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‘We Are Ticking Time Bombs’: Inside Australia’s Meth Crisis

18 minute read

On a warm Thursday evening, at a community center in the pretty coastal town of Yeppoon, central Queensland, fifteen women around a table listen intently to another. Daphne is a middle-aged, burly woman with a dark topknot and a turquoise t-shirt. She’s known, infamously, as “the cage lady.”

Among the harrowing personal stories TIME will hear tonight about families struggling with crystal methamphetamine, hers is the starkest. Two years ago, she spent $2,250 building a reinforced steel cage for her son Wylie in their modest home in Rockhampton—a city of 80,000 souls on the Queensland coast. She kept Wylie, then 17 and addicted to crystal methamphetamine, in it for four weeks.

“I was desperate,” she tells the room. “It was the only thing I could do.” Traumatized by a string of family tragedies, her son had gone from dabbling in cannabis and alcohol at 13 to crystal meth—or ice, as it’s popularly called—by 15. “He had an ice pipe in the bathroom at his cousin’s. That was the start of it.”

Wylie became increasingly violent and volatile, but no help was available, she says—he’d been turned away from drug rehabilitation centers due to his suicidal tendencies, run away from a mental health ward at the local hospital, and couldn’t stay away from his dealer. He was erratic and angry. In desperation, she became Wylie’s jailer to stop him harming himself or buying drugs. “That’s when we made the cage, because he would have died on ice. He was a very sick boy.”

When her story went public, it caused a national uproar. She was branded a bad mother. Police told her she could be charged with deprivation of liberty and Wylie was asked if he wanted charges to be laid. But, Daphne says, “he told them ‘mum saved me.’ And I did.”

Wylie isn’t out of the woods yet, Daphne sighs. “He’s depressed. He’s not on ice but he’s back on marijuana. The [brain’s] dopamine center gets affected by ice, and when he’s on it, he thinks he’s the greatest rap star in the world, and when he’s off it, he’s suicidal. It’s hard,” she says.

The world may know Australia as that great southern land, famous for its open spaces, endless surf, scary spiders, sporting prowess and Steve Irwin. But as much as Australia is about sunshine, shark documentaries and beautiful bodies, it is about crystal methamphetamine and tweaking addicts. Ice first washed up on the country’s shores in the early 1990s. Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer tells TIME that it “sort of snuck up” on law enforcers. “Initially it was not seen as a serious problem.”

Now, however, it is ravaging the country. When the world visualizes the current hotspots of drug addiction, it pictures the depressed meth-ridden rural communities of Montana or Appalachia, or the corpse-ridden cities of Mexico’s cocaine trade, or perhaps the pallid victims of Iran’s heroin epidemic. It does not think of champion Australian athletes slowly self-destructing after a day of training, or respected businessmen dealing ice in country towns.

But, in fact, Australia has the highest use of methamphetamine in the English-speaking world or indeed almost any other country. According to the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, about 1.3 million Australians, an astonishing 7 percent of the population, have used methamphetamine and 400,000 (or just over 2 percent of all Australians) have done so in the last 12 months. In comparison, only 0.4 percent of Americans say they have used the drug, according to the 2012 U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

While the proportion of users as a percentage of the population has remained at a relatively stable 2.1 percent, the total number of users is now growing rapidly—tripling over the past five years, according to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre—and far outpaces the growth of drug treatment facilities, particularly in rural areas. Users are also getting much younger.

These developments — along with a deeper understanding of how Australia’s geography make it uniquely vulnerable to the drug — bring the crisis under a fresh spotlight. So has the spread of addiction, with unimaginable ferocity, from the inner cities to all parts of Australian society. Finance professionals in Sydney and Melbourne, miners in Western Australia’s vast Goldfields, indigenous children prostituting themselves for ice: None are immune. There are private schoolboys, who come to ice through “pharm parties,” and long-distance truck drivers, who use the drug to stay awake and relieve the boredom on the country’s endless highways. Use of ice is even found among military personnel and sailors: six recent suicides on HMAS Stirling revealed just how shockingly prevalent drug use is in the Royal Australian Navy. The nation is struggling to cope with what former Prime Minister Tony Abbott described as an epidemic “way beyond anything we have seen before.”

Daphne and her son Wylie near their home in Rockhampton in April 2017. Wylie is currently clean after previously battling an addiction to ice.
Daphne and her son Wylie near their home in Rockhampton in April 2017. Wylie is currently clean after previously battling an addiction to ice.David Maurice Smith—Oculi for TIME

‘It is the biggest threat to Australia’s future’

Andrew Scipione says that meth “would be our number one problem in terms of the drug that would be causing us the most grief,” and adds that it is far more socially damaging than heroin, cocaine, or other illicit drugs. (When he was interviewed by TIME for this article, Scipione was the police commissioner of New South Wales, but retired in March from his role as top cop of Australia’s most populous state.) “We are in danger of losing an entire generation of Australians,” he says wearily.

Australian federal senator Jacqui Lambie concurs. In 2015, she gave a now famous address to parliament in which she painfully, and frankly, recounted her son Dylan’s harrowing battle with the drug. Dylan is now in recovery but she can’t rest easy.

Motorcycle gang members—or bikies, to use the deceptively cute Australian name for them—are taking over the main streets of tiny towns all over her native Tasmania, the remote island-state long known as the cheerily wholesome “Apple Isle.” Lambie says they have infiltrated Tasmania from the mainland, in pursuit of virgin markets across the Bass Strait. “It is the biggest threat to Australia’s future,” she tells TIME. “Those asshole vulture dealers prey on the vulnerable—they should be strung up.”

Ice now infests Australia’s rural heart, tainting the national mythology of self-reliance and stoic individuality. It has attacked the nation’s proud sporting culture: former addicts include Olympic gold medal diver Matthew Mitcham and world champion surfing legend Tom Carroll.

Carroll tells TIME that it got to the point where he couldn’t even be in the water. “The drug was incompatible with surfing,” he recalls. “I was way too sped up to get into synch with the rhythm of the waves. Normal-circumstance surfs for me would last one to one and a half hours. Under the influence of meth, I struggled to stay in the water for 15 to 20 minutes.” Ice, he says, “almost robbed me of my life, it certainly robbed me of time with my kids and threatened to take everything I had built in my life away.”

If the drug doesn’t kill users, dealers threaten to. In Cairns—a tropical city billed as the gateway to Australia’s fabled Great Barrier Reef—nurse Tracey Devonport speaks of her son Maitland, who was almost murdered last year by ice dealers over a $2,200 drug debt. He was tortured in three locations, beaten with axe handles, stabbed, had a noose wrapped around his neck, and was found, bloody and disoriented, near a crocodile farm, she says.

Scipione tells TIME that the magnitude of Australia’s meth crisis is recognized as unique by global law enforcers. “The demand is incredibly high. I talk to colleagues around the world, including not that long ago to [former New York City Police Commissioner] Bill Bratton about ice and he was saying they don’t have the same problems in New York.”

Members of a support group that brings together loved ones of ice addicts at a community center in Yeppoon, north of Rockhampton, in April 2017.
Members of a support group that brings together loved ones of ice addicts at a community center in Yeppoon, north of Rockhampton, in April 2017.David Maurice Smith—Oculi for TIME

‘It’s more economical to buy ice, because it’s stronger’

The reasons for Australia’s ice epidemic lie in a confluence of market forces, cost, culture, and geography.

The country is distant from the source markets of cocaine and heroin. But its neighboring regions of East and Southeast Asia are considered among the highest producers of amphetamine-style substances globally, along with India. China has the largest number of clandestine ice labs in the Asia-Pacific region and is the source of most such substances in Australia, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Scipione says the country’s major vulnerability is this relatively position close to China, which supplies not only the finished drug but also the common precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of ice, including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. These are ostensibly exported for industrial production but often diverted, in Australia, for the production of illicit drugs by both local organized crime groups and transnational organized crime syndicates. A key problem, he adds, is that there is limited or no control on these chemicals in source countries. Even in Australia, some chemicals aren’t subject to the same import restrictions as the precursors they collectively help make, so they pass easily through the ports.

Detective superintendent Tony Cooke, the New South Wales Police Drug Squad commander, says Australian law enforcement authorities have been “working hard” to impose tighter controls, including building a national end-user declaration system to track sales of precursor chemicals. But such measures will take time to have an effect and, in the meantime, ice is flooding the country. April saw the nation’s largest haul of methamphetamine ever: some 903 kilograms of ice, worth close to a billion Australian dollars (around $758 million), were discovered inside 70 boxes of wooden floorboards.

Cooke says Australia is seeing “an increase in importation of finished product,” mostly from China, but many countries are involved. The Australian Crime Commission’s landmark report, The Australian Methylamphetamine Market: The National Picture, released in March 2015, found that the importation, manufacture and trafficking of methylamphetamine—to use the full name of methamphetamine—and the importation of precursor chemicals were “supported by members of Australian-based outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian organized crime groups as well as persons of Middle Eastern, Eastern European and West African backgrounds, and Vietnamese, Chinese, Canadian, U.S. and Mexican serious and organized crime groups.”

A big factor fueling the market is the price meth fetches in Australia. Local users consider ice a bargain compared to, say, costly and exotic cocaine—even so, the price they pay is one that international drug gangs regard as extremely attractive. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the average street price per gram of methamphetamine in China is $80; in Australia, it is $500. Wholesale prices have been recorded as high as $245,000 per kilogram.

“The price paid for methylamphetamine in Australia is among the highest in the world. This has driven interest in the market by transnational organized crime groups with access to offshore industrial-scale manufacturing, as well as by domestic organized crime groups,” the commission’s report says.

Australian demand for ice has led to a huge spike in production in China and other Asian countries such as Cambodia and Thailand, which in turn has made the drug highly affordable. A “point” of ice (a tenth of a gram) is now available for as little as 40 Australian dollars ($30) in some rural towns—equivalent to half a tank of gas or a meal in a modest restaurant, and far cheaper compared to a night of drinking. Alcohol is highly taxed in Australia. In terms of bang-for-buck, that makes meth far cheaper than mass-market whiskey.

A single point of meth can keep a user high for a couple of days depending on purity. “So it’s more economical to buy ice, because it is stronger,” says Nicole Lee, adjunct associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute of Curtin University. “You get more effect for the same cost.” She also cites the drug’s highly addictive nature. Data based on Nora Volkow’s work on the brain has found that ice can increase dopamine levels by as much as 1000 percent.

A former addict, who asked to identified only by his first name of Robert, can testify to this. A small business owner, he came to ice through Sydney’s gay party scene and relied on a daily point of ice for six years to get through work. He was hooked, he tells TIME, after only the second time he used the drug. “It was the most euphoric high.”

Cooke believes that part of the problem is cultural, lying in the national predilection for machismo, bravado, and risk taking. “We like to drink too much, or drive faster than anyone else,” he says. “It appears that we have the same issue around drug use.”

Daphne at her home in Rockhampton.
Daphne at her home in Rockhampton.David Maurice Smith—Oculi for TIME

‘You would not imagine one human being would do that to another’

If there are two Australias—the sunlit country of G’day mate cordiality and the plutonic dystopia of meth—then nowhere encapsulates the dichotomy better than Rockhampton.

On a balmy Friday evening in the nation’s beef capital, bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn, all appears wholesome. Tourists pass through on their way to Yeppoon, where they board ferries for Great Keppel Island on the southern Great Barrier Reef. At Rockhampton’s historic Great Western Hotel, families tuck into steak and fries around a big rodeo ring where riders attempt to cling on to snorting, angry, 500-kilogram bulls. One cowboy is thrown off his beast in a violent arc and slams into a steel fence. He is knocked out for five minutes, but comes to, and is carried off to polite applause, and the admiration of a quartet of Japanese tourists who take photographs.

There is nothing, initially, to suggest a town in trouble. But to many families, Rockhampton is the seventh circle of Hell.

An analysis of Queensland’s waste water suggests that its major cities have seen a nearly five-fold increase in methamphetamine use since 2009. The effects in the region have been devastating, with Queensland child safety minister Shannon Fentiman saying that “one in three children coming in to out-of-home care had a parent who was using ice.”

In Yeppoon, a 35-minute drive away, mothers swap tales of violent assaults from their meth-addicted teens and describe being half-killed by grown children in the grip of psychosis. One speaks of a daughter who blew a $30,000 inheritance in six months on ice: she’s now couch-surfing with her worldly possessions in a bag after having lost her kids, house, job, and car. The founder of a local narcotics anonymous group, Lynn Graham, is tearful as she talks of her son’s battle with the drug: It’s like they’re dead, “but still living” she says.

The picture is repeated elsewhere in the state. On the Sunshine Coast, about 500 kilometers south of Rockhampton, desperate grandparents gather for free legal advice on how to get access to their grandchildren in battles with their ice-addicted children, says Debbie Ware, a no-nonsense, brunette mother of a recovering ice addict son who founded local support group ICESUP.

The region’s indigenous community has also been hit hard, says Lyn Anderson, the manager of Helem Yumba or the Central Queensland Healing Centre. She says the typical indigenous user used to be a male aged 28 to 40, but users are now to be found across every age group. She is also seeing soaring levels of child neglect and abuse, as well as cases of prostitution among indigenous boys and girls: “They are offering themselves sexually to dealers.”

Despite the crisis, Rockhampton, like so many small Australian towns, is critically under-resourced. There are some drug and alcohol services at local hospitals, and there is a small, residential center for indigenous addicts that takes others only if it has beds, says Ware. Generally, addicts from outside the indigenous community have to travel hundreds of kilometers to Brisbane and other major centers to access help—often dragged there in long car rides by desperate families.

All over the country, the distances and isolation are crippling. “We are 400 kilometers from Kalgoorlie, 500 from Albany and 800 from Perth,” says retired nurse Deleine Congreve, of the Western Australian town of Esperance. Congreve, whose daughter is a recovering addict, is quietly proud of the nearly 2000 signatures she has collected, in two urgent petitions she delivered to the state government, for a detox unit, community counseling service and a mental health service at Esperance Hospital. But the community is still waiting for help and fearfully so.

Around the country, ice—which leads to psychosis, hallucinations, aggression, insomnia, paranoia and delusions in heavy users—has been responsible for a range of particularly gruesome homicides and a surge in domestic violence. Karen Harrison, a mother of an addict in the economically depressed steel town of Whyalla, South Australia, runs a support group for families where ambulance workers come to give lessons in “netting”—physically restraining grown, violent children in the grip of psychosis. “[Parents] are scared of their children,” Harrison tells TIME.

In New South Wales, Scipione recounts the ritual Sunday morning briefing he was used to getting from police officers who had been victims of ice-induced violence the night before: he cites broken arms, broken teeth, and fractured eye sockets. Ice, which can give some users a surge of strength, was the reason he managed to get tasers introduced in the state. “Some of these injuries are just terrible. You would not imagine one human being would do that to another, but they do. This is the scourge we are dealing with.”

Part of the cage that Daphne used to lock in her son Wylie rests against their previous home in Rockhampton.
Part of the cage that Daphne used to lock in her son Wylie rests against their previous home in Rockhampton.David Maurice Smith—Oculi for TIME

‘They are sitting ducks’

The problem is magnified in small country towns and remote rural communities like the New South Wales town of Wellington, which has been dubbed “Little Antarctica” because of its ice crisis. In Esperance, where Sergeant Richard Moore is part of a team that patrols an area the size of France—the world’s largest police beat—there has been a surge of ice-induced violence at the local hospital as well as rising assaults against officers. One officer was recently saved by his safety vest after being stabbed by a psychotic addict, Moore says.

“This young fella came out of the bedroom at us with a knife. He had self-harmed so there was a lot of blood everywhere. So it’s not just physical injuries to police, it’s hep C, all those sorts of things. We’ve had users spit in our mouths and eyes.”

The head of the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, Sam Biondo, partly attributes the problem to chronic joblessness—in the Victorian country town of Wangaratta, for instance, more than a fifth of young people are unemployed—as well as a lack of support services to deal with mental health issues.

“I think all regional communities here are just like some parts of the United States,” he says, “which are suffering from the effects of transformation fueled by globalization, industry closure, the effects on local farming. The traditional means of employment are going. They are sitting ducks.”

Scipione grows emotional as he speaks of watching a close friend’s son go from life as a married father to bankrupting his family business to eventually being jailed for attempted murder. Ice “rapes people of their dignity,” he says. He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers: “You can’t arrest your way out of this problem.”

On that, there is broad agreement. Palmer, the former federal police commissioner, typifies many when he says the crisis requires a holistic approach that takes in everything from law enforcement and mental health services, to the establishment of a national network of detox and rehab centers, and a review of social programs looking at housing and employment, family support services, and education.

Late last month, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk held her first summit on tackling ice, in Rockhampton. It looked at everything from youth support to seizing the assets of criminal gangs. A statement from the Queensland government says that the summit was born out of the premier’s meeting with “the brave mothers of ice victims.”

At least it’s a start. But until federal and state governments can work out how to deliver ambitious and costly programs to remote communities, ice users and their families will be left to improvise their own desperate solutions to a crisis that has no precedent.

“We are ticking time bombs” says Jenny Wayman, who works with the Salvation Army in Rockhampton. And local parents, she adds, have nothing but admiration for Daphne, the cage lady. “They’d like to do what she did.”

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