Action needed in war on 'ice'

WHILE there might be a difference of opinion between law enforcement and drug treatment agencies about the scope of the methamphetamine problem in the south-west, there’s no dispute that something needs to be done about it.

Acting Sergeant Richard Hughes, of Warrnambool police, said earlier this year the use of methamphetamine, or ice as it is commonly known, had reached epidemic proportions in the region and underpinned much of the crime in Warrnambool last year.

Acting Sergeant Hughes heads a Warrnambool police divisional response unit set up in May last year to tackle ice usage.

It has since arrested dozens of people, mostly for ice trafficking.

Western Region Drug and Alcohol (WRAD) centre director Geoff Soma doesn’t believe ice usage has reached epidemic proportions but said its growing popularity warranted a specific program to combat it.

Mr Soma said WRAD treated about 60 ice users in 2012-2013, comprising about 11 per cent of the clients it treated that financial year.

It was presently treating about 10 ice users but Mr Soma expects the true number of users in the region to be much higher.

“They only come in here if they are requiring assistance, if they are under pressure through the courts or pressure from their parents and family,” he said.

He said ice had slowly risen in the past two to three years to become equal third with prescription analgesics in the types of substance abuse for which people sought treatment at WRAD

Alcohol remains the substance for which most people seek help at WRAD, followed by cannabis.

Mr Soma has seen lots of trends in illegal drug use during his years with WRAD and said he had learnt not to take knee-jerk reactions. However, he believed a specific response was needed to combat ice because it was a “high impact” drug. 

People could become addicted quickly and the effects of withdrawal could be severe, Mr Soma said. 

“The initial effects that can be satisfying wear off over time,” he said. 

“People often have to use more to get the same effect.

“It is one of those drugs that until people start getting into trouble with the law, people do not do a lot about it. 

“They tend to downplay it as not as serious as it is. It often creeps up on people. A simple description is that it increases the pace at which the brain talks to the body.

“Its appeal is about the heightened sense of euphoria.”

However, ice could also cause paranoia and aggression in some people, he said. Other side-effects were loss of appetite, headaches and risk of heart problems. 

It was used by more than just young people and a significant number of users were “nine-to-five workers during the week who used it on weekends,” Mr Soma said.

He welcomed the state government’s decision in April to combat the growing use of ice, but said it was still not known whether any of the initiatives would be implemented in the Warrnambool area.

The $34 million package was significant enough to make a difference but a long-term strategic approach was needed to have an impact, he said.

“There needs to be education at a community level and for parents,” Mr Soma said.

Centres that could provide specialist withdrawal treatment for ice users should also be provided because withdrawal from ice could be “nasty”, he said.

Outreach workers to provide specialist counselling should also be part of the initiatives, he said. The $34m over four years would provide support services for more than 2000 extra people a year in response to growth in the use of ice and other drugs.

Mental health minister Mary Wooldridge said more than $30m would be used to expand drug and alcohol services in the Grampians, Gippsland and Hume regions as well as outer metropolitan areas.

Six hospitals would receive $3m to improve responses to alcohol and drug affected individuals in emergency departments. Mr Soma said any effort to get people off ice had to address the whole person to be successful. Only some drug users used drugs purely because they liked the response, he said. Others used drugs to avoid the suffering in their lives or because of peer pressure.  

Agencies such as WRAD could get people to give up drugs, but unless their psychological and material issues such as housing and education were also addressed, people often relapsed, Mr Soma said.

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