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As use of the recreational drug known as “ice”grows across Australia, so do the risks for lawyers and society at large. 

Three years ago, 40-year-old Daniel Saifiti was a concreter, manager-director of a hotel and a loving family man.

The son of a school principal, he came from a good family. He had tried drugs before but had never had a problem with addiction. That was before someone offered him a pipe of crystal methamphetamine – or “ice” – at a party. “As soon as I tried ice, there was a problem straight away,” says Saifiti. “I’d done other drugs before but I was always able to keep that to a recreational level of use.”

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) recently identified ice use as posing the highest risk to the Australian community of all the illicit drugs on the market. According to a frightening report released by the ACC in March, the purity and availability of the drug is increasing, with the risk for addiction growing higher and, consequentially, harm to the community spreading.

“It got worse, to the point where I lost everything,” says Saifiti. “I lost many friends and 20 kilograms of body weight. I lost my sanity, the love and respect of my children, the love of my life, my family home and the profits of it. And I’d been put in jail.”

Saifiti is one of an increasing number of ice users who have spiralled through addiction into the criminal justice system. In 2012, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that 37 per cent of new prisoners had used methamphetamines in the previous 12 months. Last year, the Bureau of Crime Statistics reported that ice-related crimes had increased by 18 per cent. The ACC report estimates that more than 60 per cent of Australia’s highest risk criminal targets are involved in the methamphetamine trade.

Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan summarised the situation when he said, “Our nation’s addiction to this mind-eating, personality distorting, life-ending drug is undermining the social fabric of communities and paying big dividends to the transnational organised criminal syndicates that are profiting from its misery.”

Australia, it appears, is in the midst of an ice age. Saifiti was one of more than 300 people who spoke at the NSW Central Coast community ice summit in Tumbi Umbi on 22 May, where social workers and court officers said the problem had been growing steadily worse in recent years.

Anita Barker, an Aboriginal client and community support worker at Wyong Local Court, said the justice system was dealing with increasing numbers of ice-related violence, perpetrated by ever-younger offenders.

“We’re noticing more and more that parents are taking out apprehended violence orders against their children,” said Barker. “Not that they want to do that, but they have no other way of protecting themselves.

They can’t have their children coming home. It’s not safe for them and it’s not safe for their siblings.” John, the spouse of an addict, said family members often had to make a heartbreaking choice between keeping a user at home and surrendering them to law enforcement. “There needs to be a middle ground between mental health and the lockup, where people can get off ice, detox for however many days, and then go to their case assessment for mental health,” he told the forum.

Currently, however, there is no such middle ground to deal with the health issues of addiction. Users who enter the prison system are forced to live with the permanent stigma of a criminal record, along with the high likelihood of recidivism that prison fosters.
At his worst, Saifiti was being arrested on a weekly basis – not for drug possession or supply charges, but for the results of his violent, unpredictable behaviour towards his family and police while on ice or coming down from a high. He recalls being homicidal, suicidal and extremely volatile. It was not until he found himself beaten up by prison guards and locked in a “dry cell” that he realised the devastation the drug had had on his life.

“A dry cell is where they take your mattresses out and they turn the water off,” reflects Saifiti. “I was sitting there in that dry cell, and it was the first time in jail that I broke down and cried. I’d lost everything. Two years earlier I was kicking goals, I still had my home and my family. Sitting there in that dry cell I had nothing. I couldn’t even wipe my ass if I was to go to the toilet.”

What is ice and why is it so harmful?

While ice has been on the illicit drug scene for some time, it is only in the past five years that it has really taken hold as the methamphetamine of choice. The National Drug and Alcohol Household Survey reported that while the number of people using powdered methamphetamine had dwindled over the past few years, the number of users who prefer the crystallised form has more than doubled from 22 per cent in 2010 to 50 per cent in 2013.

Ice has the same chemical structure as powdered methamphetamine (or speed) but earns its name from the small crystals produced when the powder is physically altered and the purity increased. “The physical structure means ice can still be diluted and injected, but it can also be turned into a vapour, which can then be inhaled,” explains Dr Alex Wodak, a physician and former Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.

“When a vapour is inhaled, it enters the bloodstream through the lungs and from there it only takes seven seconds to reach the brain.”

The rapid impact of ice produces a massive spike of dopamine in the brain, causing extreme highs followed by abysmal lows. Such extremes often lead to irrational, unpredictable behaviour and many people on ice become violent.

“The ice cases I saw whilst in office almost always involved a violent reaction,” says former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery. “It can be bad for nurses and doctors if they’re taken to hospital and it can be bad for police who are involved, because people develop abnormal strength and act in a very violent way. They don’t seem to care who’s in the way. They just lash out.”


“We’re noticing more and more that parents are taking out apprehended violence orders against their children. Not that they want to do that, but they have no other way of protecting themselves.”

Aboriginal client officer, Wyong


The epidemic

The horrors of ice addiction have been starkly illustrated by an $11 million anti-ice campaign launched by the Federal Government in May. One shocking television advertisement includes footage of a young woman scratching at bleeding sores on her wrist, an addict’s psychotic attack on hospital staff, and a dishevelled looking man’s violent assault and robbery of his mother. “Ice is destroying lives,” the ad says.

Statistics from Victoria’s drug and alcohol research centre, Turning Point, also paint a frightening picture for those emergency services officers on call to face such unpredictable behaviour. The centre reported a massive 198 per cent increase in ambulance callouts to methamphetamine-related incidents in regional Victoria between 2011 and 2013.

Because ice destroys the brain’s ability to produce dopamine, users chase the initial “rush” and can find themselves in the throes of a tormenting addiction, often after only one or two hits. Cowdery says users often steal money to buy more ice. There’s a good chance they will resort to employment in the drug market to fuel their habit, so the distribution chain grows.

The distribution

The ACC report says that ice has grown from representing 5 per cent of detected illicit drug imports to Australia in 2011 to 59 per cent in 2014.The report has linked this growth of ice distribution networks to organised crime and, particularly, the increasing dominance of bikie gangs in regional NSW and Victoria.

“You have bikie gangs responsible for manufacturing and distributing ice,” says Cowdery. “They come into country towns and make contact with what is usually a fairly high proportion of disaffected youth. “The bikies will hook these kids by giving them free doses to begin with. So they go out and try it. They like what they tried and they come back looking for another free dose to discover that, this time, they have to pay for it.”

Ice has hooked a number of communities in regional NSW, causing unprecedented social damage. The problem is so bad in the Central Western town of Wellington that residents have dubbed it Little Antarctica in a number of Fairfax media reports, where it is claimed it is extremely easy to get ice on the street.

Bill Dickens, the solicitor in charge of the regional Legal Aid Office in Dubbo, says part of the problem is that ice is relatively cheap. Sold in “caps” or “points”, about 0.1 of a gram will cost $40. “At that price it’s not particularly difficult to ‘get on’,” says Dickens. “For $40, that point doesn’t cost very much, but pretty rapidly you need to use more frequently.”

Ice and criminality

Once people start using ice, their propensity to commit crime increases. This claim is not just anecdotal – last year the Australian Institute of Criminology published figures to show that detainees testing positive to methamphetamine increased by more than 20 per cent in NSW from 2008 to 2012. By comparison, heroin use remained fairly steady and cocaine decreased. So whether ice is a cause or effect of the crimes committed, it is clear it is becoming the more popular drug of choice among offenders.

The problem for defence lawyers is that those dependent on ice often have a number of charges other than drug possession or supply.

“Most commonly, they also have resisting arrest and assault charges, including assaulting police,” says Ugur Nedim, principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “Needless to say, the additional charges can make it more difficult to secure a favourable outcome.”

Nedim’s clients often hope to achieve a Section 10 warning for minor possession charges, which is a guilty verdict with no conviction recorded. This can be a positive outcome for applicants hoping to avoid the stigma, future employment issues and other difficulties imposed by a criminal record. In cases of severe addiction, the possibility of a Section 32 mental health application can be explored if it appears the client is suffering from mental health conditions as well as drug dependency.

Another option is to request the Magistrate’s Early Referral into Treatment (MERIT) program, successful completion of which can lead to a more lenient penalty. However, users who are heavily dependent on drugs often fail to attend the necessary rehabilitation appointments.“It happens often,” says a spokesperson for Salvos Legal Humanitarian, “that clients miss court appearances, mediations or meetings with us. We’ve had huge problems getting in contact with some clients because their mobile phones are constantly changing. Really, you’re dealing with an uncontrollable person quite often.”


“What we’d like to be able to say to a court is, ‘Give this person bail on the basis that they go into this detox facility, then go to this rehabilitation facility and remain there until they have completed a program’. At the moment that’s just not an option.”

Legal Aid Dubbo

The problem with jail

Nicholas Cowdery warns that jail time does not stop an addict from using drugs. “They’re still going to get drugs in jail, but it’s going to cost them,” he says. “We can’t keep drugs out of jails.”

Former prisoner Saifiti supports this claim. “It’s pretty easy,” Saifiti says. “As long as you’ve got something to offer, like a bit of coin, you can get whatever you want in there.”

Dickens believes the problem with jail for offenders is that it fails to address underlying issues of addiction. “We had a man who, having been in jail for three months, got out, overdosed and died [the day after being released].”

Unfortunately, there are currently few options for magistrates dealing with repeat offender addicts facing court, particularly in regional areas. Dickens refers to the “sandstone curtain” of the Blue Mountains in NSW, west of which there is a dearth of drug treatment and rehabilitation centres.

Dickens says there are only three residential rehabilitation centres, with a total of 75 detoxification beds, available in regional NSW. “What we’d like to be able to say to a court is, ‘Give this person bail on the basis that they go into this detox facility, then go to this rehabilitation facility and remain there until they have completed a program’. At the moment that’s just not an option,” says Dickens.

At the Central Coast community meeting, Superintendent Daniel Sullivan suggested the introduction of more drug courts in regional areas. The NSW Drug Courts, first established in Parramatta under the Drug Court Act 1998, provide alternative sentencing options to jail, with the aim of addressing the underlying addiction behind drugs-related offences.

“The ‘drug court’ is that wonderful grey area between law enforcement and the health side of drug treatment,” says Sullivan.

NSW now has three drug courts in Parramatta, Toronto and Sydney, and they only accept cases from local government and adjoining areas. However, section 5(2)(b) of the Drug Court Act 1998 excludes a person from the definition of “eligible person” if there are any violent offences accompanying the drug offence. Given the strong association between ice and violent crime, a drug court is thus not an option for many addicts under current law.


  • 126% increase in the number of ice users from from 2010 to 2013 (The National Drug and Alcohol Household Survey)
  • 198% increase in ambulance callouts to methamphetamine-related incidents in regional Victoria between 2011 and 2013 (Victoria’s drug and alcohol research centre, Turning Point)
  • 18% increase in ice-related crimes between 2011 and 2013 (Bureau of Crime Statistics)

The taskforce

NSW is waiting on the recommendations from the National Ice Taskforce, which Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened in April. Headed by Ken Lay, the former Chief Police Commissioner in Victoria, the taskforce is due to release an interim report. But some are cynical about the prospects for action. “That’s the typical politicians’ way of dealing with things,” says Cowdery. “Do a report on a report. Form a committee, draw up terms of reference for a taskforce to investigate, blah blah blah.” Experts such as Dr Wodak have urged the government to change its traditional “war on drugs” law enforcement-based approach. “One of the difficulties we have is that drug treatment currently exists in the shadow of drug prohibition,” he says. “Prohibition encourages drug traffickers to concentrate the drug they are trafficking. We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

Matt Noffs, chief executive officer of the Noffs Foundation, agrees that alternatives to harsh law enforcement rhetoric must be considered. “While increasing treatment, I really do believe we have to question, from a strategic point of view, whether having this drug illegal and unregulated is a smart move,” says Noffs.

“If we wanted to get really serious about tackling the black market, [the government] would look for ways of manufacturing and selling it through a pharmaceutical environment, with access to support mechanisms for addicts. If you can imagine how people line up for the medically supervised injecting centre, I can see people lining up to get their point of ice for the day.”

Whether radical ideas such as decriminalisation are possible, it appears that everyone agrees developing more treatment options and new ways to reduce the demand for ice are essential.“In social problems like these, law enforcement isn’t the answer,” says Ken Lay. “We need to be in the health space. We need to be in the education space. Nothing is off the table.”