AUSTRALIA’S escalating crystal methamphetamine ('ice') epidemic has spilled over into the shearing sheds and football clubs of rural and regional Australia.
But a new National Ice Taskforce (NIT) announced by the federal government today will look into devising a national strategy to help curtail the ice menace that doesn’t discriminate with its devastating impacts, says Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Justice Minister Michael Keenan announced the NIT today with Senator Nash.
They warned ice was a growing problem throughout the nation that’s ruining individuals, destroying families and hurting communities, especially rural and regional ones.
The NIT will be led by former Victorian Police commissioner Ken Lay while two other members are expected to be announced next week, with the likelihood of at least once having a strong rural background.
Senator Nash and Mr Keenan will oversee the NIT and lead the government’s response to the ice issue.
It will consult on the development of a national strategy and is aiming to provide an interim report to the Prime Minister mid-year.
The PM will take the report to the first subsequent meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to ensure the anti-ice campaign is fought in a coordinated, targeted and effective way.
Senator Nash told Fairfax Media it was “particularly apparent” that rural and regional communities are being heavily affected by the dramatic escalation of ice use over the past few years.
“I’ve been travelling for some time now around rural and regional communities and this is an issue that has been raised with me constantly over recent months,” she said.
“There’s certainly been a rapid escalation over the last couple of years in regional communities of the use of ice.
“Anecdotally people are saying to me they’ve heard about it being used in everything – from regional football clubs to shearing sheds.
“It’s permeating all communities and we’ve got an enormous problem to deal with.
“What the taskforce will do is really determine the prevalence of this drug, where it is and what the priority areas are that we need to respond to.”
Senator Nash said the findings of a recent Australian Crime Commission report showed that drug pushers have looked at rural and regional communities as a new market opportunity in recent times.
“In talking to people in these communities they are terribly worried about the devastating effect of ice and the drug is not discriminating,” she said.
“It’s impacting the old and the young, those who are well off and not well off and the impacts are simply devastating for everyone.”
Senator Nash said during a visit to Moree in northern NSW last week she was told about a brother and sister who committed suicide recently over ice use.
She also said another recent visit to a drug treatment centre in Canberra, which also accommodates regional patients, highlighted the ice scourge.
“It became very clear from talking to people - really smart people who had held down good jobs and were trying to turn their lives around - that this drug is destroying peoples’ lives,” she said.
“There needs to be a national ice action strategy, and the establishment of this taskforce is first step in developing that strategy.
“It will identify what’s being done across States and Territories, where the gaps are, what the priority issues are and it will clearly do consultation and then report to government by the middle of the year.”
In December last year, Senator Nash also announced renaming of the Australian National Council on Drugs to the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs (ANACAD).
One of ANACAD’s key tasks is to examine issues caused by escalating ice use and to give expert advice on policy options.
Senator Nash said she expected the reconfigured committee would also provide expert advice to the new taskforce, while parliamentary inquiries into the ice epidemic are also expected to help bolster the government’s response.
However, she said “the clear message is the government is not going to be able to solve this ice epidemic alone”.
“We need a national strategy also involving States and Territories and local communities to address what’s clearly an issue of concern across all communities,” she said.
Mr Abbott said the government was already spending approximately $200 million a year on treatment and rehabilitation for people “afflicted by this dreadful scourge”.
He said Mr Lay's report in the middle of the year would assist the government’s considerations to boost funding.
“The statistics tell us that something like 400,000 Australians have used methamphetamine in any one year, roughly 50 per cent of those, or some 200,000 people, are using crystal meth, or ice,” he said.
“The statistics show us that some 25 per cent of methamphetamine users are using at least once a week.
“This is a devastating, devastating toll and it is a massive increase in crime.
“I am determined that right around our country, we will take every possible step to combat this dreadful, dreadful scourge.”
Mr Keenan said ice was an unprecedented problem that needed to be dealt with in a different way.
“Law enforcement is already doing everything that it can to stop ice from hitting our streets,” he said.
“They are seizing more of this drug than ever before.
“We are intercepting more of the precursors that go into making ice than ever before, but we're not going to be able to police our way out of this alone.
“The law enforcement response will always be very important, but we also need to find other ways to work with the community, particularly within the health sector to address this issue.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten pledged to work with the Prime Minister to help tackle “the menace of ice”.
“Ice is a real problem in our communities (and) I'm very supportive of the government's initiative here,” he said.
“Labor will be very supportive of this government initiative to have a national taskforce to see what we can do to crackdown on the scourge of ice in our communities.”