‘Sinister statistic’

This week is Drug Action Week and Latrobe Community Health Service has a series of events planned to mark the week. 

Magistrate Clive Alsop says therapeutic service providers such as LCHS do an “astonishing job” but face huge challenges, particularly in dealing with the increasing use of ‘ice’.

This is the first of a two-part series based on an interview Mr Alsop had with The Express.

Related coverage: Recovery Walk celebrates recovering addicts

DEATHS and crime rates linked to the methamphetamine ‘ice’ are soaring and the crisis has long-serving Magistrate Clive Alsop seriously worried.

Mr Alsop, a Victorian magistrate who presides over the Latrobe Valley magistrates court, has observed such a “tragic increase” over recent months in the damage wreaked by ice use he was compelled to warn the community of a “screaming need” for further education on the drug’s impact.

Speaking with The Express in an effort to draw attention to a crisis he said now occupied 85 per cent of the local Courts Integrated Services Program’s therapeutic case-load, Mr Alsop said in his 18 years on the bench he had never seen “a drug of addiction being marketed so readily and with such an eager buying public” as ice.

Mr Alsop said he had obtained data from the Coroners Court of Victoria showing a 250 per cent rise in methamphetamine’s contribution to death over a two-year period to the end of 2012.

He warned if that “sinister statistic” was extrapolated into the future “we are in diabolical trouble”.

Though reluctant to sound either “sensationalist or alarmist”, Mr Alsop said if efforts to stem the drug’s use were not widely implemented, and effective, “in another five years from now we are looking at military style casualty figures which is just horrifying”.

Now tasked with frequently having to impose penalties on local ice users and traffickers – whom Mr Alsop said were often one and the same – the magistrate said his observations showed “nearly all” those coming before the courts were male and aged between 18 years and their mid 20’s.

While clear he was speaking as a lawyer, “and not a doctor or psychologist”, Mr Alsop said the initial allure of ice seemed to be that it “gives people a feeling of importance” and a “person who doesn’t have a high level of self-esteem suddenly because somebody when they are flogging ice in the bars or pubs or wherever”.

Part of the dilemma plaguing Mr Alsop is his conviction that imprisonment of ice users is ineffective in tackling the problem but “the mandate of judicial officers includes imposing those penalties that send a message to the community” and, at least in the case of repeat offenders, “I can’t do that by giving someone a slap with a wet tram ticket”.

Despite his belief that therapeutic treatment, advice and guidance was a more beneficial approach, the compulsive behaviours of ice users meant repeat offences were common, “then I have less options available to me…and I have jailed lots of people,” Mr Alsop said.

Though bound by the strict parameters of a court of law, the magistrate is far from immune to the emotional havoc he says ice causes.

The “ongoing criminal activity” and acts of random violence linked to ice-use tells only part of the story.

Mr Alsop said “the tragedy is that in a lot of these cases the offenders have lost control of themselves and their habits and their need for this material”. 

“The majority of people (who traffic) are those that use it themselves and the people further up the food chain, closer to the source, they couldn’t care a rats about them,” he said.

“I tell them ‘when you die, they will just sell it to someone else’…but I don’t know whether I am bashing my head against a wall, I don’t know whether anyone is taking any notice.

“But I see the faces (of users), their skin just becomes translucent, you can spot it a mile away,” he said. The psychological and physical grip of ice was so acute Mr Alsop said it was not uncommon for those on suspended sentences to continue trafficking “to find enough money to buy the drug for themselves”.

Asked why he thought, with such potentially catastrophic side effects, the take-up use of ice was growing so exponentially, Mr Alsop said he believed standard shock tactics aimed at deterring experimentation were less useful with ice.

“The first taste is so good, I think, that people won’t listen,” he said.

“Kids know much better, mums and dads don’t know anything about the world, grandparents don’t have a clue…how could they possibly understand how good this is?

“(They think) I will just have a taste, it won’t do me any harm and suddenly you’re hooked.”

Mr Alsop said the sense of indestructibility in “blokes” contributed to the spread of ice use in the young, male demographic.

About the age of 18 “blokes don’t just think they are indestructible, we know we are… it will never happen to me, you might see it in the paper or occasionally you might know someone who is never coming back, but it is never going to happen to me… you think ‘so what if I have a taste now, everything will be okay next week… but it won’t,” he warned.

The outcomes were all too often “heartbreaking”, Mr Alsop said.

“Most of the time, if there is a young person in court (on ice-related charges), there is family there to support them and you can see the looks on the faces of the mums, dads, sisters, brothers of the people who are facing court for potentially imprisonable offences.

“It just tears you to pieces.”