The use of crystal meth has shot up dramatically in Australia since it arrived here in the 1990s. as Benjamin Law explains, the long-term effects of the drug remain unknown.
If you had to guess Anna Toohey’s* profession, you might wager she works in PR or sales. Toohey is 33 and dresses the part, sporting manicured nails and excellent clothes – a designer wooden necklace, a clearly expensive kaftan – and talks with the assured confidence of a person with something to sell, which, in a loosely interpreted way, is true. Until recently, Toohey was one of Victoria’s most successful distributors of crystal meth, the diabolically addictive illicit drug also known as “ice”.
“I used to joke about it, saying, ‘I’m taking over this area. Bayside is going to be mine,’ ” she says. Toohey didn’t intend to become good at dealing crystal meth. She just happened to have access to a quality product at a very competitive price.
“There’s no smell, nothing like that,” she says. “So I’ve laid in a million parks on a blanket, just …” She mimes puffing. “And nobody has any idea. You can smoke it in the bathroom at work, you can smoke it in a public toilet. You can just duck down in the car. People wouldn’t see. You get a small pipe and people have no idea.”
Years ago, when Toohey worked for a federal government department, a colleague she had worked alongside for 18 months asked her whether she wanted to try crystal meth at a Christmas party. Toohey laughs about it now. “I’d been high every day next to him and he had no idea. He’d been high as well, and I had no idea.”
Toohey doesn’t look like a typical recovering crystal meth addict. In my mind, addicts are the people you see on Faces of Meth, the infamous website of before-and-after mugshots collected by an Oregon county sheriff’s office. The people featured on the site are practically decomposing: teeth are missing; faces are scab-ridden and sunken like badly cooked cakes; skin has the complexion of worn lino. Toohey says people like that are in the minority: injecting users in deep withdrawal. Still, I can’t imagine that regularly taking in so much junk could be good for your body.
“Nah, but it bounces back, I reckon,” Toohey says. “You just need to sleep for a couple of days.” After all, Toohey says, she used crystal meth every day for 13 years. “And I’m not too bad,” she says.
Crystal meth use in Australia has shot up drastically since its introduction to this country in the 1990s. In 2012, the Global Drug Survey found that over a quarter of 6000-plus surveyed Australians had tried methamphetamines – the most common form being crystal meth – at least once in their lives. Meth-related harm has also increased sharply. Between 2010 and 2012, Melbourne ambulance crews saw a 109 per cent jump in the number of call-outs from assaults, accidents and psychotic episodes related to methamphetamine use. According to Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, the number of meth-related call-outs has increased again since.
This is how crystal meth works: after you smoke, inject, snort, ingest or anally insert the tiny, salt-like shards into your body, your brain is flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. You are sent into a dizzying state of euphoria. Your sex drive becomes supercharged. Inhibitions disappear. There’s no need to sleep, which means you can have athletic sex for hours on end.
White-collar professionals tell me they take it to boost concentration. Sex workers take it to work longer hours and to emotionally detach themselves from clients. Tradies and truck drivers take puffs to stay alert and focused.
“For women, it’s a brilliant drug,” Toohey says. “You don’t have to eat and you can still do all the things you have to do. Room’s messy? Have a pipe, and zhooom – clean to within an inch of its life. All the paperwork you’ve ever needed to do. Bang out that assignment. Pack your bags for the weekend. You can do it all.”
Lacking confidence and energy? Want to lose weight? It’s as though crystal meth were custom-made to cure all 21st century malaises.
Then come the side-effects. To stave off the comedown, you need to use crystal meth again. As your tolerance for the drug strengthens, you need more of it to get high. With repeated use, your dopamine receptors begin to corrode, impairing your ability to feel any kind of pleasure unless you get another hit of crystal meth. During withdrawal, feelings of intense paranoia, anxiety and depression creep in, and it’s common for people to experience episodes similar to paranoid schizophrenia.
Alarmed, Victoria’s state government has launched a year-long parliamentary inquiry to investigate the use and distribution of methamphetamine. One of the things it will discover is that production has skyrocketed. Unlike heroin and cocaine, the proliferation of which depends heavily on overseas availability, crystal meth can be easily manufactured almost anywhere, which means a more even spread of the drug across metropolitan, regional and rural Australia. A Google search will reveal recipes showing how the precursor chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine can be processed into crystal meth: mix ephedrine or pseudoephedrine with red phosphorus and hydriodic acid; filter out the phosphorus, neutralise the acid with lye, drain the liquid meth, add hydrogen chloride gas, filter, dry – and bam!
The proliferation of meth labs is the reason pharmacists started demanding your driver’s licence in the mid-2000s when purchasing cold and flu tablets containing pseudoephedrine. Some Australian real estate agents have been schooled in how to spot clandestine laboratories during rental inspections. In the past year, a record 809 clandestine laboratories were detected in Australia. By October, Victorian police had already seized 113 clandestine meth laboratories this year. Recently, Melbourne officers discovered people cooking crystal meth and selling it from a van in a park, as if it were an ice-cream truck.
One driving premise of television’s Breaking Bad is that the most unlikely people can end up cooking and selling meth. For her part, Anna Toohey was raised in a comfortable upper-middle-class home just outside of Melbourne. She went to a private Catholic school, trained to be an elite athlete and was an active member of the local pony club. When she was 20, she had several sporting accidents and lost her confidence and nerve. Then, at a party one night, she was offered crystal meth and loved the energy and self-assurance it gave her. For Toohey, crystal meth was like “this secret elixir to life that nobody knew about. I could stay up longer, I could work 90 hours a week.” She finished two university degrees and got excellent marks, assisted by the almost superhero-like concentration levels crystal meth gave her. “I’d learn the entire subject in three days, and bang: I’d get an HD [high distinction] for my exams.”
When asked about comedowns, Toohey grins. “I never really came down,” she says. Her approach was simple: stay high and you won’t experience the lows. By the time she was 25 and working in banking, Toohey couldn’t even drive to work without stopping the car up to four times just to get high. By the time she was 30, she was smoking roughly $10,000 worth of meth a week, sucking on her pipe between 10 and 15 times a day. But it wasn’t until she started selling crystal meth herself “that it got out of control”, she says.
There were a few reasons she started selling. After one meth-related arrest, Toohey lost her job. Her addiction was cripplingly expensive. It was only after another arrest that she decided to stop taking and selling the drugs altogether. She was held in police custody and endured torturous withdrawal symptoms for days. “You get shaky, you don’t want to really eat, and you’re so tired, but really uncomfortable. All your bones are aching. Your throat starts to close over.”
She was still detained on her father’s 60th birthday. He had no idea about her crystal meth habit and dealing, and Toohey had to wish him a happy birthday from the lock-up. “It was heavy. Every time I think about wanting to use again, I just think, ‘I wasn’t brought up to go to jail.’ ”
Toohey tells me one more thing: when she was still distributing crystal meth, she got a small town named Neerim, in West Gippsland, hooked on meth. “I got that whole town addicted,” she says matter-of-factly.
For a moment, I’m astounded. “You know,” I say, after a while, “people hate people like you.”
“Probably,” she says. “But you don’t give that much free stuff out. Only a little bit, and only to drug dealers.”
With the intention of getting people addicted?
“The town is already addicted,” Toohey says. “The town is already smoking bullshit stuff that isn’t even ice, and they’re paying huge amounts of money for it.”
You can hear it in her voice. She was basically doing the town a favour. I write down “Neerim” in my notebook. I’m curious. What happens after you hook a town on crystal meth, anyway?
Victoria Police’s acting deputy commissioner, Stephen Fontana, says that in his 38 years of service, he’s never seen a drug quite like crystal meth. “We’re strug-gling,” he admits. Fontana tells me that police have had to deal with meth users so aggressive, it’s taken a can of mace and eight officers to hold them down. Paramedics and drug management workers tell me other horror stories: the woman who picked her face to pieces because she thought she had bugs in her skin; the man who took a machete to someone else’s arms; people who went crazy and jumped off buildings, shattering their spines.
But these are extreme cases. Police and ambulance officers agree that alcohol-related crimes and injuries are far more common and problematic than those brought on by crystal meth. Turning Point’s Belinda Lloyd says as with most drugs, there are plenty of casual crystal meth users who never need medical assistance or encounter problems with the law. “A lot of people will use the drug recreationally and never come into contact with any service,” she says.
Like Toohey, Jack McAllister* doesn’t look like a recovering crystal meth addict. At 33, he sports the fit body of someone who takes exercise and dietary supplements seriously. When he first encountered crystal meth, at a Sydney dance party in 1997, all he’d heard was that gay men in the US were going wild for it. He ingested it with water at first. It didn’t do much. It was only when he travelled to New York soon after that he unlocked the drug’s appeal. Over there, everyone was smoking it.
“It was a cool thing, to have a pipe with a hot guy who’d say, ‘Come into the toilet cubicle with me.’ You’d go in there, share it and it made you feel really sexy.” He kept taking it regularly, often to enhance sex, and didn’t encounter any ill-effects besides the comedowns, at first.
Then, in 2000, McAllister was on a flight from New York to London when he had a full-blown crystal meth-induced psychotic episode. McAllister was flying American Airlines that day, and upon seeing the airlines initials – AA – his paranoid, meth-addled brain convinced him that the airline was part of a conspiracy to force him into an Alcoholics Anonymous boot camp, where he would be killed on arrival. It made sense at the time, he says.
McAllister’s psychotic episode may have started on the AA plane, but it stretched on for days. Upon landing in Heathrow, he rang an ex-boyfriend and urgently told him, “People are trying to kill me.” Days later, still rambling and paranoid, McAllister phoned his parents in Australia and told them he was in trouble. Alarmed, they booked a ticket for him to fly home.
“The strange thing is, as soon as I got on that flight, I came out of psychosis,” he says. “ ’Buckle your seatbelts, we’re taking off’ and I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘What the f… have I done?’ ” In the course of his mental fug, McAllister had left most of his possessions behind in New York and London.
By the time he returned to Australia and settled in Sydney, crystal meth use was blossoming in every state and territory – police seizures of crystal meth went from 971 grams nationwide in 2001 to 305 kilograms in 2002. McAllister kept hoping that crystal meth would be fun again, but says it never was. Over the next two years, he was scoring lots of unsafe sex while wired, but come-downs now lasted anywhere up to eight weeks.
He contracted sexually transmitted diseases, developed shigella – a nasty digestive infection – and was eventually diagnosed as HIV-positive. (In 2013, 33.7 per cent of surveyed HIV-positive men in Sydney’s gay community had used crystal meth in the past six months – far higher than in HIV-negative men – which some argue hints at a relationship between the sexual risk-taking facilitated by meth use and the spread of HIV.)
In any case, McAllister had other problems. His psychotic episodes became more frequent. He was working as a schoolteacher then, and during one school swimming carnival, became convinced the students wanted to murder him. Later, when smoking with a sex partner, he sliced open his hand on a shattered meth pipe, got stitches and spiralled into another psychotic episode that lasted a fortnight. Police in Surry Hills detained him before transferring him to a psych ward. Then they called McAllister’s parents. “It was as horrendous as you could imagine,” he says.
McAllister had a 10-month stint in rehab and has been clean for a decade now. He considers himself one of the lucky ones. There is a man in Sydney who McAllister used to know, roughly the same age as him, who got hooked on crystal meth around the same time. They used to be friends, sleep with the same people, dabble in sex work together. “This guy was hot … everyone’s fantasy, pretty much,” McAllister says. “Now he’s the kind of guy who will use crystal meth until he just kills himself. He would be a bit younger than me but he looks like an 80-year-old. He looks grey, withered – he’s just a shell of what he was.”
Mcallister now operates Australia’s first 12-step support group for people with crystal meth addiction. About a dozen men and women stream in quietly as the sun goes down. By the end of the meeting, numbers swell to near 30.
Most of them look all right. Sitting opposite me is a sleekly dressed 20-something woman who could be a professional dancer. There’s also a cheery man in his 30s with the word “DREAM” splashed colourfully across his shirt. Even so, there are a couple of people who look noticeably messed up. One long-haired, bespectacled woman in her 50s wears a haunted expression the entire time, as if she’s stumbled upon her own funeral.
A 20-something, athletic-looking ocker bloke in Nike trainers speaks first. He started using crystal meth at 17, spiralling quickly into psychosis. He’s had some periods of being clean, but has been in and out of courts and lock-ups since 2006 and is now estranged from his family. “And I came from a good family,” he adds. “But crystal meth is a drug that doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care where you come from.”
The man in the DREAM shirt says that at the peak of his addiction, he spent over $50,000 on crystal meth over two months, “sticking a needle up my arm and just getting more and insane”. He says he smelled revolting during this period, breaking out in meth sweats. “I’d just stink of this toxic fume.”
Another man tell us how his addiction left him with a swollen colon (“Really healthy”, he says drily), while the young woman next to me got to the point where she had to smoke meth before getting groceries. One bright young woman, who worked as an electrician, remembers the times she handled wiring that could have electrocuted her “totally off my head”. She says, “I was working on electricity in people’s houses – and on my own. I now look back and see how ridiculous it is, but I thought I was in a really good frame of mind.” Only in her early 20s, she had been using crystal meth every day for four years.
One quiet woman has a neat fringe and sunny face. She could be your local dental receptionist. She looks like someone’s mum. She tells the group that since coming off crystal meth, her mood swings have been so staggeringly painful, so emotionally bruising, that she spontaneously bursts into tears at both work and home. “I’m really struggling and yearning at the moment,” she says. “I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Someone to say, ‘You’re going the right way’. Reassurances. Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing from my life.”
When the group is asked whether this is anyone’s first meeting, a young girl in her early 20s raises her hand. She’s pretty, resembling a young Britney Spears – but is a living portrait of human misery. Barely able to speak, she cradles her head in her hands as though it might fall off her neck at any moment. She lives in regional Victoria and has driven nearly 200 kilometres to Melbourne to get clean. Today is her fourth day meth-free, she says. We applaud but that just makes her cry. The girl next to her pats her on the back softly.
“Every single person I know is on it heavily there,” she says of her home town. “Huge, copious amounts. It’s scary. I thought it would get hold of other people, but not me.” The tears come again. “I don’t like who I am when I’m on it. And I don’t want to live like this. Watching people I love …cook and stuff. I left on Saturday night … with a pipe and two points for the drive.”
She shakes her head, appalled at herself. Everyone laughs kindly. “But I can’t stop,” she says. “I’m dreaming about it. I don’t know if I can stop. I want to, but … I just don’t know.”
The main street of Neerim is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair. There is a petrol station, hardware store, school, FoodWorks, bakery, butcher and cafe. Only 1451 people live here and generally they don’t earn too much: $515 a week on average.
Eighteen months ago, Toohey sent one of her drug runners here to start selling crystal meth to the locals. Runners would give dealers a sample of the crystal meth and offered competitive rates. Towns like Neerim are vulnerable to a boom in trade, Toohey tells me: anywhere with a large population of tradies or the unemployed will go for the stuff. They’re the ones who’ll buy smaller amounts more frequently, and at a higher price.
Neerim’s tiny police station is closed when I visit, so I drive 20 minutes to nearby Warragul and meet Kevin McLaren, Victoria Police’s Youth Resource Officer for the shire. McLaren knows a lot of young local people on crystal meth, and not just through his work. One addict used to play basketball with his son. A meth runner who was bringing in $8000 worth of crystal meth a week to town was a girl’s date at the local debutante ball.
“Most schools I go into, at least half of the kids put their hands up and say they know someone who’s using ice,” he says. “Everyone knows someone who’s using.” When McLaren helped to
organise the community’s first forum on crystal meth in September, 300 people came, filling the community college hall to capacity. Since then, McLaren has conducted these forums wherever there’s a demand. Curiously, the next one he’ll present will be in Neerim.
“Crystal meth is always presented as a big-city problem,” says John Ryan, chief executive of Anex, a leading drug harm-reduction organisation. “Bullshit. Methamphetamine use is right across the city and country. The line I’ve heard so many times is, ‘It’s killing our community.’ I’ve heard that line in [suburban] Northcote, but also in Sunraysia and Warrnambool.”
The long-term effects of crystal meth use are far from uniform. For many, the brain’s ability to produce or use dopamine might become stunted. Or the saliva glands will dry out, allowing acids to eat away at tooth enamel, causing dental problems. Or tissue and blood vessels might decay, meaning the body’s ability to repair itself is compromised. That’s the type of thing you see on the Faces of Meth site. That won’t happen to all users and addicts, though.
“You almost need a generation [of users] to get a sense of what effect this is having on people,” says Turning Point’s Matthew Frei. “The assumption has been: ‘You abstain, you get better.’ But we don’t know. Is there some threshold you cross where there is irreversible damage to your neurochemistry? It’s a hard thing to measure.” He shrugs. “But that message – that we don’t know the long-term effects of methamphetamine yet – that’s scary enough.”
*Names have been changed.