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RARELY does a politician admit that his child is an addict. When Bob Hawke, a former prime minister, did so more than 30 years ago, many parents could identify with him: Australia was sliding towards a nasty heroin problem. Use of the opioid, which became popular during the Vietnam war, rose fourfold during the 1990s. By the end of the decade, almost 150,000 Aussies were shooting up regularly. As overdoses and blood-borne virus transmissions increased, wonks in Canberra devised a “Tough on Drugs” policy, which was more sensitive than it sounds. In addition to pursuing traffickers to curb supply, the government pumped money into education and treatment for addicts. Heroin use dropped by three-quarters.
It has been replaced by methamphetamine, a stimulant which was dished out to pilots in the second world war. Over a quarter of a million Australians are thought to be using it. That constitutes the highest rate of addiction in the world (see chart). Researchers disagree about whether that figure is rising. Existing users are certainly consuming more of its strongest, crystalline form, known locally as “ice”. The share of meth-users on crystal rather than pills, powder or paste doubled to 50% between 2010 and 2013. In the state of Queensland, scientists testing sewage found a three- to fivefold increase in meth residue between 2009 and 2015, which might reflect rising purity.
One jittery teenager at a rehab clinic in Sydney run by the Ted Noffs Foundation, a charity, attributes its popularity to accessibility. “It is so easy to get it’s not even funny,” he says. The small-time dealers he buys from make it at home. Most ice comes from China, however, where a thriving pharmaceutical industry underpins its production, according to John Coyne, a former intelligence official. Organised drug rings are attracted to Australia, where the street value of ice is over six times that in China. Huge trade flows between the two countries make it relatively easy to import the drug and repatriate the profits.
Compared with other narcotics, or even with legal intoxicants, ice is cheap. By one count, Australia is the world’s second-most expensive country in which to drink, smoke and get high. Yet for around A$40 ($30), a hit of ice can last over half a day. “You feel like Superman,” the young addict says. This comes at a cost: ice can cause users to become paranoid, aggressive and even psychotic. It is now the most commonly used drug among those entering prison. Meth-related hospital admissions have quadrupled since 2010.
Politicians know there is a problem, but have failed to respond as once they did. When heroin was rife, the government prioritised treatment and attempts to deter use through education. Theoretically it still does: following the recommendations of a National Ice Task Force, it allocated A$300m to reduce demand and help addicts last year. Over half that amount is going to local medical practices, which provide support to addicts. Yet critics complain that co-ordination is lacking. In the 1990s doctors, schools and police worked closely together against heroin, says Matt Noffs of the Ted Noffs Foundation. “We don’t see that now.”
Like most European countries, Australia spends most of its counter-narcotics budget on enforcement. Yet consumers are more likely to be arrested than dealers, and police put more effort into seizing drugs than into unravelling the rings that smuggle them, Mr Coyne argues. Huge increases in arrests and seizures have had no lasting effect on the supply or price of ice. “Policing on its own won’t solve the problem,” laments Mick Palmer, a former federal police commissioner. “It’s like sticking your finger in a bucket of water.”
Unfortunately, politicians find it increasingly hard to peddle “soft” responses to a drug considered the cause of much violence. In a recent election in Western Australia, both big parties pledged longer sentences for offenders, ignoring the fact that jails in the state were already overcrowded. Blunt policing has not worked, but it sells well.