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Issue #1693      July 15, 2015

Calls for more action to address the rise of ice

Focus on targeting “scourge”

Aboriginal leaders, communities and health workers are calling for more to be done to stem the tide of “ice” misuse by Indigenous people and to help with rehabilitation. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) is proposing to organise a national ice roundtable in Canberra in the next few months.

Associate Professor Ted Wilkes, a Nyungar Elder who works with the National Drug Institute at Curtin University in Perth, told the Koori Mail that there needs to be a concerted effort to help address issues surrounding ice.

“We’re not prepared as well as we should be and appropriate treatment and rehabilitation methods need to be developed quickly,” he said.

“I believe governments are a long way behind the eight ball in the way we Aboriginal Australians need to be supported to prevent what is a scourge, really.

“There is a lot of aggression and behaviour surrounding this drug that has the potential to traumatise our people. As far as rehabilitation goes, we’re not seeing an appropriate effort to address the needs of Aboriginal people, or the broader community.”

So what exactly is ice and why are people so concerned?

Ice, also known as crystal meth, meth, crystal or shabu, is the purest form of methamphetamine (which also includes speed) readily available in Australia. It is a stimulant, which speeds up the function of the brain, heart and nervous system.

Ice usually looks like clear or white crystals, but impurities can cause it to be other colours and it can come in powdered form. It is usually smoked in a pipe or injected (although it can be snorted or swallowed) because those methods give users a quicker rush.

The NSW Health Department says that because of its purity, ice is more powerful than speed and when used puts a greater strain on the body. Its use can, therefore, be much more dangerous.

It has stronger side effects than other amphetamines and a worse comedown. During a comedown, the user may feel physically and emotionally drained. Some users may experience a “crash” – negative feelings associated with coming down.

Some of the more worrying side effects include becoming hostile or aggressive, risk taking, and psychosis (a severe acute mental disorder in which thoughts and emotions become so impaired that contact with reality is lost).

Because ice is a stimulant, it can keep people from sleeping, sometimes for days at a time.

Long-term use of ice can cause mental health problems including psychotic episodes. It can also exacerbate existing mental health problems. People use crystal meth because it gives a huge rush and can make them feel excited, powerful and confident.

Repeated use can and does – lead to addiction. If used when pregnant it can cause complications with the birth, miscarriage, and health problems for the baby.

According to the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2012-2013, amphetamines are the third most common type of illicit drug used by Indigenous people, after marijuana and sedatives (not including opiates, like heroin).

There have been reports that the use of ice in remote Aboriginal communities is increasing and with it the potential for devastation on small populations.

The federal government’s National Ice Taskforce has been visiting regions across the country and there’s no doubt that the use and misuse of crystal meth is growing.

Last week, Queensland police arrested 16 people alleged to have been involved with a multi-million-dollar ice trafficking operation in far north Queensland.

Apunipima Cape York Health Council public health medical adviser Dr Mark Wenitong said his organisation was taking a pre-emptive approach to try to halt the spread of ice in Aboriginal communities.

“We really do need to activate our young people, because those aged 15-30 are the ones who would be our main target group,” he said.

“We have fantastic young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, we have the smartest kids around, and need them to mobilise so they can take control of these issues further.”

While the federal government has started a fear campaign regarding ice, Apunipima decided to sit down with local young people and talk to them about what messaging they believed would be effective.

It has used social media and local Indigenous celebrities to talk about ice use, including North Queensland Cowboys star Johnathan Thurston, former Cairns Taipans basketball player Kerry Williams and hip hop band The Last Kinection, which just happens to include Dr Wenitong’s children Naomi and Joel Wenitong.

“We know the message is getting out there because we got about 28,000 hits in the first two weeks,” Dr Wenitong said. “Around 70 percent of people who use recreationally don’t become ice addicts, but you can’t tell who is going to go down that path.

“Our messaging has centred around encouraging people to be the strongest person they can, focussing on family and cultural values. We know from previous research done in Cape York that the main reason people give up marijuana is for family. So we’re building on that, using role models to support families.

“We’re saying, ‘You be the best Aboriginal person you can, culturally, socially, academically and in sports – and if you want to be like JT (Thurston), you want to get to the top, then you need to focus on achieving excellence and you can’t do that if you’re using ice.’

“I think we often treat young, drug-taking people as if they’re stupid and they’re not. Some people will get dragged into trying ice once, recreationally, and have a good time. We just want them to be able to think through: ‘Is this worth it or not?’

“And then there are people who’ve had a hard time and using makes them feel good – why wouldn’t you use something to stop feeling bad? We also need to ramp up our social and emotional programs and do things in our communities to help people believe in themselves more, to get through hard times without having to use anything else.”

Associate-Prof Wilkes also believes that for any drug strategy to be effective in Indigenous communities you have to look at underlying social factors and trauma. “There are a lot of young fellas trying to get educated and get a job and a lot of old fellas who are lost,” he said.

“There are two reasons Aboriginal people misuse and use drugs: to recreate and medicate. And when we use to medicate we leave ourselves vulnerable and some of us overdo it.

“We all need to own this issue and make sure we come together.”

Associate-Prof Wilkes said that for ice strategies to be effective for Indigenous people, Aboriginal people needed to have control and there needed to be an understanding of all the issues and trauma that affect communities. He said it was important to follow the three pillars of drug strategy: minimise harm, minimise and diminish demand, and diminish supply.

“I don’t think it’s in our interests to create fear in our communities; this is a drug that needs to be put in a place where we can look after ourselves,” he said, adding that the upcoming NACCHO summit was a perfect opportunity to develop direction and strategy.

“This is a health issue, not a criminal issue; something which we use to medicate and consequently health suffers. Obviously if people commit crime while on ice they need to be accountable to society, but there should be efforts not to unnecessarily increase the incarceration rate of our people.

“Lots of our people need an appropriate compassion coming through our leaders to be able to make a meaningful life, and we’re not getting that.

“Ice is one of lots of other drugs, but alcohol and tobacco are still our biggest killers, so we need to put all in context.

“Ice is a bit scary, but let’s not fear it. Let’s get in there and all work together.”

For more information on drug use and misuse and treatments, contact your local Aboriginal medical service or doctor.

Koori Mail

What is ice and what does it do?

  • Crystal methamphetamine is a stimulant also known as ice, crystal, meth, crystal meth or shabu.
  • Short-term effects can include speeding up the nervous system, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, feelings of power and confidence, aggression, difficulty sleeping, feeling energised and psychosis.
  • Long-term effects can include higher tolerance and dependence, anxiety, decreased memory and concentration, and psychosis.
  • Use while pregnant can damage the foetus, cause miscarriage, birth problems and dependence symptoms in babies.
  • Overdose can occur even from small amounts if someone has a reaction, and can cause heart attacks, bleeding in the brain and fever.

Next article – Taking Indigenous rights struggle to the world

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