MORNINGTON, Australia: It is a nippy, blustery 11°C afternoon. Still, the man sits shirtless in his stationary black Ford pickup, Ray-Bans on, as grey skies loom overhead. His bald head and tattooed, emaciated frame twitch nervously at the sight of a schoolboy, maybe 10, stepping out of the local grocer in the Tanti Park neighbourhood of the Victorian town of Mornington.
Parked two lots away is another man, leaning against his red jalopy, watching and waiting for some time now. He finally shuffles over to the black pickup, and wordlessly exchanges a wad of dollar bills for a palm-sized package. It slips easily into his pocket as he returns to his car and drives off.
Adrian, a lifetime Mornington resident, has no doubt how the half-naked man was braving the chill.
“That would be meth. The blood pressure’s up when they’re on ice. So their temperature goes up and they can’t moderate temperature very well,” said the 46-year-old, using slang for the crystal form of methylamphetamine.
He hasn’t touched a drug for over six years now, but Adrian remembers enough from using, dealing, twice overdosing and ultimately being addicted to heroin for more than half his life - 27 years, to be exact.
Growing up off Mornington’s central Main Street, however, he would not have seemed a likely candidate to fall prey to drug abuse. “I had a fantastic family... really close knit,” he said. “Dad had a really good job… He did enough to get my brothers and me to good schools. We had everything we ever wanted.”
Adrian was also a gifted footballer who broke into the first team of a semi-professional, second-tier side at just 16 years of age. But that was also when the partying started and with it, his introduction to amphetamine and cocaine.
It was a striking turn of fate, and a situation afflicting not just his hometown, but perhaps all of Australia as well.
Last month, the government reported over 40 per cent of Australians older than 14 as having used an illicit drug in their lifetime. And meth appears to be their poison – with The Economist claiming in April that over 250,000 Australians are believed to be using the drug, leading to the highest rate of addiction globally.
A study late last year also uncovered that ice use in rural areas – such as Mornington – was double that of metropolitan cities, a trend highlighted by Sam Biondo, chief of the state-level Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association.
“There is concern over increased usage in rural and regional communities,” he said. “Mornington, for one, is a beachside suburb fairly typical of wealthy, upper middle-class areas. But there are drug issues there.”
“DRUGS DON’T DISCRIMINATE”
Nearly the entire Mornington population of over 24,000 lives within walking distance of the pristine sands and clear waters of Port Phillip Bay.
The seaside town’s quiet setting plays host to vineyards, wineries, hot springs and camping spots popular with Melbourne folk who make the hour-long drive from the city over the weekend.
“Most people here live in a normal quarter-acre block,” said Peter Orton, chairman of local community group Peninsula Voice, referring to the Australian aspiration of owning a three- or four- bedroom bungalow on such a land area.
“It’s a good, safe, clean community where kids can get on their bikes to go to the local library, or ride to school. It’s an ideal situation for a young family to be able to raise their kids.”
He added: “You don’t see needles on the street. We don’t have any seedy parts… You certainly don’t get areas where there’s a congregation of people who are really struggling with life.”
According to Orton, the median price of a Mornington house is around A$1.2 million, while private schools in the town cost up to A$25,000 in annual fees.
“It’s an affluent area,” he acknowledged. “We have plenty of money, but behind closed doors, we have a lot of the social ills other communities have. Ice and substance abuse is one of those.”
Said Debbie Warner, who volunteers with the Family Drug Support welfare organisation: “What I’ve seen from my work in support groups all over Victoria is that drug use problems don’t discriminate. They go across all socioeconomic groups.”
Figures available from Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency prove so. In 2016, Mornington had the second highest number of drug use offences (88) in its local government area, behind only Rosebud town (103). The same year, the offence count for methylamphetamine use and possession in the town stood at 23, up from zero in 2012, making it the next most popular drug after cannabis (25 cases).
It is in country towns like Mornington where meth use has “taken off very quickly” to become an increasingly pronounced issue, said sociologist and drug expert James Rowe.
“To the outsider’s eye, it would just be a sleepy town,” he added. “But… there would be areas where people are certainly using meth.”
Mornington resident Kerrie Knight knows a thing or two about meth use in her town, having had two children - a daughter, then a son - both ensnared by the drug.
“They have said to me in the past, that they would be able to get drugs delivered to our house quicker than they can get a pizza delivered,” said Knight.
“THEY SCREW PEOPLE’S LIVES UP”
India, Knight’s eldest daughter, was 16 when she started using ice recreationally, under the influence of friends. The ensuing five-year battle with addiction “took over her life”, said her mother.
“She was unable to manage her usage,” recalled Knight. “She overdosed three times and ended up in hospital. But even those three overdoses weren’t enough to trigger her wanting to get help.
“Towards the end of the last one, it was really bad - she lost her job and just had nowhere to go.”
It was worse still with India’s younger brother, Jack.
At 19, he turned to ice “as a band-aid, to deal with the pain” of relationships gone wrong, said Knight.
“Then it got hold of him. He became a really, really heavy user - he’s been unemployed, homeless, hospitalised a couple of times for mental health problems and has had a lot of dealings with police.”
On top of funding his habit through theft, Jack, alarmingly, posed a threat to his own family’s safety. “He would come over and smash things and break windows and doors. If we weren’t home he would break in and steal from us,” said Knight.
“He was also hostile and aggressive, and would threaten to kill myself, or family members, both verbally and through text messages.”
The result was an intervention order between Jack and his mother - which escalated to Knight moving out of Mornington at the start of the year. Jack, now 21, was eventually arrested and imprisoned for seven weeks before being transferred to detoxification and rehabilitation facilities.
Local Mornington police were unable to provide specific statistics, but a spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia “there is a strong correlation between people detected for drug offences and the committal of other crimes, in particular crimes against the person and property crimes”.
Adrian, too, used to run his own plastering company with up to 20 employees, and he would siphon money off the business to cover his drug use. “And because I didn’t want my boys to not have their wages, I’d go and do crime - I stole from big businesses; fraud type of things,” he added.
Often, however, the greatest damage can be the pain and suffering inflicted on loved ones, said Rowe.
“Sometimes I think, what have I done in my past lives to deserve this?” said Knight. “It’s heartbreaking to watch your children go from healthy functioning teens to drug users.
“You don’t know that person you watched grow up from baby to toddler to child to teen - everything is stripped away; there is nothing left. They just become an empty, angry, hostile, despondent shell.”
Recalling how both Jack and India would beg her for money they owed their drug dealer, as well as having to force them to move out when they were on heavy drug use, Knight said: “One of the hardest things to do is to cut your child off.
“When your child rings you on the phone and says ‘I’ve got nowhere to sleep; no food; I’ve been bashed; please let me come home’ and you have to say no, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do as a parent.”
Said Adrian: “One of my brothers still doesn’t talk to me, and the other one can’t seem to forgive me. It’s a small community, there’s a lot of stigma around drug use and it hurt him.
“My fiancée and I were also buying a house… You become a good liar, a good manipulator so she always believed I wasn’t using or I’d stopped.
“Cost me my fiancée; cost me a house, cost me a business… It’s cost me everything.”
“Drugs, they’re bad,” Rowe summed up. “They do screw people’s lives up. And the really sad thing about it? The most vulnerable people are the ones who get screwed up the most.”
“CHEAPER THAN ALCOHOL”
Domestic violence; gambling and alcoholism in homes are but some of the social ills leading Mornington’s residents to use drugs as a support mechanism, said Orton.
“We see a lot of young people slide down that slippery slope,” said Dr Stephen Bright, a psychologist who used to manage the drugs programme for Mornington’s public healthcare provider, Peninsula Health.
“In general, it’s because they don’t have protective factors like a good family, being engaged in education or a job they enjoy. Peer groups can be important as well.”
Said Rowe, a former heroin addict himself: “If nothing in life is going wrong, then you don’t rely on it because you’ve got fulfillment in life. But if you’re miserable and you know there’s something that will take away the pain, you go back to it the next day, and back to it the next day, and it becomes a real problem.”
He also observed that for country towns like Mornington, boredom served as a “classic motivator” for drug use.
Sports, surfing and skating aside, “there’s not that much for young people to do here”, said Orton. “Recreation for youths here is going to clubs and meeting the opposite sex. And if there’re any insecurities there, they might use more drugs - a bit like how years ago, they might use more alcohol.”
In fact, the cost of a night of drugs would amount to just two to three beers, he added. “Meth is such a cheap drug, cheaper than alcohol, that that’s part of the problem.”
“In a way, it’s even worse here, because those that have money can really afford to do all of these things… When people have lots of time, money and privilege, they still make bad choices.”
“YOU CAN’T HELP SOMEONE IF THEY’RE DEAD”
In the same vein, the road to recovery starts with a conscious choice made by the addict, said Knight.
The last time her daughter India overdosed, it proved to be a “pivotal point” in deciding that she needed to make a change for herself. After spending four months in a rehabilitation facility, India, now 23, has been free of drugs for nearly two years.
“You don’t have to tell kids drugs are bad. They know,” said Knight. “It’s not something I had ever condoned but it didn’t matter what I said. They have to want it within themselves to start to live a more healthy, functioning life.”
Adrian, now employed as a drug peer support worker in Peninsula Health - “Who better to help people than people who’ve been through it?” - spoke of reaching a similar epiphany.
“I realised how big a stuff-up my life had become; I realised how much of a grip the drug addiction had on me and from that day I’ve never used.”
He added: “It also took the help of a good counsellor, plus my mum and dad never giving up on me. That was the single biggest jumping-off point for me - that someone believed in me and said ‘You can do this’.”
“Drug use is essentially a health issue. These people need help, whether mental or physical,” said Dr Matthew Frei, clinical director of the Turning Point drug treatment centre.
Mornington police agreed. “We are also keen to develop prevention and early intervention initiatives, and support referrals into treatment to tackle demand,” said a spokesperson.
The authorities also acknowledged that solving the drugs problem was “not just an issue for law enforcement alone”, and that there was a need for “a coordinated whole of community response”.
Frei, however, noted that much of Australian society still saw a drug addict’s situation as “relatively hopeless”.
“There’s the view that drug users, no matter what you do, don’t improve. Once a drug user, they’re going to die a drug user.”
Said Warner: “In Australia, we still think the best way of dealing with drug addicts is to kick them out, to not have anything to do with them and let them hit rock bottom.
“But for some, rock bottom is death. And you can’t help someone if they’re dead.”
“At the end of the day, a drug user is somebody else’s child,” said Knight. “When you get to who the real person is, they’re not always bad people. Inside, there’s good.
“But they’re damaged, and most of the time that’s why they use - because they’re damaged goods. You just have to try and break through.”
(Photos: Justin Ong)