Methamphetamine Abuse Afflicts Western Australia Amid Mining Boom

Last year, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center reported 268,000 regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia — up from 90,000 in 2011.

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Ryan Cameron was working in mining when he started using methamphetamines. “I lost my family. My mum and dad disowned me,” he said. Credit David Dare Parker for The New York Times

Western Australia has recently made progress confronting the problem, with a mix of health education and rehabilitation programs, drug interdictions at border crossings and increased maximum prison terms for methamphetamine dealers.

Mr. Cameron, who said he started using drugs at a young age, beat the problem after a harrowing few years as an addict.

“I started using drugs when I was 13 and started with meth when I was about 20,” he said. “It started as a recreational thing, and it went from being a pleasure to a pain.”

His drug abuse worsened, consuming his family.

“When my mother-in-law died from an overdose, it was 2 a.m.,” he said, describing how he then went to get drugs with his children in the car. “It was the only way I could deal with it.”

He finally decided to get help at Shalom House, a recovery center, and says he has been off drugs since the day he walked in.

Shalom House, a rehabilitation center based in the semirural Swan Valley to the east of Perth, started four years ago and now accommodates 120 recovering addicts, soon to expand to 140.

“Here at Shalom House, I am learning how to deal with problems” without turning to drugs, Mr. Cameron said. “Now, I have never been more happy. Lives are getting changed every day in this place.”

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Peter Lyndon-James, a pastor who is the chief executive of Shalom House, with the office manager, Melissa Humphries. He said the challenge was not just getting addicts off drugs, but getting them to change their day-to-day lives. Credit David Dare Parker for The New York Times

John Quigley, Western Australia’s attorney general, said “the meth crisis confronting our state” was one of the government’s top priorities.

He said 2 million Australian dollars, or about $1.6 million, was earmarked for early intervention treatment facilities. More would be spent on “two specialized rehabilitation centers, and two dedicated drug and alcohol rehabilitation prisons to break the cycle of drug-related crime,” he added.

In August, the state government announced it would spend 9.6 million dollars on a new rehabilitation prison for women at Wandoo.

While fueled by the mining boom, the problem has been compounded by the drug’s easy availability, with much of the methamphetamine flowing into the state believed to have come from China and Taiwan.

To stem the flow of the drug, the state’s current government, elected in March, is establishing a “meth border force,” and in July, it deployed new mobile equipment for detecting the drug in freight.

The efforts appear to be showing results. In April an analysis of raw sewage in Perth reported a 27 percent decline in methamphetamine from the levels recorded in 2015 and 2016.

Pryce Scanlan, the state’s acting assistant police commissioner, said the results were “promising,” but he warned that the drug “still poses a massive challenge for government and the community.”

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Shalom House resident John Elder started using meth 11 years ago, when he was 16. Credit David Dare Parker for The New York Times

Western Australia “still has a projected annual meth habit of 1.54 tons, with an estimated street value of just over 1.5 billion” dollars, he said.

Peter Lyndon-James, a pastor who is the chief executive of Shalom House, said the challenge was not just getting addicts off drugs, but getting them to change their day-to-day lives.

“We have a team of staff dedicated to educate and train the fellows as well as financial advisers to help to get them 100 percent debt-free,” he said, adding that many addicts had been “programmed wrong” by their life experience.

“The second you come into the world, you are being programmed,” he said, adding that a lot of people Shalom House treats had been abused. “A lot of them feel shame, guilt and resentment.”

Mr. Lyndon-James himself is a textbook case of the dangers of the drug. His first spell in confinement was at a juvenile prison at age 9. His parents had struggles of their own.

“At the age of 31, I started selling drugs, and within three months, I was selling two and a half kilos of meth a day,” or more than five pounds, he added. “I got really big really quick.”

After being in and out of prisons for a quarter century, he had a spiritual awakening that led him to Bible college and underwent training that led him back to prison — as a volunteer chaplain.

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Jay Ravi, left, and Michael Dichiera, fishing on the Swan River while staying at accommodation provided by Shalom House, east of Perth. Credit David Dare Parker for The New York Times

Former users say they see worrying signs as the drug maintains its foothold in Western Australia.

“Now I am hearing about kids as young as 10 doing it — that’s just nuts,” said John Elder, who started using meth 11 years ago, when he was 16. “You need to talk about stopping the big-time dealers, otherwise there’s no point in taking out street-level dealers.”

Mr. Lyndon-James despairs at what he says are official policies that are “set up to fail,” like incarceration for addicts. He warns that Western Australia’s growing prison population bodes badly for the future of fighting the drug scourge in the state, citing Acacia Prison, a privately run facility in Western Australia.

“When you put a person in prison, they must project an image to conform to the culture of the place they live in,” he said. “Acacia went from 700 to 1,400 people.”

Neil Morgan, who oversees prison standards as the state’s inspector of custodial services, said the prevalence of methamphetamine in the prison system made it much harder for inmates who want to quit the drug, suggesting that treatment should be emphasized more.

“It is time the government looked at growing the drug programs in prison,” he said. “The reality is, unfortunately, there are some drugs getting in. The government has committed to meth rehabilitation facilities. I agree with the concept.”

Mr. Lyndon-James fears the growth of a class of people cycling between incarceration and drug-fueled crime.

“We will go the same way as the U.S. prison system,” he said. “We are making the person worse by putting them in prison.”

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