Call for action on 'ice epidemic' after 8yo allegedly tests positive for drug

Residents are calling for a roundtable to help tackle what they describe as an "awful" and "heartbreaking" epidemic, after an eight-year-old child has reportedly tested positive for crystal methamphetamine.

Djiringanj and Ngarigo Elder Aunty Colleen Dixon said users of the illicit drug, also known as "ice", are getting younger as families struggle with how to deal with the issues of addiction and dependency.

"I hate what I'm seeing because I hear older people are encouraging them. It's heartbreaking," Ms Dixon said.

Sometimes it's in a family, but it only takes one person to get off it to change things.

Djiringanj and Ngarigo Elder Aunty Colleen Dixon

"There was none of this around when we were growing up. These days the children want to grow up and be adults early. It's getting bad. It's an epidemic going around."

Due to privacy and confidentiality, the Southern NSW Local Health District said it was unable to comment on specific cases, and could not confirm the report. It is unknown how the drug entered the child's system.

"While there has been a decline in the use of methamphetamine in NSW, some regional emergency departments, including the South East Regional Hospital, have seen more patients presenting due to the increased harms associated with the drug," a health district spokesperson said.

A current state government inquiry is investigating the adequacy of existing measures used to target the drug, along with options for strengthening the state's response to the issue.

Ms Dixon said parents are concerned with the fact users are getting younger, and wait times for rehabilitation services can take months, particularly for residential treatment facilities. She said more must be done to prevent the drug causing further damage, as just a decade ago it was virtually unknown in the community.

"When I go to Bega I see a problem. It's a big problem," she said.

"People I've seen grow up from babies are on it. It's awful."

"I just want to see young people thrive in their lives and have a big future. They're missing out on their journey and a good life of their own choosing. I wish they would come to the Elders and ask for help. There's no shame."

She called for the "community to come together" to create an awareness campaign around what she described as an "outbreak" of the drug's use, hitting all areas of society. Ms Dixon said despite the region's services and government funding on the problem, it is quickly getting worse.

"The stuff does not discriminate," she said.

"Parents are mad because they don't know what to do. It would be good to have a consultation with police, because we really need to get something going."

One young person, who wished to remain anonymous, said children have reportedly been seen buying the drug from dealers while still wearing their school uniforms, and some parents allegedly pass the drug directly to their children.

"There are a lot of issues being raised in the community about dealers, and everyone is quite confused on the police process of investigating it all," they said.

They said they have never seen a young person use the drug "just once", adding it appears to be becoming easier to purchase.

"I've noticed they always go back," they said.

"They already feel bad - so they use - then they're happy for a day and the come down makes them feel ten times worse than how they felt prior to taking it."

According to the United State's National Institute on Drug Abuse, the drug's ability to quickly release high levels of dopamine in "reward areas of the brain" means it makes the user want to repeat the experience.

The young person said they support the idea of a meeting to help the community understand how to better tackle the issues surrounding the use of the drug.

"It's the only way we can try to move forward and to work together. We need to have these discussions no matter the difficulty, because it effects all of us," they said.

"It's such a personal and sensitive topic to all of us."

A father of a Bega teenager, who has admitted to using the drug, said they also support the idea of a meeting to help raise awareness around the quickly growing problem.

NSW Health said the rate of "ice" related emergency department presentations increased from 2012 to 2016 and stabilised in 2018.

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data shows the first noticeable spike in amphetamine possession arrests in the Bega Valley occurred in late 2003.

Illicit drug use cannot be addressed by law enforcement alone, a multi-faceted approach is needed.

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission CEO Michael Phelan

The rate of arrests for dealing and trafficking amphetamines in the Bega Valley has remained above the state per capita average for almost a decade.

On Wednesday, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released its sixteenth Illicit Drug Data Report which shows "ice" remains one of the most consumed and seized illicit drugs in Australia.

CEO Michael Phelan said "serious and organised" criminals "motivated by greed, power and profit" are at the centre of a multi-billion dollar market, with "the price paid for illicit drugs in Australia among the highest in the world".

The commission estimates more than 9.8 tonnes of methylamphetamine is consumed in Australia each year.

"Illicit drug use cannot be addressed by law enforcement alone, a multi-faceted approach is needed," Mr Phelan said.

The report found the number of amphetamine users arrested in NSW has almost doubled since 2013, while the number of "providers" arrested has decreased by almost a third.

Several Australian universities have collaborated to undertake the world's first "ice" addiction trial using N-Acetyl Cysteine, a drug believed to effect how the brain processes both cravings sensations and addictive behaviours.

"It's something that will be available via prescription so if the trail is successful it could be pretty widely disseminated and prescribed at a relativity low cost." University of Wollongong associate professor Peter Kelly said.

"We know there's been a rise in the use of ice in recent years and people are using more potent versions of methamphetamine, at this stage we don't have good pharmaceutical treatment for it."

Local forums on the drug were held in 2015, with one poll held at the time revealing three quarters of readers feeling the drug's increased use was an important issue for the region.

The most recent Australian Needle and Syringe Program Survey shows the drug is increasingly being injected rather than smoked, and sits above heroin as the most commonly reported drug last injected by respondents.

It's sad we have all these programs but nobody is willing to use it.

Djiringanj and Ngarigo Elder Aunty Colleen Dixon

Ms Dixon said addiction issues at Nowra, Batemans Bay and Eden compound the "complicated' problem, and police can only do so much. She said there needs to be a culture shift where addicts should be treated with no judgement and encouraged to stop using.

Last year's Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement inquiry into the drug recommended that "future public awareness campaigns engender compassion towards drug users, and are targeted at and inform those people with the objective of encouraging them to seek treatment and support".

The report found many at-risk methamphetamine users are not seeking treatment services due to stigma surrounding the drug, and "timely access to treatment services" is needed.

"They [users] need the motivation to change. When they have a window of opportunity - perhaps they have been well for a while and a critical incident happens and they realise that something has to change - at the moment we cannot get them quick help in Australia," the Australian Psychological Society's executive manager of professional practice Dr Louise Roufeil told the committee in 2015.

The committee investigated various strategies, including the options for needle exchanges, decriminalisation and legalisation, similar to the Portuguese model, and emphasised the importance of culturally appropriate treatment services.

Ms Dixon said government led programs are not having the impact the community had hoped.

"You see people breaking out in sores on their face, or scratching their face. It's sad we have all these programs but nobody is willing to use it," Ms Dixon said.

"Sometimes it's in a family, but it only takes one person to get off it to change things."