Tonight I rise to speak on the increasingly devastating effects that ice, or crystal methamphetamine, is having on regional Australian communities. The increasing prevalence of ice has been called 'a scourge', 'devastating', 'an epidemic' and 'a drug that has been tearing apart regional communities right across our nation'. As the Minister for Indigenous Affairs leaves the chamber, I will say that, when the minister was down in Victoria travelling with me through Indigenous communities, he said that in some of his northern Indigenous communities where bread and milk cannot get in at times of flood, the ice still gets in. So it is not just regional communities in my own home state of Victoria but, indeed, those right across our nation that are feeling the scourge of crystal meth.
Ice is a pure and potent form of amphetamine, crystallised rather than in powder form, and can be snorted, swallowed, smoked or injected. It is highly addictive. There are numerous reports of young people being offered free or very cheap 'samples' of ice at parties, and then getting hooked and being turned into very loyal paying customers. We do not have comprehensive statistics about the extent of the ice problem, but a rapid increase has been widely reported in many local media outlets and in my home state the problem is now the subject of a Victorian parliamentary inquiry.
Among other symptoms, ice causes the user to experience panic attacks, anxiety and aggression. But it is when the user is 'coming down' that the worst effects become visible. As the effects of ice wear off, the user may experience depression, radical mood swings, uncontrollable violence and exhaustion. Paramedics and emergency room staff in Echuca, Shepparton, Mildura and right across Gippsland would attest to the violent and aggressive tendencies of an ice user coming down. They have witnessed ice users punching holes in the isolation rooms of emergency departments, and they have copped the abuse and aggression from these victims of ice. They are on the front line when it comes to the effects of ice in regional communities.
Families are also coming to terms with previously even-tempered and predictable teenagers—and I do use those words in the context of normal teenage behaviour—becoming unrecognisable menaces: young people who, when taking the drug, steal money from their families, often do not return home for days at a time and are aggressive and unpredictable.
I have heard firsthand from communities which are struggling to deal with this new and dangerous drug. A community forum last year in Warragul saw nearly 300 people attend. Sue Geals from Community College Gippsland noted at the time that: 'The number of people that are accessing this drug is beyond numbers that we've had in any other outbreak before; it's an epidemic.'
Ice is also having a devastating effect on Indigenous communities and other regional communities across Australia. When the parliamentary inquiry visited Mildura, it heard about a number of young Aboriginal men in the community who were believed to have committed suicide due to their debts to drugs dealers. There were also reports that young Aboriginal men were being targeted to become users and then dealers of the drug.
Unfortunately, the effects do not end there. Ice related violence and other crime is on the rise, and police are also bearing the brunt of dealing with drug-induced violence and aggravated burglaries. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service estimates that up to 85 per cent of clients in some parts of the state were using the drug ice at the time of their offence, with the far south-west of my home state being hardest hit. Armed robberies in central Victoria's Loddon region have risen from a long-term average of about 10 per year to 40 in the past 12 months, with 30 of those suspected to be ice-related. In Ballarat there was a 73.6 per cent spike in drug crimes, with 420 offences last year. Ice is expensive in regional towns, and addicts need to finance their habit. One report said users spend about $200 a day on this habit. When the Victorian inquiry visited Shepparton in the central region of Victoria it heard from a local youth worker who said that users would do anything to pay for their addiction, with some resorting to prostitution in order to get their next hit. Last year the Shepparton News reported that the ice epidemic was costing the community about $650,000 every single month.
While we are all—parents, the community, law enforcement agencies, health services and schools—still coming to terms with how to deal with this issue, many regional communities are taking matters into their own hands and attempting to formulate a coordinated response. Last year, the Community Against Drugs organisation was formed in Echuca-Moama, led by sporting clubs and community leaders. They held forums and started a support group for family members of people who had become addicted to ice. They wanted to raise awareness of what was happening and the effects of ice on their community.
The Project Ice Mildura organisation was established by the Northern Mallee Community Partnership to combat the increase of ice in the community in the last two years. A statement on their website says:
Ice … is now the second most common illicit drug in Mildura … and is … one of the most addictive …
Project Ice Mildura holds free information sessions and provides resources and support to those affected.
In Benalla today, a community forum was held to discuss methods to combat this issue. The forum included officials from the Department of Justice; the local member for Benalla, the Nationals' Bill Sykes; the member for Murray Valley, Tim McCurdy, who is also a Nationals member of the Victorian parliament and who is also sitting on the state inquiry into drugs in regional communities and, specifically, ice; as well as police and health workers. This demonstrates my long-held belief in the resilience of regional communities, which continually rise to the challenges presented to them.
However, it is my concern, as I travel around the nation, that this is an epidemic sweeping aside everything in its path, and its victims are our young people and our future. I do believe that it is time for a national response; it is required to address this ongoing scourge affecting our young people and their health.