NACCHO Aboriginal Health News: There is no escape from the ice epidemic in Aboriginal communities

 

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An unprecedented spread of the drug ice in regional and rural New South Wales (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% 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.

Syringes have become such a common sight in the northern NSW town of Moree, population 10,000, that the debate has turned to the merits of a legal injecting centre. Researchers say it would become the first rural town in the world to have one.

“It isn’t a way to live, But it is a fast way to die”.

For a year Dave Boney had devoted his life to the drug, spending every waking minute high or trying to get high again. At his worst he was shooting almost all of his $800-a-fortnight disability support pension up his arm.

“Ice has infiltrated indigenous communities in Bourke, Walgett, Dubbo, Wellington and Wilcannia.”

Sean Gordon, who is the CEO of the Darkinjung Aboriginal Council and originally from Brewarrina

A “Black Box” which usually contains up to five needles are handed out by NSW Health and then abandoned near the river or in the street when finished with.

Now the organisation is handing out about 250 injection boxes a day to stop people sharing

In Moree the drug ice has become so widespread that four months ago Pius X Aboriginal Medical Service found more than 2500 needles from derelict houses in the town’s south.

‘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

Bronwyn Briggs, Harm Minimisation Project Officer for the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, said towns like Moree despaired at curbing the ice scourge. I don’t think they know what to do.’

Report from  Sarah Crawford from the Daily Telegraph

Who visited the rural NSW town of Brewarrina, where an ice epidemic is crushing countless lives

STANDING in his mother’s Brewarrina home, the police surrounding the perimeter, Dave Simpson plunged a knife into his own chest again and again and as the blood flowed a realisation came upon him.  It didn’t hurt at all.

Ice had severed the pain sensors between his brain and the gaping wounds and with all reason disabled by the drug he was tearing at his own flesh without so much as wincing.

The 22-year-old had soared on a football field, only to sink off it, a captive of a drug which is devastating indigenous communities across NSW. At his worst, before he laid siege to his mother’s home, Simpson had threatened to shoot her. Crystal meth had long ago laid siege to him.

He was caught in the drug’s icy grip when he was given it as an 18th birthday present. “I never drank, I never smoked, I went straight to ice,” Mr Simpson said. The drug consumed his life and his body.

His athletic frame, which he had developed playing for the Burleigh Bears on the Gold Coast, shrunk to a painfully thin 55kg.

In the two months leading up to the siege he stalked the house like a ticking time bomb, not sleeping, barely eating and hallucinating that he could see rhinos in the paddock opposite the house.

He took such a large quantity of ice in the week before the siege that he has no memory of those six hours, raging in the dark house. He lifts his shirt to show the puckered scars across his chest.

“That is all I remember, I was bleeding out,” he says casually. “I had half an ounce of ice over a week, where my whole body could not feel anything. I started slashing myself, stabbing myself across the chest. That is all he wants to say about his darkest hour.

He ends the conversation abruptly by kick-starting his stepdad’s motorbike and roaring off down the track in a cloud of dust leaving his mother, Linda, to finish the story.

“He just put me through hell pretty much” Ms Simpson said. After the siege Dave spent two months in a mental health unit and now describes himself as “100 per cent”.

He has put on weight, he has money in the bank from mustering work and he is vying for a contract to play first grade league for the nearby town of Nyngan.

“For now everything is good,” Ms Simpson said. “But we could go through it again, I don’t know.”

In Brewarrina, where 60 per cent of the population is indigenous, there is no escape from the ice epidemic .On the surface, the parched river banks and tinder-dry scrub show a town enduring the once-in-a-century drought that has scorched the state’s north west.

But dig a little deeper and you will discover that Brewarrina is in the grip of an ice age.

There are half a dozen dealers peddling the highly addictive methyl amphetamine to the population of 1200.Black injection boxes are littered around the town, which ice addicts help themselves to from a vending machine outside the hospital through the needle and syringe program.

Over the past two years, the ice scourge has ripped through regional NSW, with some major towns seeing rates of people charged with possession of amphetamines rise between 160 and 200 per cent according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

They just can’t stop it, they go into a really deep depression and take their lives

And Brewarrina, whose neighbouring towns 100km east and west are the amphetamine hot spots of Walgett and Bourke, has been sucked into the epidemic.

Sean Gordon, who is the CEO of the Darkinjung Aboriginal Council and originally from Brewarrina, said ice had infiltrated indigenous communities in Bourke, Walgett, Dubbo, Wellington and Wilcannia.

In Moree the drug has become so widespread that four months ago Pius X Aboriginal Medical Service found more than 2500 needles from derelict houses in the town’s south.

A “Black Box” which usually contains up to five needles are handed out by NSW Health and then abandoned near the river or in the street when finished with.

Now the organisation is handing out about 250 injection boxes a day to stop people sharing.

Pastor Isaac Gordon, from Brewarrina, said ice use was “pretty much rampant all over the west”.

He has conducted funerals for six indigenous people, who committed suicide, some due to ice, across communities in the state’s north west last year.

“When they are coming down they just can’t stop it, they go into a really deep depression and take their lives,’’ the Pastor said.

“We need help, we need serious help, this is not something small. I have lived on the river banks at Brewarrina all my life and I have never seen anything like this.”

Ice rolled into town in the vehicle of a local about two years ago and spread like wildfire.

Shannon, not her real name, watched as the drug infiltrated the party scene.

“A local went away, got the gear and brought it in, but what surprised me was how fast it spread, within months,” Shannon said.

The abandoned homes used by people as injecting squats are usually near the drug dealer’s

“More people came to notice that you can make a lot of money out of it.” Shannon and her husband, Bill, also not his real name, became hooked by a dealer who, in search of new customers, started offering free samples.“ This guy was handing it out like lollipops,” Bill said.

The first time Shannon smoked it she felt “instant euphoria”.“I felt it hit my brain and behind my ears. I was ecstatic there was a party in my brain and I could not stop talking. Once I did that I could not stop, all I could do is think about it.”

Ice, or “crystal meth”, is the purest form of methylamphetamine in Australia. The colourless crystals are either smoked or injected allowing the substance to enter the brain more quickly making it extremely addictive.

Shannon describes how they started using their welfare cheques to go on $1500 benders which kept them awake for up to five days at a time.

“I’m so ashamed,” she says, bowing her head and bursting into tears.

“We have kids and the cupboard would be empty and we would just be scraping by.“I know it is our own fault. We are trying to climb out of the hole -—we have put ourselves in a lot of debt.”

It was on Christmas Eve when they decided the ice binges had to end.We looked at what presents we had for the kids and it was f*** all,” Bill said. That was 12 weeks ago and the couple have had several relapses, the last being three weeks ago.

“It is very hard to stay off it,” she says opening another beer to soothe her fierce craving. “We have people that are always offering it, mates that are using it themselves and selling it to feed their own habit.” It is not hard to trace the trail of ice through Brewarrina.

Black boxes, needle wrappers and syringes are littered all down the river, behind the weir, around the cattle sales yards and in abandoned houses close to where dealers live. In an area that has the highest infection rates of hepatitis C in the state, you need to watch your step.

Brewarrina Cultural Centre manager Darryl Ferguson shows The Daily Telegraph the river bank behind the museum where he used to pick up needles, finding sharps tucked away for reuse in the tree branches and sticking out from the thick undergrowth.

“Last year we found 21 in a day,” he says pointing out a discarded needle wrapper and deal bag on the ground, “I don’t pick them up anymore because work does not insure me.” He spots three boys wading across the river. “Have you got shoes on?” He yells. “Yes,” they call back sheepishly. “Then show me.” One boy quickly lifts his bare foot out of the water. “Get the f*** out of there, there are needles in there,” he bellows. The three scramble to the nearest bank.

Thirteen-year-old Barry said he is always watching out for needles at the river. “I seen them all there on the wall in the rocks, we just see these black boxes,” he says. Mr Ferguson blames the hospitals needle and syringe program (NSP) for the rash of needles around town.

“They never could get needles, now they are at the hospital for free, but they should hand them out over the counter so we know who is getting it,” he said.

Western NSW Local Health District would not tell The Daily Telegraph how many free needles are distributed in Brewarrina.

Program manager Angela Parker defended the NSP saying that providing users with an anonymous way to pick up free syringes at the hospital was the best way to stop people sharing needles and spreading hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases.

The community is divided on the severity of the ice epidemic in Brewarrina. Mayor Angelo Pippos said ice use in Brewarrina was no different than other regional towns.

“It is not a really big problem here, it is an isolated problem. We wish we could wipe it out completely but how do we do it, it’s everywhere,” he said. And it is hard to catch.

Despite it being common knowledge that several dealers operate in town, police have only arrested two people on ice-related charges since the start of 2013. Ice runners are slipping into the town using secret tracks, staying one step ahead of police using the “bush telegraph” among themselves.

Darling River crime manager Scott Parker said tracking down criminal syndicates in the bush was one of the challenges of remote policing. “Geography alone, coupled with bush craft and local knowledge by offenders certainly provide frustrations to police,” he said.

They said they can’t do nothing for me, all I can do is give it up or I’m going to kill myself

Forty kilometres down the track from Brewarrina in a bush camp, the Orana Aboriginal Corporation Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre is putting lives, broken by ice, back together. In the past 12 months they have seen an explosion in the number of people seeking treatment for ice addiction.

Of the eight to nine phone surveys of potential clients they conduct a week about 80 percent say they are addicted to ice. Almost all of their clients are referred to from jail where the drug is rampant. Rarely do the released prisoners who arrive at Orana give a urine sample free of methylamphetamine.

Orana CEO Norm Henderson describes the new arrivals as “scattered”.

“They can’t put a thought sequence together, their attention span is real short and a lot of them are quite angry. This crushes people spiritually, they have no hope left,” he said. You can see that in the eyes of client Dave Boney, 40, whose dull blue gaze appears haunted by the drug which took his dignity and almost his life. Two weeks ago he was lying in Inverell Hospital wracked with cramps, his bones rattling violently as he was pumped full of Valium to calm his raging body as he detoxed from ice. “It felt like dying,” he recalls.

For a year Dave had devoted his life to the drug, spending every waking minute high or trying to get high again. At his worst he was shooting almost all of his $800-a-fortnight disability support pension up his arm. “It isn’t a way to live,” Mr Boney said. But it is a fast way to die.

Mr Boney was being admitted to Inverell Hospital almost weekly until doctors told him there was nothing more they could do for him. “They said they can’t do nothing for me, all I can do is give it up or I’m going to kill myself.’’ Out in the bush away from temptation Mr Boney is safe from his tormentor.

But three months from now he will have to return to his home town of Inverell which, just like Brewarrina, is “riddled with ice”.

Mr Boney is a victim of the pandemic but he has also now become a contagion for the ice disease.He passed on his almost fatal illness to his cousins aged 18 and 19.

“When my cousins seen me doing it they wanted to see what it was like. I gave them a bit they started doing it, now they are stuck on it too.

“I never thought of it at first until I sat down and had a good think about it. Now I have a lot of time to think about that,” he said.