“There’s Just Nothing For Us To Do”: A Deeper Look At The Crystal Meth Problem In Country Victoria

Ice is taking over rural towns around Victoria, and boredom might be to blame.

Sarah* brings the glass pipe to her lips and inhales the sweet yellow smoke. Sitting back, she lets sweaty euphoria take over her body. She reaches for her phone, but she can’t move. Her ears are ringing, her mouth parched. Panicking, she launches clumsily at the mobile: she must call triple 0. It’s then that she remembers. If she calls the ambos she will be drug tested, and that means violating the terms of her probation. Afraid and alone, she stares at the ceiling and waits.

Sarah tells the story with practised nonchalance, smiling as she insists: “At first I thought it was just a good batch of gear!” Seated opposite me at a Wangaratta cafe, she’s edgy, constantly scanning the busy street. She’s in town to see her solicitor following an assault charge – “I’ve been done for a few things” — but has recently moved to neighbouring Myrtleford to “get away from the scene.”

A 20-year-old Aboriginal woman from the part of town locals call “the Bronx”, Sarah struggled to find her place growing up. Bullied in school, she received little encouragement from a system “that only works for nerds.” I ask her what it felt like when she first tried ice. “Like nobody could change the way I felt.” She pauses. “Like I was safe.”

Matt*, a 22-year-old recovering addict from a neighbouring town, is telling me about the time he stayed up for a month. “At one point, I was running up and down the street in the middle of the night. I had a torch in one hand and a knife in the other, and I was just chasing these voices.” Did he know the voices weren’t real? “I guess I didn’t want to know.”

Like Sarah, Matt endured a rocky childhood. Born to drug addict parents who introduced him to weed at just eight, he wagged school daily, “so I could meet up with my mates to go smoke bongs”. He conducts our phone call from the garage, out of the way of his wife, Kelly*, and kids. “They’re the only reason I stopped,” he admits. Kelly has proudly informed me that Matt is 107 days clean, and I ask him if he feels better now than when he was using. “Not really,” he sighs. “Hopefully soon.”

The ‘Wangaratta Disease’

We now know, courtesy of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey Detailed Report, that Australians in remote areas are twice as likely to use ice as those in cities. Wangaratta is just one of a swathe of Victorian towns to have borne the brunt of the ice influx in recent years. Shepparton, Wodonga and Colac all have higher crime and addiction rates. Where Wangaratta is unique is in its home-grown syndicates: one after another have sprouted, all apparently controlled by bigwigs born and bred in the town and surrounds. It’s also a place where, until ice came along, violent crime rates were low.

The advent of ice in places like Wangaratta is often explained by the fact that the drug can be manufactured pretty much anywhere. This is true, but if the people I spoke with for this story are to be believed, the source of most of Wangaratta’s ice is Sydney. According to RMIT Catalyst’s Michael Walsh, the increase is due to ice having “weaved its way into the social fabric of rural communities”. I want to find out how.

Trent*, a former dealer, explains how hard drugs first came to the town: “It started with ecstasy around ’05. Pills were awesome back then. I was bringing in big loads from Melbourne and passing them off to dealers, who would work the pubs.” He explains how in the late ‘00s, good pills became hard to come by, so the dealers started bringing in speed. “That’s how everyone got used to the pipe. At first we would snort it or eat it, but after a while it was all crack pipes.” Still, Trent says, “it was only the fiends on drugs.”

At the same time, something Trent refers to as “Wangaratta Depression” was festering away. “This place can feel like a prison: no jobs, no uni, the young people feel sort of trapped.” Sarah echoes the sentiment: “There’s just nothing for us to do.” I speak with a local mental health worker, who explains that with increasing rurality comes increasing division between rich and poor. In regional centres, educational outcomes are worse, employment is lower, and incomes are less than in the cities.

“In school,” says Sarah, “they just tell you to take any job you can get, packing shelves, whatever. And to do whatever your boss tells you to.” These factors, often coupled with individual family difficulties like those faced by Sarah and Matt, can leave the youth feeling disillusioned and directionless.

Of course, none of these socioeconomic factors were new, but they created a weak spot where addiction was concerned. It would take an enterprising young dealer to recognise and exploit that weak spot. That dealer was Aaron Dalton, a former cycling prodigy. Trent describes Aaron, 33, as “really charming. He could literally get any chick he wanted”. Dalton “got hooked on ice when he was in Melbourne. Then he started bringing it into Wang.”

Trent was horrified when, soon after he’d first noticed ice in the town, he discovered his younger brother was dealing. “He was a good kid. He didn’t do that sort of shit.” According to Trent, Dalton had convinced his brother that he could make a lot of money, “but he also liked the ‘secret club’ kind of aspect.”

Speaking to Sarah and Trent, a picture emerges of a charismatic leader who would offer ‘cleanskin’ youth a place in his club. In return for dealing — collecting small amounts of ice on credit before returning the funds and being ‘ticked’ another bag — they gained a sense of importance, of purpose, but most importantly, of community. If Wangaratta Depression was the disease, dealing for Dalton was the antidote.

Us vs. Them: The stigma of addiction

It was early 2012 when, says Sarah, “All of a sudden, ice was everywhere you looked.” She smiles as she remembers “getting up to no good. Just running around causing havoc.” (Sarah has been found guilty of multiple petty thefts.) “There was always a house where everyone was smoking. I was mates with a dealer who would always have people round.”

Meanwhile, Matt’s use was spiralling out of control. Smoking up to seven grams a day, he was “always just chasing that first high. But you can chase and chase and chase, and you’ll never get that feeling back again.” Trent recalls his brother getting addicted: “He never even planned on using. But he ended up needing the energy to keep up with Aaron’s demands, and he got hooked, like, so quickly.”

Trent’s brother’s addiction escalated quickly, and soon he was a “completely different person.” Sleep-deprived and on-edge, he was forced to take on more and more jobs, including hiding thousands of dollars’ worth of ice in his boot, to service his growing debt. “He wanted to get out, but he was trapped. Aaron would threaten anyone who tried to leave.”

With Dalton’s own addiction skyrocketing, he became paranoid and volatile, suspecting even his inner harem of “lagging on him.” Around this time, Wangaratta experienced a string of violent crimes: two houses were firebombed as children slept inside, and a young butcher was shot at his front door. “There was this feeling like the community had lost control of the situation,” says Trent. “It was really scary.”

The police responded by raiding suspicious houses. “That was the worst!” exclaims Sarah. “The cops would do nothing for months, then raid every bloody dealer on the same night. All the fiends would lose their shit ‘coz they couldn’t score, so they’d all go out and start smashing shit.” I ask her what the general attitude toward police was in the scene. “It was like, us versus them. Everyone hated them because they would treat us like shit.” She doesn’t believe the arrests helped curb the ice use, though: “Nah, because people would just get straight back into it as soon as they came out of remand or whatever.”

Kelly tells me that accessing treatment for Matt was also difficult: “It was just so confusing. I googled it and the only thing I could find was an expensive treatment centre. Luckily for us we had a family member who covered the cost, but I couldn’t work out how to get the treatment for free.” There are government-funded treatment options but, as the mental health worker tells me, they are often harder to access in the country: “There is a lack of specialist services, a lack of choice in treatment providers, there’s often extra costs involved due to distance. The drug and alcohol sector of the Health Department is a cash strapped area in general.” Addicts who do access treatment face a difficult and protracted withdrawal: “Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure from anything but the drug, can persist for 18 months.”

Often, people in Wangaratta don’t seek treatment at all. Stigma is pervasive. “People just say, ‘You chose to pick that shit up, you can choose to stop it,” explains Trent. “And you can’t do anything here without everyone finding out. People know your business before you do!” Users stigmatise each other, too. Matt insists he isn’t a “junkie” because he’s never used a needle. The local paper frequently leads with headlines like ‘WANG DRUG HELL!’, and I spoke with a GP who refuses to treat ice-affected patients. There is a perception among the community that ice users are all violent and out of control. The reality is that a very small percentage of them are.

No End In Sight: Police and government responses

The police did eventually catch Dalton. A major operation led to his arrest, and that of many of his henchmen, in September 2012. Ironically, it was Dalton’s insistence that he preside directly over all operations that saw him caught red handed, trafficking a large amount of ice in his car. He is serving nine years for a series of trafficking and violent offences. A successive syndicate sprung up, and was dismantled in September 2014. Senior Sergeant Lance Werner beams with pride as he explains: “I’m not saying that we’ve got the approach to resolve ice use, but we’re certainly doing pretty well.”

But ice use persists. New syndicates have taken over where others have left off, the lure of money providing a powerful incentive in a town with heavy economic division. For users, ice is extremely difficult to quit: one user I spoke with had tried eight times and never made it through the “horrible depression” of withdrawals. Purity has skyrocketed in recent years, to an average nearing 80 percent in 2013, and relative prices have fallen. So, has the situation really improved?

It depends on who you talk to. Senior Sergeant Werner insists that it has; he posits that the arrest statistics (arrests in Wangaratta are up 29.9 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year) are indicative not of an increased crime rate, but of a higher prevalence of “catching the criminals” and taking them off the streets. The Andrews government has overseen the most extensive inquiry to date into the supply and use of methamphetamines. Completed in September 2014, it formed the launching pad for the Ice Action Taskforce and the Ice Action Plan, a $45.5 million effort to reduce the supply, demand and harm associated with the drug.

The sentiment on the street is that it’s getting worse in Wangaratta. Sarah insists that “just about every young person is on it.” And when I suggest to Trent that the prevalence might be down, he laughs: “As if!” My experience while producing this story has led me to agree with them. Several times, while sitting in the library or at a cafe to write, I witnessed sudden altercations spring up over ice. On one of these occasions, a man tore into a cafe demanding his money from one of the staff. He mounted the counter and had to be physically subdued before the police arrived. Another time, a thunderous argument broke out between a couple and an older woman. “You dirty junkies!” she yelled. “Why don’t you go and put some more dirty needles in your arms!”

There are no specific statistics to tell us whether the problem has worsened in Wangaratta. But one thing is clear: Dalton’s legacy is a youth culture built around ice. If the problem were ever to truly be solved in Wangaratta, it would take more than supply reduction and the provision of better treatment outcomes. In the ice culture, young people are finding the sense of purpose and community they so crave. They need nothing less than an alternative lifestyle, one equally as effective at alleviating the symptoms of Wangaratta Depression.

Katie Horneshaw is a freelance writer who has written for Spook and Hessian magazines. Tweet her @KatieElatey.