria Police is on track to bust a record number of clandestine methamphetamine labs, with 90 discovered so far this calendar year compared with 99 in the 2011-12 financial year.
•Armed robberies in central Victoria’s Loddon region have risen from a long-term average of about 10 per year to 40 in the past 12 months, with 30 of those suspected to be ice-related.
•Drug treatment workers in Victoria’s west are reporting high ice use in remote towns, including one small place where 10 per cent of the population are estimated to be heavy users.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Steve Fontana told Fairfax Media that senior officers from regional areas were reporting that ice was a big problem across the state.
“It’s probably one of the most harmful substances we’ve come across in recent years in terms of impact on the community and it is really challenging us,” Mr Fontana said.
“It’s high purity, highly addictive and people who take it, it just changes their behaviour.
‘’They become quite aggressive, no regard for anyone, and you have a look at some of the violence in the community, we’ve had a number of homicides where ice has been taken by individuals that have been charged.”
Detective Superintendent Gerard Ryan, a senior crime command officer, said: “It’s probably the worst drug we’ve ever seen.”
Central Victoria’s top officer, Superintendent Daryl Clifton, said “country Victoria has never seen anything like this ... starting to affect people who have never been in trouble with police before.’’
A four-month operation in the Loddon region targeting drug dealers has resulted in 55 offenders being charged and 270 grams of ice seized. Of the 55 offenders, six charged with ice trafficking offences had no prior convictions.
Methamphetamine has also been a factor in four road deaths out of about 23 fatal accidents in the Loddon region in the past year. A community forum on ice use is being held in Bendigo next month and it follows similar crisis meetings in other regional centres over the past year.
Police in Geelong, Albury, Horsham and Warrnambool have also reported increases in family violence and thefts they believe to be connected to increased ice use. Newspapers in Geelong, Bendigo and Gippsland have campaigned strongly on ice in recent months.
The increasing prevalence of ice in the community has been reflected in Victoria’s courts, with senior judicial figures moved to comment publicly about the drug’s effects.
Justice Bryant said the Family Court, which deals with the most complex disputes involving children, ‘’has increasingly seen ice raised as a recreational drug of choice, whereas five or six years ago it was likely to be marijuana’’.
‘’The effects of the use of ice are particularly concerning as family violence seems to be a tragic by-product,’’ she said.
In one of the most serious cases before the Family Court, a father who was a heavy ice user was found to be intoxicated at the time he broke into his estranged wife’s house and assaulted her with an axe in front of their six-year-old child.
Justice Bryant’s comments follow recent public statements by magistrates in Mildura and Gippsland about the harm being done by ice use.
Gippsland’s most senior magistrate, Clive Alsop, recently told the Latrobe Valley Express newspaper that in his 18 years on the bench he has never seen ‘’a drug of addiction being marketed so readily and with such an eager buying public’’ as ice.
Mr Alsop said that he did not wish to be alarmist but warned of ‘’military-style casualty figures’’ in five years if efforts were not made to reduce ice use.
In June, Mildura magistrate Stella Stuthridge, publicly challenged the local community to respond to a ‘’wave’’ of ice addiction that was causing terrible harm.
Mallee District Aboriginal Services drug and alcohol nurse unit manager Raelene Stephens said ice was being pushed heavily into the local Koori population and tearing apart families.
The co-ordinator of the Wimmera Drug Action Taskforce, Brendan Scale, said ice use was a problem in far-flung towns with populations of about 100.
‘’One such place has a known ice-using community of 12,’’ Mr Scale said.
‘’While alcohol is still the number one problem, the impacts of ice on the user and their family is just so severe. It kills the person, their family, their life, their jobs. It strips them of everything.’’