By David Penington, University of Melbourne
RECENT news of former NSW premier’s daughter Harriet Wran being charged with murder is another illustration of Australia’s growing problem with the drug ice.
Wran, who is said to have been battling an ice addiction, has been charged with murder, attempted murder, and breaking and entering while armed with a knife, along with Michael Lee. Another man Lloyd Haines has been charged with murder, attempted murder, and aggravated break and enter.
Ice or crystal methamphetamine is becoming a problem in both rural and urban communities across Australia. There’s growing concern about the effects of ice addiction, crime, and violence, and people are at a loss for answers.
Of course, the police must play a role in addressing many of these issues, but families worried about their loved ones and the community must also play their part to fight this scourge.
A downward spiral
Crystal meth is more pure, cheaper, and more potent than other forms of methamphetamine. A flood of precursor chemical imports to feed local drug production in the last two years has been accompanied by increased local use and manufacturing.
And much overseas-produced (predominantly south-east Asia) crystal meth inevitably evades Customs and police. Despite huge seizures of the drug and precursors, it remains readily available and the price is little affected.
Alcohol, particularly binge drinking, causes many more deaths than ice. But there’s a bigger problem with illicit drugs: the market is controlled by criminals recruiting dependent users to act as their agents, who recruit yet more users to keep feeding their own addiction.
This brings huge pressure for expansion. And then there’s the threat of physical violence by users, or against their families if they cannot repay debts to ruthless suppliers.
The main problem, of course, is addiction. In the days after taking meth, with its hugely exciting sense of ecstasy, users become deeply depressed, desiring more of the drug. Some manage to control this desire, but many cannot and find themselves, over time, losing control of their lives. They need more and more of the drug as relief from the “low” dwindles.
Frequent users find themselves associating all the time with other users, usually dropping out of employment, education or normal social activities. Older people with depression may take ice to relieve their misery.
After prolonged heavy use, ice can badly damage the brain and precipitate aggressive psychotic behaviour, characterised by feelings of persecution that can lead to attacks on others.
So what can families can do to stop the rise and rise of meth use in Australia?
Reduce initiation into drugs by talking openly about them with children – in terms of health. Young people will always want to test the limits of authority. They need to see the drug as something that matters for their health and future lives, rather than giving in to something that will damage their brains.
If your children have already tried the drug, urge them to see a doctor who can explain what is happening to their brain and offer options to get over the “low” that comes after use, which can be so devastating. Early help for sleeping can make a big difference.
If they are under too much pressure to resist using and in trouble with mounting debt (if they’re stealing money from home, for instance) try to find out who is putting pressure on them. Confidentially contact the police, who will handle it with tact and anonymity.
The police can rescue your child from ice’s downward spiral by tackling criminal pushers. If he or she has become heavily involved in trafficking, police intervention may save them before it is too late.
Outstanding drug withdrawal services are available in each state of this country. They accept people referred by police or the courts. And they can arrange longer periods of rehabilitation, which may be vital. Family support is essential as people go through this process, and as they then try to rebuild their lives in the community.
State drug services are badly stretched, but we also have very capable doctors who are able to give advice. Many high schools have very sensible education programs encouraging young people to take care of their health.
Many people cling to the view that as drugs are illegal, everything should be fixed by the police arresting all users. But the police are fully aware that this approach has failed for over 50 years. In Australia, as in other countries, prisoners still use drugs.
Drugs are fundamentally a health issue, akin to alcohol addiction and binge drinking. Drug users need help, and treatment is available if accessed before the brain becomes seriously damaged. Both police and the community must play a part.
David Penington is the patron of the Penington Institute, which has a commitment to support evidence based harm-reduction for drugs and liaise with governments on illicit drug policy.
[Photo by Torbak Hopper, attribution licence]