by Rachel Olding
An unprecedented spread of the drug ice in regional and rural NSW is reaching critical levels, experts say, but efforts to tackle the problem are being crippled by an absence of services.
Amphetamine use, particularly crystal methamphetamine or “ice”, has risen by up to 180 per cent over two years in some regional centres like Coffs Harbour, Cessnock and Wagga Wagga.
But the scourge is also infiltrating smaller towns – such as Moree, Broken Hill and Casino – that had never heard of the cheap and destructive drug 10 years ago.
Council workers were collecting 200 syringes from parks each month before yellow disposal bins were installed around Moree recently.
Local elder Pauline Briggs, who helped to establish the now-defunct Roy Thorne House Substance Misuse Rehabilitation Centre, said she picks up three or four needles outside her house every day.
“Ice is like the evil claw and it’s just taken a grip on Moree,” Ms Briggs’ granddaughter Nari Kay said.
Bronwyn Briggs, harm minimisation project officer for the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, said towns like Moree despaired at curbing the ice scourge.
“We’re probably in the critical stages and we’re just trying to get an understanding of what our understanding is,” she said. “In places like Moree, where they’ve seen the Roy Thorne centre close down, I don’t think they know what to do.”
Arrests for amphetamine possession outside Sydney have increased at more than double the rate of Sydney, data provided to Fairfax Media reveals.
Possession offences grew by 11 per cent in greater Sydney in the past two years and by almost 25 per cent for the rest of NSW.
And arrest data is the tip of the iceberg, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research director Don Weatherburn said.
“At this early stage of the epidemic, there wouldn’t be large numbers going to emergency departments or coming to the attention of police because most people seem to be recreational users that aren’t in serious trouble yet,” he said.
Moree police commander Gelina Talbot said Moree’s experience was “no different to any other town or city in NSW”.
This year, police have undertaken large-scale operations to bust supply rings in Casino, the Shoalhaven, Armidale, Broken Hill and Wagga.
But the services available to help ice users were next to nil, Rebecca McKetin, a fellow at the Centre for Research on Ageing Health and Wellbeing, said. Heroin addiction can be treated with methadone but there is no equivalent for ice.
“In small towns you might have 10 beds [for rehabilitation] so if there is a sudden expansion it’s very difficult to deal with,” she said.
The number of drug labs in NSW has doubled in five years and increasingly they are being discovered in regional towns.
Organised crime syndicates from the city are also expanding their reach. Imports of amphetamines seized at the border increased by 85 per cent between 2011-12 and 2012-13.
On Wednesday, a Northmead man was picked up on the Sturt Highway bound for Wagga Wagga with a kilogram of amphetamines in the boot of his BMW.
The Australian Crime Commission said the resurgence of methamphetamine is their “highest priority” because it poses the “highest risk to the Australian community of all illicit drug and organised crime markets”.
Acting chief executive Paul Jevtovic said it is emerging as “a pandemic akin to the issue of ‘crack’ cocaine in the United States” due to its relative accessibility, affordability and destructive side effects.
NSW Drugs Squad commander Tony Cooke said the squad was finding more labs and seizing more ice and precursor chemicals than ever before “but there is still much work that needs to be done”.