Prime Minister Tony Abbott has come out guns blazing and set up a National Ice Taskforce in an attempt to tackle what he calls the “ice scourge” attacking Australia but seasoned drug educators and NGOs at the coalface of the issue are questioning what will actually delivered.
The Taskforce will be led by former Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay who will co-ordinate local, state and territory efforts against the manufacture, importation, use and sale of ice and develop a national ice action strategy with an interim report expected by mid-2015.
Drug educator Paul Dillon, who heads Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, said ice had devastated some regional and rural towns in Australia but he said the moral panic around ice needed to be tempered and sensible decisions made.
He said data on amphetamine use showed it was stable and much lower than in the nineties but noted that people using amphetamines were using the most potent form – ice — which caused more psychological problems, aggression and crime and presented a major nightmare for frontline staff like ambulance workers and medics.
Mr Dillon said it was important to spread money equally between law enforcement to restrict supply, harm reduction and education campaigns to keep people safe as well as prevention strategies.
“It would be sad if as a result of all this talk all we saw was a massive media campaign saying ice is a scary drug. I think most people know that,” Mr Dillon said.
“It’s about looking at the areas [affected by ice] and finding out what’s missing. These places where ice is grabbing hold and creating a nightmare often have long-term issues and it’s not going to be fixed very simply.
“You’ve got to look at why the people who are using this drug are using it and who is more likely to get into trouble with this drug and that’s usually people with a whole range of social problems.”
He compared the havoc wrought by ice in Australia to the America’s ‘meth’ problem in smaller, poorer communities in the 1990s.
He said ice was a very attractive prospect for criminal gangs because it was relatively cheap and easy to make and its precursor chemicals were easy to obtain.
Mr Dillon said criminals had dried the market out of other drugs to sell ice instead, mostly because it could sell for between$500 to $700 a gram, compared with cocaine at around $300 to $350 a gram.
A spokeswoman from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW said that responding to ice use in individuals and communities presented a serious challenge for both the treatment and rehabilitation services and also for police and courts.
“There is no simple answer to the problems presenting and there is a need for consideration of new ways of working together across the whole sector from health and social services to the police, and courts. We hope that the Taskforce will begin to address some of these challenges,” she said.
The spokeswoman said the problem needed both short term and long term responses.
“To develop the most considered and robust response will take time, community consultation and professional consultation and we hope that the Task Force is given adequate resources and support to properly undertake this task.”
Asked what would most help ice users and their families NDARC said:
“We hope that new and innovative approaches to treatment, particularly ones that link users from courts into treatment and rehabilitation and approaches that support families coping with the stress and strains of dealing these very traumatic family problems.”
The Prime Minister has declared ice to be an “absolute menace” that “destroys lives” and said around 400,000 Australians used it every year, with a 25 per cent increase in ice-related arrests and detections in NSW alone over the last couple of years.
He said ice was “far more addictive” than any other illegal drug and did far more damage.
“I want to say that as a citizen and as a parent, I am appalled at what is happening on our streets and in our homes,” Mr Abbott said.
“The propensity for violence, the propensity to subsequent very serious mental illness, the propensity to disfigurement which ice produces means that this is a drug epidemic way beyond anything that we have seen before now.
Mr Dillon said ice addicts were a “really difficult group to deal with”.
“Heroin users fall asleep, they’re not particularly challenging clients, but people on amphetamines are really difficult either in psychosis or aggressive and that makes it ten times more difficult for treatment centres or anyone working on the frontline,” he said.
The Australian Crime Commission recently released its first unclassified intelligence report into the effect ice is having on Australian communities.
Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the report was “very disturbing”.
“Because of the nature of the market here in Australia we’re pulling in criminals from all over the world to take advantage of the high price that we can get for a substance like ice here in Australia,” Mr Keenan said.
Mr Keenan said police and border and customs officials were seizing more ice than ever before but he said: “We are not going to be able to police our way out of this alone”.
“The law enforcement response will always be very important, but we also need to find other ways to work with the community, particularly within the health sector to address this issue.”
Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said ice was “touching people right across the community” and that its health and education impacts needed to be looked at.
“As I travel around the country, particularly rural and regional areas, it’s becoming increasingly obvious the rapid escalation of the use of this drug,” Ms Nash said.
“It is destroying people’s lives – disfigurement, mental illness, psychotic behaviour – we’re seeing a range of things coming forward relating to aggression and violence.”
Despite comments from both ministers the announcement contained no detail on what the health or education response to ice would involve except an allusion to a “major public awareness campaign”.
Mr Abbott said: “I guess the thing that we need to do most of all is reduce demand and the best way to reduce demand is to alert the community to the fact that while there might be a momentary high, there is a lifetime of pain and suffering if you get caught up in the ice culture.”
Asked whether extra money would be channelled into rehabilitation for ice addicts Mr Abbott appeared to indicate that a muscular, police-led response was the new taskforce’s focus and not rehabilitation
“This is the kind of thing we will be considering when we get Ken Lay’s report in the middle of the year, but we are already spending something like $200 million a year on treatment and rehabilitation for people who are afflicted by this dreadful scourge.”
He said the government would ramp up its response to new tactics by criminal syndicates and gangs and said his government had created state and territory anti-gang squads.