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July 1, 2022

Ice nation: Australia’s drug challenge

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A snapshot from a busy emergency department in Perth WA, showing just what a drain on resources the drug Ice is. (Gary Ramage)
The Royal Perth Hospital Emergency Department. A young man is brought to the Emergency Department at Royal Perth in a state of psychosis and is treated by the medical crew. It took nine hospital staff, including full-time security personnel, to restrain the man. Photo by Gary Ramage, News Corp Australia, “Ice Nation” – Winner 2016 Nikon-Walkley Photo of the Year.

The Royal Perth Hospital Emergency Department. A young man is brought to the Emergency Department at Royal Perth in a state of psychosis and is treated by the medical crew. It took nine hospital staff, including full-time security personnel, to restrain the man. Photo by Gary Ramage, News Corp Australia, “Ice Nation” – Winner 2016 Nikon-Walkley Photo of the Year.

Mandy Nolan

Australia’s Ice epidemic continues to cause major concern. Byron Writers Festival will feature three guests with firsthand experience of the impact this drug is having on Australian society.

Walkley award-winning photojournalist Gary Ramage spent four weeks photographing the impact of Ice on emergency departments around Australia.

Co-founder of Street Universities and Noffs Foundation CEO, Matt Noffs, and writer and former addict Luke Williams, author of Ice Age, answer questions from The Echo.

Gary Ramage, photojournalist

I was very moved and disturbed by your photo that won Photo of the Year. How does one still image add to the conversation and rhetoric on Ice?

That photo is one moment in time. A snapshot from a busy emergency department in Perth WA, showing just what a drain on resources the drug Ice is. All those people – doctors, nurses, orderlies, ambos – were involved in the treatment of one addict, which depleted resources for the management of other emergencies. This is the reality of Ice.

What do you think it is about this image in particular that is so powerful?

I think it’s the confronting nature of the image that hits home. A hospital is a place where we expect to see healing and in my photo you have various medics and police officers holding down this patient who’s in the grip of the drug. He doesn’t know his own strength and doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s dangerous and he’s putting these people at risk and yet they’re doing their best to help him.

What do you look for when you are taking photos in such sensitive and dramatic situations? How do you tell a story but still protect someone’s dignity?

No matter whom I am photographing I try my best to preserve people’s dignity. I never judge. Whatever the subject’s story, they are still someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, brother or sister. It’s important to me that my photos retain their humanity. I had a young US Marine die at my feet on a medical helicopter and I had to photograph that scene. It was a battle with my own photographic beliefs to try to tell this horrible story without degrading this young man at the time of his death.

What was your focus during the four weeks around Australia in emergency departments?

I wanted to show the real people behind the headlines. The mothers and fathers who lost their kids to Ice; the people who lost their youth, their future, their everything, to Ice and the doctors and nurses who risk their lives treating the addicts. I hope I showed what this drug is doing to our country, to our communities and our young people.

What about families? Were they willing or cooperative subjects?

Lots of the families were happy to talk because they don’t want others to go through what they’ve experienced, but for some families there is still some shame and stigma attached to the drug and that’s why some of the photos do not show faces.

Luke Williams, journalist and author of Ice Age

How did you become addicted while researching?

I became addicted to crystal meth when I moved in with a guy who lived in the outer suburbs. I wanted to write a story about Australia’s working class and underclass. I knew this guy was a drug addict, petty crook and small-time drug dealer, so I moved in with him. The rent was cheap and I knew I would have time to write. I had used drugs with him before, but I didn’t realise these drugs were powdered meth as opposed to the crystallised meth he was using. When I used drugs with him I very quickly became grandiose and psychotic from the crystal meth, and then became addicted after that.

Was there something intoxicating or intriguing about the drug and the culture that surrounds it that gets overlooked in the media?

There certainly is. Crystal meth gives you many things often lacking in our culture – a sense of community from other drug users, adventure, rituals and even an opportunity for almost mystical thinking. Many users, including myself, have rolling visions where you just shut your eyes and your mind takes you to a vivid fantasy world for hours on end. Crystal meth can make you more imaginative, at least until you start to fry your brains after about a month of use.

How did your personal Ice addiction change your journalistic view or experience when researching the story? What access did you have that regular writers would have been excluded from?

By and large I came to see that crystal meth is not and should not be in the same general drug use class as MDMA, powdered meth or drug and one of few that I would actually tell people never to take – you become a self-absorbed nasty fool when you are on it.

Why does the general population have so little love for addicts?

Because when you become a drug addict you are very difficult to deal with, you often have limited empathy and you become a burden on others, including the health system.

How did you beat your Ice addiction?

By becoming addicted to writing and reading 12 hours a day instead – and living in India, Indonesia, Nepal and Thailand where I could afford to do that.

How can we affect societal change to manage Ice and subsequent addiction issues?

We need to stop wasting so much money sending small-time drug users to court, and spend that money on providing real information to people about what crystal meth or Ice actually does to the brain. Then of course, spend more on treatment and less on police officers.

Matt Noffs, CEO Noffs Foundation and author of Breaking the Ice

Matt, how did you become involved or engaged in the story around ice?

We work with hundreds of young Australians coming off Ice. Ted Noffs Foundation is the country’s largest provider of youth drug and alcohol treatment. I’m also co-founder of the Street Universities. My parents started the country’s first adolescent rehab; my grandparents began working with people suffering from drug dependency in the 60s when they started the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross.

What is the popular mythology perpetuated by the media that surrounds the Ice epidemic?

That Ice turns every single user into a crazed zombie. That’s simply not true. And it’s not just my opinion; ask the Australian Crime Commission. They reported last year that most people who use the drug aren’t dependent on it. That’s not to say it’s okay – quite the opposite. Ice can damage people’s mental health but it’s important to get the stats and stories right. In a significant Sydney study of Ice users, fewer than a quarter were found to have clinically significant psychotic symptoms.

Is fear ever useful when trying to discourage drug use? What do you think are the more effective strategies?

Fear is never useful in discouraging drug use. Communication is everything. Fear inhibits our ability to respond effectively and quickly to situations and challenges. Why would we want parents unreasonably frightened? That’s what those Ice ads did last year.

Why does the general population have so little love for addicts, do you think?

Drugs rate disturbingly low on our list of community health problems. Why? There’s an assumption that drug dependency is the fault of the user. In short, life is a complex mix of choice and chance. Drug dependency has a lot to do with a multitude of other factors such as mental health, poverty, and family. In other words, drug dependency is often the symptom of something else. We need to be more compassionate toward those who are drug dependent.

Are we making the social and philosophical changes we need to in order to confront the Ice crisis?

To change the way we deal with the Ice crisis, we first need to understand the paradigm we are working within. Currently illicit drug use is considered to be a crime. That hasn’t worked out so well. In fact, it’s ruined more lives than it’s helped. It’s time for a rethink.

* Gary Ramage, Matt Noffs and Luke Williams will be participating in various sessions at Byron Writers Festival including Ice Nation: Australia in Crisis. Tickets at byronwritersfestival.com.

 


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