Professor Dan Howard, SC

Despite a passing resemblance to Kenneth Hayne AC QC, who headed  the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, Professor Dan Howard SC presides over a very different kind of inquiry. Known as the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’, the NSW Government-convened roadshow held two days of hearings in Lismore in mid-May.

According to Professor Howard, a former president of the NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal and former acting judge of the District Court of NSW, “Lismore is one of the regional communities where the use of crystal methamphetamine is of particular concern.” 

While he didn’t use the term “epidemic”, it was certainly raised by others, including police and health care workers. 

As several witnesses explained, the usage of the drug known colloquially as “ice” tends to be concentrated in the lower socio-economic sectors of the populace, with significant penetration into Aboriginal communities where it has caused a raft of health, social and law-and-order problems.

The Commission had sat previously in Sydney and after Lismore was scheduled to move on to Nowra and Dubbo, centres where local media would also report alarming statements such as, “People living in rural and remote areas are 2.5 times as likely to use methylamphetamines as those in major cities.” 

In fact, the evidence presented in Dubbo in early June was, if anything, even worse than would transpire here: “It took 15 people to restrain one violent man who was highly intoxicated on ice in a hospital,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

‘‘It looked like everyone from Dubbo was there from the police force,’’ said senior Dubbo Base Hospital ED nurse Christopher Waters said. ‘‘It was such a racket. We called the police to ask them to come in and save the day.’’  

Mr Waters said he had been assaulted ‘‘many times’’, including being king hit by patients who had taken ice or a mix of other amphetamines...  ‘It is an amazing drug and it brings this incredible strength, and people ended up getting hurt.’’ 

Before the Commission was launched a raft of scary reports about what is viewed as the scariest of drugs jolted the state government into action, although it was nearly three years since the federal government released the report of the National Ice Taskforce https://www.pmc.gov.au/resource-centre/domestic-policy/final-report-national-ice-taskforce)

Canberra’s report noted that, “Proportionally, Australia uses more methamphetamine than almost any other country, and the number of users continues to grow”. However, words alone failed to end what is so often billed, as we again saw recently, as the “ice epidemic”.

The challenges are easily stated – society (but who, exactly?) needs to eliminate supply and end people’s desire to try and continue to take this highly addictive drug. So far, the saying and the doing are poles apart. 

Into this vortex stepped the NSW Government, creating an inquiry that would look into, 1) The nature, prevalence and impacts of the drug crystal methamphetamine – a.k.a. ‘ice’ – and other illicit amphetamine-type stimulants (known as ATSs), 2) The adequacy of current measures to target crystal methamphetamine and other illicit ATS, and 3) Options to strengthen NSW’s response, including law enforcement, education, treatment and rehabilitation responses.

This has entailed casting a wide net aimed at gathering the views of addiction experts, drug and alcohol counsellors, primary and tertiary level medical practitioners, lawyers, police and, not least, illicit drug users themselves. The lists of those who gave evidence in the Lismore hearings (and the other Commission sittings), along with complete video recordings of their testimony and other relevant material, can be viewed at https://www.iceinquiry.nsw.gov.au//assets/scii/witness-lists/lismore/Lismore-Witness-list.pdf

Transcripts of the two-day Lismore session run to around 400 pages, and are challenging to summarise, given the breadth of the inquiry and the complexity of the subject matter. 

Those sharing their expertise on the misuse of “ice” and other ATSs included medicos Dr Rob Davies, Emergency Director, Tweed-Byron Hospital Network, Dr Edward Wims, Clinical Director, Mental Health – Richmond Clarence, Dr Bronwyn Hudson, GP registrar VMO, Emergency SMO, Byron Central Hospital, and Dr David Helliwell, Clinical Lead, Alcohol and Other Drugs, Riverlands Drug and Alcohol Service. 

It was an impressively expert group, even before the addition of NSW Police, the Aboriginal Legal Service, MERIT, the Buttery, NSW Ambulance, FACS, ACON, and Northern NSW Local Health District/Mental Health.

But as is often the case, there was an elephant in the room, and as so often, its name was alcohol, that legal drug frequently attached to sport sponsorship yet seldom portrayed as one of the “dirty drugs” that breaks families apart, ruins lives, and, as many of the witnesses noted, often co-exists with the use of illicit substances such as ATSs, including “ice”.

Early in their evidence both Drs Davies and Hudson observed that while “ice” and other drugs are of significant concern, alcohol ranks foremost in the abuse experienced by many of their patients.

“Alcohol is the biggest drug issue of the community,” the former noted, “which often seems to be missed.”

Dr Hudson stated simply: “The main substance of concern is alcohol.”

As might be expected, however, “ice”, ATSs and the Northern Rivers’ local specialty, cannabis, were the main focus, with local police commander Supt Toby Lindsay providing information on users (tend to be from lower socio-economic groups), costs ($50 a ‘point’ of “ice”, $400 a gram, $15-$30 for MDMA (ecstasy) pill, etc), types of usage (often beginning with cannabis, then lacing it with methamphetamine, then the pure drug).

The Supt noted that the challenge of controlling “ice” users included their extreme strength, inability to comprehend police instructions, the need to deploy more police responders and to use OC spray and handcuffs. The likelihood of attending officers experiencing PTSD was also raised, as it had been by the police union.

However, violent events of this kind were relatively rare, he said - contrasting with the Dubbo situation where arrests for possession of amphetamines (including ice) was double the state average, and the rate of methamphetamine related hospitalisations was 40 times greater. Here, there is perhaps one violent instance every month or two, with high-visibility policing helping to disrupt supply, and the Crimestoppers/dob-in-a-dealer campaign resulting in 3400 local information reports for manufacture, supply and use.

Edwina (Eddie) Lloyd, a solicitor with the Aboriginal Legal Service and a Lismore City Councillor, voiced concern about the penetration of “ice” into the Aboriginal community and its association with offences such as break and enter, and domestic and other violence. In the cells, clients can be “aggressive, impulsive and violent”, she said.

Cr Lloyd estimated that 90 per cent of ALS clients misused substances, “often ice”, adding, “Rarely do clients not using drugs commit a crime.”

Urging an end to emotive terms such as “ice addict”, “junkie” and so on, Cr Lloyd said people suffering “substance misuse disorder” could and should receive better detox and rehabilitative support through services already operating here. These include MERIT (“Fantastic in turning lives around”), Circle Sentencing, the Buttery and the Involuntary Drug & Alcohol Treatment Program (IDAT), under-resourced as they often are, as well as other initiatives that run successfully elsewhere, such as Koori and Drug Courts.

Her plea for the enhanced funding of such services was echoed by all Commission witnesses over the two days of hearings, with a stress on drug treatment being treated as a medical priority rather than a judicial one. As Dr David Helliwell put it, “There’s more value for money from the health system than the justice system.”

Cr Lloyd, chair of her Council’s Social Justice and Crime Prevention Committee – “Our community’s cry for help”, as she put it – expressed this view in plain terms: “It’s time for our politicians to put the guns down… the war on drugs is over.”

It seems not all politicians come armed for combat, as was shown by Janelle Saffin, the recently elected State MP for Lismore (which takes in Tenterfield, Lismore, Kyogle, Murwillumbah and part of the Tweed Valley), who, surprisingly, was not informed that the Commission was coming to town, and upon seeking a presence was told the hearing was booked out and had no room for her.

In a tendered statement to the Commission Ms Saffin (a lawyer and long-time social activist) noted having seen “a distinct increase in the use of the drug ICE, its local manufacture, its distribution, the increasing number of charges, paralleled by its increasing usage, the mayhem it causes the addicts themselves, their families, their communities, and the impact on the health system.”

Like other witnesses, she said, “Our primary societal response is to charge and sentence and not provide rehabilitation… but the fact is, we simply do not have the rehabilitation services available to respond to this.  I am told that the waiting list at ‘The Buttery’ is some four to six months. 

“The MERIT program fares no better and has a long waiting list and excludes alcohol use, the primary drug of choice that also causes mayhem… ICE may be the primary drug of choice, but is frequently accompanied by other drugs, including alcohol and a variety of destructive behaviours.”

She added that a recent NSW Legislative Council inquiry had found a dearth of available services. While the NNSW LHD said the local drug of choice continues to be alcohol at 38 per cent, followed by opioids 24 per cent, cannabinoids 10 per cent, and amphetamines 15 per cent, the “resulting mayhem” from the last category was “exponentially greater”. 

Again, like others who appeared, Ms Saffin advocated for Drug and Koori Courts, which do not have to be ‘Taj Mahals’, and hoped the Commission’s report, due for release in October, would recognise the use of “ice” and other drugs as a major health and social issue, and respond accordingly.

Judging from the testimony presented to Commissioner Dan Howard, she is by no means alone.