Getting a grip on the ‘ice’ epidemic

Warning signs: This epidemic is threatening to freeze Australia in an ice age that will drain all the goodness out of our nation.
Warning signs: This epidemic is threatening to freeze Australia in an ice age that will drain all the goodness out of our nation.

GOLDEN beams of sunlight lazily reached over the horizon early on a Sunday morning. Most of the suburban street was sleeping quietly. However, one house was disturbing the peace.

Rod (not his real name) lay back down on his bed and closed his eyes. Sleep would not come to him even in these early hours. He’d already been up to turn on the empty washing machine and clothes dryer. Every tap in the house was running at full capacity, water spilling over basins and pooling on the floor.

The television was turned on full volume and music blared through the stereo. Despite all his efforts, Rod could still hear the dripping. Slow, methodic, echoing droplets falling somewhere just out of reach. He’d been listening to the drops all night, sleep deprived and anxious as they slowly got louder and closer. Every sound in the night sent shivers down his spine.

He rolled on to his back. An icy cold droplet landed on his forehead. Then another. One by one they fell. Drip, drip, drip. Methodical torture splashing on his face and running down his cheeks. As he lay on his bed he could feel it moving, as if bugs were scuttling around just under the surface of the mattress.

All the while the drops continued to fall. No matter how much he scratched at his forehead he couldn’t make it stop. Somewhere in a distant area of his mind he knew this was because the drops weren’t really there, but that gave him no comfort.

Rod’s experience was a psychotic episode, a terrible side-effect from using methamphetamine, a drug  most commonly known as “ice”.

This psychosis is displayed all over the news; society is in the grip of an “ice” epidemic. People scratching out their own eyes, attacking family members and picking at their skin till sores form. Addicts are unstable and menacing and they’re moving in up the street or across the road from you.

This ice storm is spreading up the coast with all the cryogenic powers of Queen Elsa herself, threatening to freeze Australia in an ice age that will drain all the goodness out of our fine and noble nation.

It’s time for a disclaimer. This article is not pro ice. Methamphetamine is a dangerous drug that has very real and terrible consequences.

However, the media often misrepresents the truth. Media hype and fear campaigns can create a stigma about an issue where facts and testimony tell another story.

So is there really an ice epidemic? What do we actually know about this drug? Exactly how many people are using it?

Most importantly, if we really do have an ice epidemic on our hands, how can we take positive steps to fix it.

Statistics on ice use are difficult to collect for two reasons:  it is an illegal substance, and many users experience paranoia and don’t want to talk about their use.

There is one man on the Central Coast who has a great deal of experience with ice users: Gary Van Dyke has been the manager of the harm minimisation team for Central Coast Health for 16 years. Van Dyke is no fool when it comes to the drug using community.

I meet Van Dyke at a Wyong Hospital Community Health Service facility. He is the kind of guy that gets to go to work in a faded singlet, showing off his prison tatts and gold chains. He has a grey handlebar moustache and a naked mermaid tattooed on his forearm.

The first thing he does is grab my handbag and lock it in a safe next to the desk. “Things go missing around here, love,” he tells me.

Van Dyke sits me down and gives me a little pep talk. “Everyone that comes in here today is intoxicated, OK,” he says. “They’re coming in to get clean equipment so they can have more.”

An important part of Van Dyke’s job is to giving out free clean needles to drug users and safely disposing of used syringes that are brought in. He asks visitors what drug they’ve purchased and provides advice on how to safely administer it.

At first it seems like harm minimisation is just about giving junkies free equipment and a get out of jail free card. However, as you watch the workings of the clinic it becomes apparent just how much good the team is doing for the community.

The program is fully funded by contingency money, which essentially means money police seize from big-time drug smugglers goes towards funding the needle exchange program to help addicts avoid septicemia and diseases from dirty needles.

The first guy that comes in tells Van Dyke that he feels uncomfortable and that he “doesn’t usually do this stuff.” Van Dyke asks him what he is using. He has steroid vials. Van Dyke gives  him a paper bag full of needles and tells him how to draw up the fluid and inject it properly.

As the guy gets comfortable, he starts to open up, saying that he gets the drugs from someone known as the “steroid ninja”.

He also tells us about his two divorces and how he nearly went to prison for breaching his AVO. After the guy leaves, Van Dyke tells me that building a trust relationship with users gives him the opportunity to provide counselling, guidance and encourage rehabilitation programs.

“See how he got comfortable with me? He’ll be back now. Once I gain his trust I can help him,” Van Dyke says. "I build trust with regulars and then I can suggest rehab or help them out if they get in trouble with the law you see. It’s all about trust though. I’ve been round this kinda stuff forever, I know how it works.”

Van Dyke introduces me to the Central Coast SHARP (Service, History, Activities, Registration Program) database, a log he helped create that keeps tabs on what people are injecting across the four clinics on the Central Coast. According to the SHARPS statistics, in 2010 a total of 12,372 people visited the clinics. Of those, 34 per cent visited with the intention to inject methamphetamine and 32 per cent with heroin or other similar narcotics.

In 2011, ice use spiked to 40 per cent and heroin decreased to 24 per cent. Additionally, over 1000 more people visited the clinics.

“These are just the people picking up the needles” Van Dyke says. “Sometimes they will get 300 or more for all their mates . . . And it doesn’t count people smoking the drug, which is a lot.”

The stats also don’t represent users purchasing equipment from pharmacies or re-using dirty needles.

IN 2015 an average of 9166 people were expected to have utilised the clinics for drug administering equipment. The figure is a decline from previous years but doesn’t necessarily indicate that usage is decreasing. Of those, 33 per cent were expected to be using ice and 23 per cent heroin. The other drugs being injected include benzos (vallium), cocaine, methadone, steroids and “unknown”.

Between May and June in 2015, NUAA (NSW Drug User Organisation) and Positive Life conducted a survey of 600 drug users of which 459 were using ice. The results shed some light on how the drug is used by the drug-using community. Participants were asked how they administer methamphetamine (multiple answers were permitted): 12 per cent swallowed, 50 per cent injected, 74 per cent smoked, 10 per cent snorted and 12 per cent shafted or “booty pumped”.

Participants were also asked in which social setting they use ice:  53 per cent said with friends, 55 per cent with a regular sex partner, 56 per cent with a casual sex partner and 47 per cent alone.

Twelve per cent of participants admitted to sharing dirty needles. Most because they could not access clean equipment due to distance or location or because they were in prison. 

Nine per cent said they use ice daily, 20 per cent said weekly and 24 per cent said monthly.

Of all the participants, 32 per cent are living with HIV and 11 per cent with hepatitis C.

Seventy per cent were on a salary and 22 per cent were unemployed.

According to the SHARP statistics, use of the clinics for ice administration on the Central Coast has remained constant in recent years. The SHARP statistics and those collected by NSW Users & Aids Association (NUAA) shed some light on how ice is being used. The figures suggest that not all ice users take the drug daily and the majority are not unemployed.

So why the media hype about the drug? Van Dyke says that ice use hasn’t spread through the wider community, but it has flooded the amphetamine market.

“It’s cheap and easy to make, you see,” he says. “It’s cheaper than a night out drinking and will give you an eight-hour high where coke will give you 20 minutes for the same price.”

Van Dyke gets a sachet of sugar from the kitchen and pours it on the table. “Imagine this is ice,” he says. “This is called an eight-ball. It’s 3.5 grams of ice and it’s worth about $1000 to $1200 wholesale.”

He uses a business card to cut the small pile of sugar in two and then cuts a very small portion off the side of one half. “That’s a point,” Van Dyke says. “It’s worth about $50 to $60 on the street. There’s 10 points to a gram and 35 points in an eight-ball. So you’re making between $550 and $1100 per eight-ball. You could easy move that in a day or two. You see what I’m saying?”

Those who are using ice can experience terrible side effects. According to Van Dyke, it’s personal chemistry that decides how ice will affect a user.

“Your friend could have a shot and enjoy it but you might different,” he says of the difference between users and users with an “ism”.

This “ism” is Van Dyke’s term for a serious addiction. Not all users experience addiction to the same degree. The problem is the drug is a “head” drug as Van Dyke describes it.

“I will ask an ice user if I took it off them would they be OK and they always say ‘Yeah mate I’d be fine’. That’s the drug talking, you see. Because it affects your head like that. I ask a heroin addict the same thing and they say, “Nah man I can’t live without it’. That’s because heroin is a body drug…”

Van Dyke isn’t quick to dismiss ice addiction: “If the addiction gets you it’s bad. You wouldn’t believe what young girls like you tell me they’ll do for a point [of ice]. It would make you sick.”

Another thing that can be a part of the ice experience is the psychosis. Van Dyke sees users who experience psychotic episodes.

One of his regulars comes in and tells him about how the ozone is falling down. “Just last week he came in and told me he’s been talking to the Queen last night all about the ozone layer,” he says. “She’d flown in specially to speak to him about fixing it."

Van Dyke jokingly asked if the Queen had brought the corgis with her. “He stared at me blank faced for a bit and then totally lost it,” Van Dyke says.  “He was throwing stuff at me screaming ‘are you calling me a f – – – ing dog mate?’ ’’

Ice is a powerful drug. It can cause severe addiction and psychotic episodes. That doesn’t mean that ice-users aren’t everyday people. You may not even know someone is struggling with an ice habit.

​So should we dispense with this ice hysteria?

Fear campaigns cause non-users to see addicts as inhuman demons and cause users to feel hopeless about their habits. What we need is education about this drug. Non-users need to know the raw truth about this stuff. Users need to know that there is hope for rehabilitation.

Van Dyke had one final message for me: “If anyone calls someone a junkie pull them up on it. They’re not junkies, they’re drug-users.

They’re f – – – ing people.”

 Rod’s real name has been changed to respect his privacy.