Just the tip of the iceberg

THE “meth” arrived in the northern Victorian town in one of two ways.

It could be delivered by a father and his son, the latter who normally had a gun at his hip. They usually drove up with it from Melbourne in a hire car.

Alternatively it came from a “friend”, who got it from another “friend”, and who also drove with it from the city.

In both instances, word would get around their “old mate” was in town when a delivery was made and customers would go to the friend’s house where the drug was dropped off in shopping bags.

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Throughout the day, there were people in and out of the house where the trade involved those trying, buying and selling the drug.

Tom, not his real name, was in his early 20s and an apprentice with a prominent electrical company in Shepparton.

His ice habit had developed from a weekend kick to the extent where he and his colleagues were smoking it in the work van as they drove from job to job throughout the week.

In six months, his habit had become a $250-a-day addiction that was impossible to support on an apprentice’s wage.

So like so many other users, Tom began to deal ice.

On Wednesday nights or Thursday mornings, he would buy-up from “old mate” and deal up to $2000 worth of the drug every two days to friends and friends of friends.

“It’s not hard to sell,” he said.

“A few years ago it was only a few people, like a few blue-collar workers, who used it.

“Now it’s white-collar workers, it’s moved up the chain. I knew teachers, big business owners, well-known figures who were all using it.”

A Victorian parliamentary inquiry into methamphetamine — also known as ice and meth — comes to Wodonga on Monday after four months of public hearings in regional centres and Melbourne.

What has emerged from the hearings held in Bendigo, Ballarat, Mildura, Geelong and Traralgon is that regional areas are experiencing a problem that has never before been seen with any other drug.

“There has always been cannabis in regional Victoria and there wasn’t much heroin, but because ice is easy to manufacture it’s the first time there’s been a significantly harmful illegal drug that’s gone right across regional and rural areas and it’s gone across in a very rapid time frame,” Anex chief executive John Ryan said.

“It’s only in the past two or three years and it’s really harming the smallest towns to the regional centres, which is unprecedented.”

The drug harm reduction agency, whose work helped prompt the inquiry, is drafting a statewide rapid situation assessment to present to the parliamentary committee.

It will gauge how the trade of ice is impacting upon those communities affected.

“Ice is being used by people who are not in work and already vulnerable; it’s being used by white-collar people as well as tradies; it’s incredibly pervasive,” Mr Ryan said.

The drug has roared into regional areas at a rate previously unseen because ice is easy to make; you can get a recipe on the internet and equipment used in its manufacture can be bought from any hardware store.

It’s also relatively cheap to buy at $100 a point (.01 of a gram), easy to find and sends its users into euphoria.

Users say they’ve taken it to get the housework done, to boost their sex drive, to lose weight, to concentrate at work and to stay awake.

The reasons for taking it might vary among those who become addicted but the side-effects are always the same.

Addicts say they disconnect from society, they can no longer feel happy without the drug, they can “drown” in debt.

There are also the physical effects of developing mental illness and kidney, heart and liver failure.

“It’s an especially dangerous drug,” Mr Ryan said.

Police across the state have told the hearings they have seen an increase in related crime including burglaries, armed robberies and domestic violence among those seeking to finance their habit.

In Mildura, health workers gave evidence of suicides linked to the drug, with regular users as young as 15 .

Those making submissions at Bendigo and Ballarat echoed a growing call for more detox and rehabilitation services in regional Victoria.

Mr Ryan said the government needed to provide a framework and resources for dealing with the problem, but the answer lay within the communities themselves.

“We’ve got to have better education and it has got to include better knowledge of how to get off the drug,” he said.

“Police cannot arrest their way out of this problem so the linkage between police, health services, education, employers and sports clubs is important.”

For Tom, it was the accepted use of the drug among his peers in Shepparton that led him to say “yes” to smoking ice in a bathroom cubicle of a club with a friend when he was 18.

“I knew it was bad for you, but you see so many people doing it and they’re all working and doing stuff and I thought ‘I’ll be right’,” he said.

“It’s a horrible acceptance. It shouldn’t be accepted, but it is.

“It blew my socks off. I instantly loved it. It’s hard to explain, but you feel 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.”

Tom said it was the acceptance among his friends that made it easy to progress to dealing and so make the money for his next bag of ice.

“The way you justify it is ‘I’ve done it to myself, so they’re doing it themselves’ and someone else is going to give it to them so it might as well be me,” he said.

That acceptance was only shaken when Tom encountered the father-and-son suppliers from Melbourne at a drop-off.

They looked like “real” drug dealers with tattoos and guns, and then Tom started to notice the police were tailing him.

“If I didn’t have my accident, I would almost definitely be in jail,” he said.

Two years ago, Tom dived into the shallow waters of a river while high on ice and broke his neck.

He narrowly avoided becoming a paraplegic or quadriplegic as a result.

The accident forced him to come off the drug and he’s now studying at university.

He wants to talk to high school students to educate them about ice in a way he says he was never taught.

“I definitely think I was given a second chance,” he said.

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