NACCHO ICE NEWS: Communities like Yarrabah leading the way to stop ice epidemic


In the north Queensland town of Yarrabah we covered another essential response to ice: mobilisation of the community. No amount of policing can succeed without the vigilance and co-operation of locals.

Last week The Australian documented the scourge of the drug ice and foreshadowed a national attempt to deal with it.

” Ice is not only an inner-city affliction and so we reported on its swift invasion of communities in the far west of NSW. Last October Marcia Langton, an Aboriginal academic from the University of Melbourne, warned of “a youth epidemic” of ice usage and “organised drug-dealing syndicates” in remote Aboriginal communities. “

Ice, or crystal methamphetamine, has been linked to psychosis and senseless violence; it is clearly a factor in recent horrific cases of domestic violence. It’s estimated that usage of ice has more than doubled in recent years; about 200,000 Australians are thought to have tried it in the past 12 months. Despite record seizures and arrests, the street price of this drug has been stable or falling. It is tenaciously addictive. Community leaders in western NSW acknowledge that alcohol is still the dominant problem but they say that ice appears to inflict serious damage more quickly than any other drug.

It is also emerging as a road safety issue. As we report today, almost every second driver pulled over by police in Wagga Wagga, NSW, in July was under the influence of ice or other drugs. Across NSW this year, one in every 15 drivers tested positive for drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine or MDMA, the drug class that includes ecstasy. Similar figures have been reported by South Australia and Victoria in recent years. In the ACT, almost one in six drivers tested positive for drugs last year. These are much higher rates than for drink-driving which, after years of campaigns, ranges across the country from one in every 76 drivers to one in 567. Many innocent lives are at risk. As NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione says: “For motorists in NSW to know they are sharing roads with people who are high on ice and who have absolutely no control over what they are doing is the most frightening aspect of this.”

A national taskforce on ice, led by former Victoria Police chief commissioner Ken Lay, is due to hand down its findings within weeks. Set up by Tony Abbott, it will become the responsibility of the new Turnbull government. As this newspaper reported yesterday, the taskforce is expected to document the failure of attempts to interrupt the supply of ice across Australia. The likely response will be an attempt to reduce demand by targeting addicts through increased treatment options, education and other support strategies.

Education and rehabilitation are obviously important elements in any successful strategy, but it is reassuring to see federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan stressing the role of better law enforcement. “The most important response is always the law enforcement response,” he said. “We want to find the people who are peddling it, we want to lock them up.”

Locals in Brewarrina, the NSW outback town where there have been several ice-related deaths this year, had complained that dealers had been targeting children without any police intervention. Local police insist they have been doing their job.

In the north Queensland town of Yarrabah we covered another essential response to ice: mobilisation of the community. No amount of policing can succeed without the vigilance and co-operation of locals.

Many of the stop signs in Yarrabah aren’t just there for motorists.

“Stop Ice,” the graffitied signs read.

The highly addictive drug – and its potential toll on youth – is a fresh threat to the small far north Queensland indigenous community already battling alcohol and tobacco dependency.

But locals are trying everything they can to make sure it doesn’t get a stranglehold.

Staff from the Gindaja Treatment and Healing Indigenous Corporation have been knocking on doors since Wednesday and taking surveys to gauge how much of a toll the illicit substance is taking.

It’s the first step in getting some hard data for service providers, who have until now relied partially on rumours circulating within the community of less than 2500.

The corporation’s Greg Fourmile told AAP results from the first two days of surveys confirmed what rehab workers had suspected – ice usage is on the rise.

Gindaja chief executive Ailsa Lively knew of three users in the town a year-and-a-half ago, but estimates there are now up to 40, with around half that number confirmed in the first days of surveying.

She’s even heard of a 14-year-old using.

The oldest was in their 30s.

Acting Senior Sergeant Andrew Pool hadn’t heard of juveniles taking the drug but said young males were the main risk takers.

Police have seized small quantities of the drug in the community and made a number of arrests thanks to local tip offs.

But the problem is far less widespread than in nearby Cairns, thanks in part to an extremely strong anti-ice sentiment, Act Sen Sgt Pool said.

“A lot of the stop signs in Yarrabah have been graffitied with `Ice’ under it,” he told AAP.

“I think that’s a really positive visual image that the community’s not hiding from it.”

It’s thought most users get their drugs 50 minutes away in Cairns but police also have their ear to the ground for murmurings of local cooks.

Stopping the inflow from Cairns completely will be a challenge for the community, with many residents regularly switching between the two locations.

“A few members have identified family who have moved out (of Yarrabah) and brought it (ice) back when they were visiting,” Mr Fourmile told AAP.

Ice use in indigenous communities has become a high-profile topic, with a number of leaders speaking out about the issue.

Last week, Queensland MP Billy Gordon went public about losing an uncle and a 22-year-old cousin to ice-related suicides and called on governments to “get their hands dirty” and increase funding for mental health services.

The comments were made at a meeting with police and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services, which called for more funding to indigenous organisations to address the issue with culturally appropriate programs.

While no one knows for sure which Queensland communities are worst affected, Dr Mark Wenitong from the Apunipima Cape York Health Council said it was expected towns near mines and regional centres would have the biggest problems.

One such community is Aurukun, where Mayor Derek Walpo is concerned the drug is flowing in from nearby mining town Weipa.

He’s been distributing flyers and posters around his locality in an effort to get through to the town’s youth before a major problem takes hold.

Further south in Yarrabah, mayor Errol Neal, believes the extent of the Ice problem has been exaggerated.

But, in saying that, he realises the importance of nipping it in the bud.

His council will join the Gindaja Treatment and Healing, local health groups and community members next week for a march through the town’s main street that hopes to draw attention to the possible havoc ice could wreak.

“We have got to address this issue and make sure it doesn’t creep out of control,” he said.

Of all the addictions that have plagued his people, Winston Prior, from Yarrabah in north Queensland, has never seen anything as evil and as quick to take hold as the drug ice.

The heroin addict turned youth advocate fears the same demons that have flourished on generational alcohol and drug dependence are finding new strength in Australia’s vulnerable indigenous communities.

He was among the community leaders who yesterday marched through Yarrabah, united in purpose, waving banners and crying out, “ice is not welcome in our community” and “dob a dealer, save our kids”.

Earlier this year, The Australian revealed an army of indigenous leaders were banding together to try to prevent ice from becoming entrenched in areas such as Cape York where early evidence of growing crystal methamphetamine use had prompted a call to action.

Mr Prior, who struggled with heroin and speed addiction for 24 years and has been clean for eight, said the tentacles of the insidious drug had well and truly reached the far corners of the country.

Just days ago, having returned from time away in Proserpine, Mr Prior went to a relative’s home in search of borrowed jumper leads only to find his treasured nephew and friends sitting in a paddock, “cleaning the pipe (used to smoke ice) out”. He recently visited the troubled community of Aurukun where he said dealers from Cairns and locals were literally giving children large quantities of the drug in the hope they would ­become sellers.

“They (the children) are going to make it good the first time and bring the money back,” Mr Prior said

“The second time the drug is going to be too good for them so they are going to start stealing … they will start doing stuff for (ice) … it’s a circle, a circle you have to break.”

During his darker days, Mr Prior “touched” ice for a time, barely slept for more than 30 days, dismissed the drug sores which looked like he had been “in a swamp full of bloody mosquitoes and march flies” on his face as “pimples”, alienated his family and committed crime after crime to feed his habit.

Now, having found Christian faith and living a happy life with his wife and four “adopted” children, Mr Prior is “very remorseful” for his past crimes and wouldn’t wish ice addiction on his “worst enemy”.

But while he managed to break free, he believes the mammoth feat is beyond the reach of the next generation if the scourge is not immediately addressed. He wants community elders to take kids out bush and teach “traditional ways of hunting and gathering”, and for community leaders to offer incentives such as free barbecues and working bees at the local basketball courts to “give them purpose and a reason to keep the place clean”.

“These children in all our communities, what are they doing? They are not going to school … they end up incarcerated or jobless. They need something to do. If this drug takes hold for good, our problems with marijuana and alcohol won’t be anything compared to what will happen to us then.”

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