Trigger warning: illicit drugs.
If you ever find yourself travelling down the Western Highway, north-west of Melbourne, you’ll eventually pass through Horsham, a sleepy wheat and sheep-grazing town situated on the banks of the Wimmera River. Only now fully recovering from years of relentless drought in the nineties, Horsham and other rural Victorian centres are now being devastated by a different breed of tragedy; methamphetamine use of never before seen proportions. Whilst urban centres still dominate the meth use statistics, the intense insularity and lack of anonymity in regional communities ensure rumours travel fast, and thus the problem seems more prominent than it potentially is. On a recent return to my hometown, I spoke to a range of community members hoping to shed some light on what exactly this ‘epidemic’ suggests about the fabric of Horsham.
Horsham’s crime statistics are an accessible witness to the spike in methamphetamine use. In 2013-14, crime in the Horsham police service area rose by more than six per cent, with a rise of 23 per cent on drug offences. In August of last year, a series of raids on Wimmera houses resulted in seven arrests. Horsham police have considered this rise in arrests a move toward curbing Horsham’s drug problem. A half hour SBS The Feed documentary has also ignited awareness and concern in its choice to focus explicitly on Horsham and Shepparton, labeling them ‘Ice Towns’, and reporting that Horsham has some of the highest drug driving rates in Victoria, with one in ten drivers tested found positive. Any notion of denial has seemingly been extinguished by these proclamations of a present evil.
It is impossible to ignore the way in which young people are particularly vulnerable to the temptations of a drug that stimulates an intense ‘rush’, and a feeling of exhilaration, especially in isolated rural communities where boredom can flourish and nightlife is non-existent. High in purity and relatively cheap, ice is easily accessible to the small population of teenagers in Horsham and the surrounding smaller settlements. Antonia Jeffreys, the welfare coordinator at St Brigid’s College, tells me that her health class students have been open with her regarding accessibility. “They tell me that they know who the ice kids are, and could name the people dealing,” she says, “and unfortunately, there probably isn’t a football club in town that ice hasn’t infiltrated”.
The local culture of large underage parties on properties exacerbates this issue, impeding control of distribution. One 17-year-old Horsham resident asserts that there is “no point in going out in Horsham if you aren’t on drugs”. The local watering hole, the Royal Hotel, is allegedly a hub for the epidemic, according to sources. One of only two venues that cater to young locals, it kicks off every Saturday night, and ice use is allegedly frequent and blatant here. Both Jeffreys and VCE Coordinator John Lowes, of St Brigid’s, question a negligible police presence inside these venues and express concern about the seemingly universal knowledge yet unspoken culture that surrounds the trade. The presence of ice is no less powerful or pervasive, however. Lowes indicates that he knows of at least one past student who left the state to escape the local scene and the pressure to partake.
The theories surrounding how the drug has arrived and overstayed its welcome in Horsham abound, but it is clear that the cyclical nature of addiction and the need to find the means to sustain it contributes extensively to the longevity of the problem.
“One of my friends tried it once,” explains Carly*, a 17-year-old local, “she had been texting an older guy, and went over to his house where he encouraged her to (try it)… that’s how it happens. These guys in their twenties chat young girls up, get them hooked, and then there’s cash in it for them”. Particularly vulnerable and jaded youth are targeted as prime candidates. A lack of other avenues of social and intellectual stimulation for these youths intensifies the already present risk of messing with dangerous substances and risky behavior that goes hand in hand with the experimental tendencies of adolescents. Whilst there’s a thriving sporting community, there is very little specifically for young people to run or have any genuine influence over, fuelling the ennui experienced by youth who are already considered at risk, underrepresented and disadvantaged.
Rebecca*, another local teacher, believes that Horsham’s location on the Western Highway between Melbourne and Adelaide has been a crucial element in the cultivation of the epidemic, as has the common targeting of tradespeople. The drug, she believes, enables them to work for extended periods of time without sleep, which both feeds the addiction and ensures they become a reliable paying client. It is these young men who then become vulnerable to becoming ice dealers. Horsham Legal Aid managing lawyer Julia Barling agrees, suggesting that those dealing will generally only goes as far as is necessary to support a personal habit. It is not a profit-making game for small-town dealers, but rather a sinister necessity in an environment where support is severely lacking.
Barling has noted a significant spike in the detection of drug driving offences as methamphetamine’s most obvious effect in Horsham. Often, she says, individuals will be charged with secondary crimes related to ice, without being charged with possession. Having seen many cases dealing with ice trafficking or possession go through the local Magistrates’ Court, she helps to dispel the myth of the stereotypical ice user. Those finding themselves in front of the Magistrate are often “not people you would expect, or see as typical ice users”, she explains. Having become somewhat ensconced in the culture of the town, ice use is frequently a casual, once a week affair, and working people with families are not immune to its draw, to shocking effect. The comparative infrequency of drug use in these cases poses a significant problem in terms of rehabilitation, which Barling believes “should be the focus” instead of punitive ‘tough on crime’ approaches that hamper any steps towards recognising addiction as an illness. Thus, whether arrests and raids made by the police are representative of success in prevention or deterrence is dubious at best.
In Horsham, it is likely that anyone found in possession of small quantities of ice for the first time will be charged with possession and commonly issued a fine or a good behaviour bond. The Magistrate also has the discretion to include rehabilitative activities or programs as requirements in sentencing. The most commonly used rehabilitation service is a short seven-day detox, Barling says, which for social once a week users is simply not long enough to address the addiction. Even this is rarely a feasible option for those in isolated communities. The Victorian Government has suggested a parliamentary inquiry into methamphetamine use, with investigating the absence of detox beds in Horsham and other regional areas a clear objective. It is clear, however, that no significant funding is being funneled into these services currently. The prospect for a place like Horsham to cope with the effects of a spike in methamphetamine use is bleak, and the potential for the vulnerable to be condemned to a cycle of dependency, delinquency and marginalisation demands immediate and measured action.
The desperate pressure to fit in or find a place is frequently blamed for young people’s willingness to experiment with ice in sedentary regional communities, as is boredom and a yearning for fulfillment and belonging. Whilst the wider underlying problems lay in the social and structural fabric of Horsham, our State Government must also be made answerable for fostering the kind of environment where drug use of this nature can become so endemic that the local community becomes resigned to its presence. Without paying serious attention to the development of local rehabilitation services and eliminating the stigma that demonises addicts, the potential effect of repeated involvement with the legal system at a young age could become a reality in towns like Horsham. Social empowerment and community awareness are undoubtedly crucial in ‘ice towns’ if change is to be expected.
* Some names have been changed.