by Michael Walsh | @mikehwalsh
Ice use is increasing across the country among all demographics. The addictive substance can become the social fabric of a community, and have devastating effects. Authorities are only recently starting to grapple with the consequences of crystal meth and there are no signs progress is being made. Michael Walsh sits down with a group of young men from Geelong, Victoria who smoke ice regularly.
I’m sitting on a second-hand couch, shuffling some socks and shirts aside to make room for my arse. Remote controls, a few empty beer bottles and a discarded Doritos packet sit on the coffee table in front of me. Music hums in the background, controlled by a big iMac sitting on a desk in the corner. The carpet looks dirty—although I’m assured by my hosts that it isn’t—and the walls are sparsely decorated with only a few cheap paintings and a pinned-up poncho dotting the plaster.
Brent and Zack’s place is a fairly typical share-house, and it could be located just about anywhere in Victoria. It’s a Friday night and I’ve been drinking with them and their mate Sam for about an hour, just talking shit and trying to delay discussing the elephant in the room. I decide to start from the beginning, the place where it all seems to start: the twirl.
“The twiiiiiiiirl,” says Brent. He walks out the lounge room, and I flick my recorder on.
“It’s the power of it. People talk about it flat-stick in the circle, which is becoming such a huge circle around here,” says Zack. “Everyone talks about that fucking twirl.”
Brent and Zack have been smoking ice for over twelve months, and have been trying to get off it in the past few weeks. Ice is the most common street name for crystal methamphetamine, but it’s a bit of a dirty word for these guys—they prefer to call it ‘shard’ or ‘hoof’.
Brent is at university, and Zack is an apprentice. Both have strong, caring families and went to decent schools. Neither of them have scratch wounds on their arms or face, tooth decay or any of the other visual anomalies associated with smoking ice. They are both normal-looking dudes in their twenties, and you wouldn’t know what they’d been up to unless they told you—which, when you think about it, is extremely unnerving
“You hold the pipe in your hand and you move it around,” says Brent, emerging from the hallway. He is holding an unloaded glass pipe to his mouth, delicately manipulating it with his left hand while pretending to light the bulbous end with his right. “It’s what makes the smoke spin around the bowl and shit, you’ve got the light underneath it, and you gotta roll it around,” he says.
“That’s what hooks you,” adds Zack from the couch across the room. “Watching the cloud roll around. No drug hits you harder, as you’re rolling it.” He throws his head back, eyes wide with feigned shock.
“It’s like bang, it’s on, it’s done.”
‘When ecstacy started to dry up, everyone started to turn to speed’
Ice is a highly addictive and extremely potent stimulant belonging to the methamphetamine family of drugs. Statistically-speaking, you’re probably more familiar with its less aggressive cousin speed:according to the most recent United Nations Drug Report, Australia is one of the biggest markets for amphetamine-type stimulants in the world—with an estimated 2.1% of us using. As far as party drugs go, the popularity of speed is trumped only by ecstasy; Australians are the global kings and queens of ecstasy use with an estimated 2.9% of us popping the pill in 2012.
As such, a shortage of ecstasy foreshadows an increased reliance on speed among recreational users. This was seen between 2008 and 2012, when a global shortage of the precursor chemical safrole—vital in the production of ecstasy—caused a corresponding pill shortage. Given the proximity of speed to ice, as well as similar methods of ingestion, the possibility of the former acting as a gateway to the latter is extreme.
“When bics really started to dry up, everyone started to turn to speed,” says Sam. “We were snorting it for ages but then, of course, we started smoking it. And when you’re smoking speed for ages, eventually the idea of smoking ice just becomes more familiar: you’re around speed, you’re around pipes—that sort of behaviour—and eventually someone wants to chuck some shard in the pipe.”
Survey data collected by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) during the safrole shortage revealed that once Victorian ecstasy users started to feel the pinch of the pill shortage, large numbers of respondents began to record more frequent crystal meth use.
During the first year of the shortage, when ecstasy was still easy to find, only 13% of respondents recorded using ice in the previous six months. By 2011, as pill numbers dwindled, a staggering 38% of respondents recorded recent use.
Shockingly, despite pill manufacturing resuming worldwide in 2012 (and despite respondents saying that ecstasy had become easier to find as a result), the number of regular ecstasy users who also smoked ice actually increased, reaching an unprecedented peak of 48%.
Over time, ice becomes the social fabric of communities
Further complicating matters is the high level of education among respondents, making it highly probable that they knew the risks involved in smoking ice recreationally.
The main issue with this emerging trend is that ice is not, and never can be, a recreational drug—it’s too damn addictive. It attaches itself to the social fabric of communities and remoulds relationships in its own image. Over time, ice actually becomes the social fabric. And by the time you realise you’re trapped, getting out can seem completely impossible.
“That was Matt,” says Brent, putting his phone back in his pocket. “Him and Jono are coming over. They haven’t slept and they’ve got plentyto say.”
The guys pile in through the front door about half-an-hour later. They had been hanging out at a house around the corner where a few of Brent’s mates live, but they didn’t want to stay there.
“That’s where everyone’s smoking tonight,” Brent explains.
Matt and Jono began using ice a few years ago. Like Brent and Zack, they don’t come across as ‘shardy’—they look like normal, messy-haired skaters.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” Matt tells me, sounding more than a little guilty: a kid owning-up to wagging school. “I smoked ice last night. And again this morning, before work.” He tells me he’s a chef and that he works at a popular café a few suburbs away.
“Man, it makes work so much easier for the first four hours and then so much harder for the last two,” he says. “You start to get angry at the stupidest things, like your boss will tell you that you’ve done something wrong, and you’ll just come over with rage and think it’s all their fault.”
I ask if anyone at the café knows when he’s smoked ice before work.
“Ice is a fucked drug,” he says. “I think I’m on top of it to the point of hiding it from people but fuck, for all I know it could be extremely obvious. When I was off it for a couple years, I could see people who were taking it and it was obvious.”
Matt is originally from Colac, one of the areas in Victoria most affected by the rise of ice. He began smoking shard with mates at the local skate park as a teenager. His brother, who is now a lawyer, had once been addicted to the drug—which he says played a part in how he justified trying it out.
“I told myself that it’s just a stage you go through, and he bounced back so I could too. He was so successful that I figured it mustn’t be too difficult to shake, that it wouldn’t create as many hurdles as the newspapers say—I thought it must have all been bullshit.”
‘Oh well, I’m only doing it occassionally, I won’t get hooked again.’
To break out of the cycle, Matt left Colac and moved to Ballarat to study.
“I moved in with two of my ‘straight’ mates,” he says. “You can’t hang out with your ‘hoofta’mates because it’s too hard to say no.”
After two years in Ballarat, Matt deferred his course and moved down to Geelong where he met Brent, Zack and Sam. Unfortunately, his decision to move coincided with a second shortage of ecstasy and a corresponding boom in ice-use.
“I got sucked back in again, man. And that time I justified it to myself by being like, ‘Oh well, I’m only doing it occasionally, I won’t get hooked again.’ But sure enough, every weekend,” he says, frustrated.
Although ecstasy began to filter through Victoria again in the latter half of 2012, by early last year it was becoming scarce due to an immense police crackdown on amphetamines—Victoria Police presumably wanted to take advantage of the safrole shortage by stemming the renewed flow of ecstasy.
While recorded drug offences remained steady in the eight years from 2003 to early 2011 (averaging 14,815 offences per year), last year saw a truly incredible spike with a whopping 21,469 drug charges recorded.
The irony of this crackdown is that, if the NDARC data is anything to go by, Victoria Police may have unwittingly contributed to the exact conditions that allowed ice-use to spread among recreational drug users in the first place: fanning the flames of the increased crime rates being experienced across Victoria in the process.
In the 2011-2012 period, overall crime increased by 8.2%; in the 2012-2013 period, overall crime increased by a further 3.4%. For the most part, this unprecedented increase in crime has been directly linked to the rise of ice.
Family violence-related crimes have increased dramatically, and suicide rates in 2012 were the highest in a decade: the extreme highs mixed with sleep deprivation ensure that violent outbursts and long-term mental health issues are part-and-parcel of ice use.
‘The shardy crew are not your real friends.
“It’s such a destructive drug,” Brent says. “It’s not a drug like heroin where you’re going to stick to yourself and feel like shit: when you smoke shard, you’re going to reach out and pull everyone else in just to keep yourself going.”
The other guys are nodding.
“I don’t know anyone who’s got into shard that hasn’t dragged others in for their own benefit. We’ve all done it; I’ve definitely done it. It’s what happens when you’re high.”
“Everyone does it,” he says. “One of the first times I smoked it, a mate told me it was ‘whipper’ [speed] in the pipe when it wasn’t. He wanted other people to be on it so he didn’t feel as guilty.”
I’ve heard this before: a few weeks ago a mate of mine—an apprentice bricklayer for one of the largest domestic building companies in Geelong—told me about his experiences working alongside ice users. By his estimates, at least half of his co-workers are on the drug—with many using while on the job.
“They crushed it up and said it was cocaine to a bloke from work,” he said. “A week later, he was asking for more. They did the same to a 33-year-old with a kid, and he asked for more too. To be honest, one of my biggest fears is that one day I’ll either be forced to try it or I’ll mistake it for something else. Because that’s how ice works: people sharing this experience, and then fucking each other’s lives up.”
The most common measurement for crystal meth is a point, or 0.1g. One point costs around $100, and one or two points is usually more than enough for a session. Shard dealers are insidious little pricks though, and will often sell a half-gram(0.5g) for $300: the idea being that a cash-strapped user will smoke two points to themself, and sell the extra three points to their mates to break even. The dealer doesn’t mind losing money in the short-term because the buyer, by getting his or her own mates hooked on the drug, ends up increasing the dealer’s business.
“When you get in really deep,” Matt says, “You develop a friendship group over it.”
“The shardy crew,” Jono adds, breaking his silence.
“But they’re not your real friends, they’re your shardy friends: you’ve got nothing in common except for shard,” continues Matt. “And that makes giving up even harder: trying to work out your real friends from your shardy friends.”
I consider asking Matt and Jono about the guys whose house they were at earlier in the night, whether they were real friends or just shardy friends—but I decide against it. It’s about time for a smoke break anyway.
Outside, away from the Alcoholics Anonymous-style lounge room set-up, the guys speak a bit more freely. I ask why none of them have ever tried rehab, despite all of them being so willing to talk about their difficulties kicking the habit.
‘Everyone’s too proud to go to rehab’
“Fuck no man, rehab’s scary,” Matt says.
“Rehab would be fucking good man, they’d give you shit to do to help you get right off it,” says Jono. “But everyone’s too proud to go to rehab.”
“Nah mate, the only reason people don’t want to go to rehab is because they know all they fuckin’ need is a slap in the face and to be told to wake up,” says Brent, with what feels like false bravado.
“I feel as if I don’t have to go to rehab—I feel like I’m not bad enough to go to rehab,” Matt says.
I’m not too sure. This is coming from a guy who’s had to move towns to kick his habit. A guy who just said, not even a half-hour ago, that he is currently experiencing a relapse.
I ask what their definition of bad enough is.
“Smoking everyday, or shooting-up and homeless,” Brent says.
“Smoking everyday, but most of all not knowing what you’re doing is wrong,” adds Matt, butting his cigarette on the concrete and walking back inside.
“We’ve got mates that need to go to rehab,” Brent says quietly. “There’s plenty of people who really should be getting some professional help, but because they’re so high all the time they don’t really want to admit it,” he says.
It’s just Jono and I out the back now. He’s much more guarded than the others, but I ask him the big question: would you say that you guys are addicts?
Looking me dead in the eye, he thinks for a while before answering with worrisome certainty.
“An addict is someone that lives under a bridge,” he says.
Before I left the house that night, I asked Jono one more question. I wanted to know what this whole ice thingreally meant to him.
“It’s all about getting that bulb full-as-fuck,” he said. “And blowing out a big cloud.”
He’s right: but for a long time, the hooftas haven’t been the only ones blowing clouds.
How do you fix a problem like ice?
In the May budget, the Victorian government announced a $34 million funding boost to drug and alcohol services over four years, specifically targeting the areas of the state most affected by ice. This comes off the back of a state-wide inquiry into the supply and use of ice that began in September 2013, and is due to report its findings in August. Hearings were held in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat, Mildura, Wodonga, Gippsland, Warrnambool and Shepparton. Two common themes in most were the inability for detox and rehabilitation providers to cope with the influx of users seeking help—having to put many on waiting lists—as well as the complete absence of such services in some affected areas.
But how much of this information was news to the Napthine government? The ice epidemic didn’t just sneak up on these communities in the last twelve months: they had seen the problem growing for years and struggled to cope immediately. Yet until the recent budget announcement, the Baillieu-Napthine governments had done next to nothing to help regional communities cope with the ice emergency, despite the drug’s well-documented trail of destruction across the state.
Why was there no emergency funding, and why has the response to this crisis—which affects all Victorians across every demographic, putting added pressure on almost every service that our taxes provide—been so inexplicably and irresponsibly sluggish?
It couldn’t have been an issue of cost. No resources have been spared in stepping-up the ‘War On Drugs’ over the past two years, with drug offences hitting record highs. Likewise, Attorney-General Robert Clark recently outlined that under proposed changes to baseline sentencing laws, the average sentence for large-scale commercial drug trafficking will double from seven years to 14 years on the grounds that the crime “inflicts lifelong harm on young people and their families”.
How spending public money incarcerating drug traffickers for longer periods of time will help young people and their families is anybody’s guess; quick as a flash, another trafficker will fill the void.
Likewise, interrupting the supply of ice will not help addicts kick their habits either. It will not repair the damage to the social fabric that ice causes, and it will not help reverse the destructive psychological transformation that addicts experience.
The most productive course of action is to offer help and understanding, without judging their choices.
The young people I interviewed have grown up in a time where gossip travels faster than ever, mainly thanks to social media. Add into the mix the dynamics of small towns and cities where everyone knows everyone, and it begins to make sense why all of them were so vehemently against seeking help for their addictions.
The stigma behind ice addiction, in fact all drug addictions, is so strong that it should surprise nobody that image-conscious, educated young people are wary of seeking help. The stigma could follow them their entire life, and I imagine this fear is common.
The onus for ending the stigma surrounding addiction falls on non-users. Addicts don’t “live under bridges” like Jono claimed: they live in sharehouses, and they live with their parents. They go to work five days a week, and they could be sitting opposite you in your next class. They’re everywhere—and you probably wouldn’t know unless they told you.
It’s up to us to ensure that they can confidently ask for help when they need it.
By Michael Walsh
Photo: Joan Lim
If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone about substance abuse, contact the Youth Substance Abuse Service on 1800 014 446.
– This article was featured in Catalyst last year but has been reposted in light of the Melbourne Press Club recently nominating Michael for a Student Journalist of the Year Award.