Psychosis, HIV: The reality of ice addiction from inside Australian hospital

Horrific … this is the reality of ice addiction as seen in Australian hospitals. Picture: Gary Ramage

WE left Royal Perth Hospital thinking what we’d seen was as bad as it could get: an HIV-positive ice user, in a state of extreme fury, spitting at emergency and security staff try to help him.

We missed what happened the following day. A fly-in, fly-out worker, who’d taken ice in the morning, suffered a massive brain bleed, caused by rocketing blood pressure. He was an organ donor by lunchtime.

So many users, so many hurting parents and so many people in recovery. Somehow, ice has got under the nation’s guard.

Hidden face of addition … Angela (not her real name) in emergency being treated for ice-related illness. Picture: Gary Ramage

Those who quarrel whether or not we should call it an “ice epidemic” are having a time-wasting conversation with themselves. On a four-week national journey undertaken by News Corp Australia, it was clear ice has insinuated itself on every town and city.


It continues to move fast among the population as criminals hunt huge profits for a drug that is almost worthless to produce, while police struggle to keep up with complex financial transactions, big and small imports, local makers and local marketplaces, otherwise known as neighbourhoods.

Without being a pharmacologist, it is hard to understand why ice, properly called methylamphetamine, is so different to its siblings: common amphetamine, known as speed; and to MDMA, known as ecstasy.


Professor George Braitberg, head of emergency at Royal Melbourne Hospital, explains in simple terms: “Methylamphetamine is the amphetamine molecule with a methyl on the end of it.

“What that does is drive it into the brain faster. You get the sudden rush and that is the most addictive part.”

What we found was that emergency departments in big cities — where shifts comprise 20 or 30 workers, each whom needed to agree to the media being present — were glad to give us access.

We never heard them whining about their frontline burden, even though they are at risk. But they don’t like what they’re dealing with and want the public to understand the magnitude of the problem.

We met one or two small-town coppers who were defensive, saying the ice issue was overblown. You got the idea maybe they thought it was a poor reflection on their own policing.

Traumatic … a young man in the emergency ward of Royal Perth Hospital in a state of ice-induced psychosis. Picture: Gary Ramage

Most police were unashamed to say their communities are overrun. Some, in outback or rural towns, admit police-community relations have been poor for decades.

And that was about the only positive we saw out of ice problem. Police are using it to try and rebuild relations as they explain this is a shared problem that goes beyond traditional policing.

They say chucking every user in jail is not the answer. They want a modern solution for a current problem.

What is not clear is why ice is so popular in this country, apart from the fact that criminals are relentlessly shoving it in the faces of citizens.

One explanation is that the first try is so good it’s hard to deny yourself a second. That doesn’t explain why you’d try it in the first place.

We visited and then parked outside a Cloud 9 shop in Perth, which legally sells bongs and ice pipes. The foot traffic coming in and out of that shop in a short time was remarkable — mostly young men.

The morality of such operations aside, it was put to us by one older user that his kid, who is also a user, thinks owning an ice pipe is cool.

Operation Crossroads … Director of Emergency Medicine at Royal Melbourne Hospital, Professor George Braitberg. Picture: Derrick den Hollander

When a drug such as ice becomes socially acceptable among young Australians, unfortunately it means schoolchildren need exposure to a strong countering message.

They need to see what a psychotic who has shredded his inhibition really looks like; and for those who live in places where they already see such behaviour, perhaps among their parents, they need it explained to them.

They need to know they are at risk from things children would never normally think of, such as heart attack and stroke. And of mental illness, now firmly linked to prolonged ice use.

They need to understand how short the step is from the ice pipe to the needle, where the risks of contracting Hep C and HIV become high, as does the chance of becoming someone who sources black-market opiates to get relief from ice binges.

Desperate for a new start … ice addict Melissa Collins, 28, from Canberra, is seeking help at the Fresh Start foundation in Perth because she says there’s nothing for her in the east. She has been using for 16 years and has a son in foster care because of her addiction. Picture: Gary Ramage

There is an army of parents and recovering users who are already mobilised and sharing their stories.

But how do you place “Angela”, a long-time Melbourne user with infected veins, in a national conversation? She told us: “I don’t think about not using it. I wish I could get more.”

The head of the Australian Crime Commission, Chris Dawson, as a former WA deputy police commissioner, gained a reputation as someone who cares deeply about problems in indigenous communities.

Now he oversees the nation’s ice problem. He says that everyone in the country has in some way been touched at a personal level by ice.

It’s pretty easy to test that statement to see if it holds true. I can think of three, straight up.

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