It’s a little after 4:00pm in Burnie, in Tasmania’s north-west. A dark sedan is pulling up to a small gathering near some shops.
The rear window is wound down and a hand inside gestures for something. One by one, the group exchanges cash for portions of the drug ice.
It is a scene which prompts a grim joke from one person in the group.
“It’s like the ice-cream truck for druggies,” he says.
People in Tasmania’s drug trade say it has never been easier to access illicit drugs, with end-to-end encrypted messaging services and the dark web helping users and sellers organise deals.
Data suggests the proportion of Tasmanian drug users taking ice over less concentrated forms of methamphetamine, like speed, has risen dramatically.
And a top investigator warns technology is making ice more available than ever before.
Some names in this story have been changed to protect privacy.
‘If I didn’t do it, someone else would’
Maria walks down a suburban street in Burnie.
Trucks carrying felled trees barrel past on the Bass Highway as she is chatting on her cell phone. She knocks on the door of a pale house, paint stripping from its sides, and walks in. Five minutes later she comes back with hundred of dollars in cash.
Maria has been a user-dealer of multiple drugs for nearly a decade. She sells what her market demands and, overwhelmingly, that drug is now ice.
Maria’s activities are a mix of face-to-face contact with consumers she can trust, and communication via technology, such as encrypted smartphone messaging apps like Wickr, to hide her trade from prying eyes.
Police will not specify which ports are suspected entry points for illicit drugs. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
“If I didn’t do it someone else would, people have always been taking drugs,” she shrugs.
“A lot of the people I deal with, they have problems. Drugs bring them escape … they’re in pain.”
When asked where she gets her supply, Maria says the information would “put me in danger”. All she could say was that one of the bikie gangs in Tasmania was involved.
“We get our stuff from all over, mostly up here it’s from the mainland,” she says.
The ABC understands that in recent times there has been an increase in drug activity at port facilities in Burnie.
‘I don’t want to die’
Mark, 34, is in pain. He is a father-of-four who has not seen his kids in six years. Dealing with personal emotional traumas and a difficult childhood, he started taking drugs at 14 to “escape my problems”.
Mark has lost some of his teeth to the ravages of ice, but is trying to turn his life around after hitting a low six weeks ago when he discovered the body of a friend who had overdosed in his apartment.
“Last year I met a bloke that sort of took me under his wing and looked after me and he had nowhere to go, so I gave him my unit to stay at for a few weeks,” Mark says.
“But the Monday that he was supposed to leave, I woke up and found him dead on the couch.”
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Mark is a calm man with bright blue eyes and a soft voice. He is six weeks sober thanks to the Bridge Program in the town of Ulverstone.
“I don’t want to die,” he says. “I want to live and see my kids again.”
Sally was sexually and physically abused by a close family member in her teens. Substance abuse followed.
“By sharing my story I hope we can show that people from all walks of life can fall into this trap,” she says.
“Drugs are evil, but addiction is human. Care and understanding save lives … rehab saved my life.”
‘An insidious web’
Detective Inspector Colin Riley looks reserved in a pin-striped, collared shirt. As the head of Tasmania’s Southern Drug Investigation Services he investigates the criminal networks importing illicit drugs.
“We are looking at airlines, vessels coming into Tasmania and mail. So when we say the drug corridors, that is what we target. Our police action is on those corridors,” he says.
“Predominantly ice is coming from mainland suppliers, but in the mail these days we are detecting things coming from overseas as well.
“There [are] a lot of pharmaceutical-grade products coming from China.”
A 2017 paper titled Ice Dragon published by the Australian Defence College backs up his concern. It stated:
“An estimated 70 per cent of the methamphetamine imported into Australia in the last five years originated from China … China’s massive pharmaceutical industry is a major part of the problem.”
“It’s an insidious web,” says drug investigator Detective Inspector Colin Riley. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
Only a few months into the role, Inspector Riley has a good grasp of the challenges.
“I suspect at the top end you are probably talking about a dozen ‘Mr Bigs’ in Tasmania across the state’s entire drug market,” he says.
“Some of these people don’t touch the drugs, they don’t touch the money.
“We actually know who they are, but it’s a case of proving beyond a reasonable doubt in a court.”
Police are careful with their finite resources, with about 25 staff specifically available to the drug investigation squad state-wide.
‘Just meeting demand’, bikies say
For Inspector Riley, the increased presence of outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs) in Tasmania is a major concern.
“The OMCGs are in the thick of it, and then there are other key players just outside the OMCGs,” he says.
“But they’re suppling to the OMCGs, or receiving from the OMCGs, so it’s an insidious web and the OMCGs are all amongst it.”
A northern bikie says technology is playing a growing role in organised crime.
“Look if you’ve got the f***ing Prime Minister using Wickr to send messages, why the f*** do you think we wouldn’t use it too?” he says.
“Of course we are using things that can’t be traced, it’s common business sense.”
The gang member says they view themselves as businessmen selling a product to meet market demand.
“Better to have organised crime in the market than unorganised crime, I reckon the [police] would secretly would agree with me,” he says.
‘As simple as ordering pizza’
The proportion of drug users using ice as their primary drug of choice has been growing rapidly.
Tasmanian Drug Trends, an annual report which gathers data from interviews with current addicts, shows that the percentage of addicts for whom methamphetamine was the drug of choice shot up from 18 per cent in 2010 to 35 per cent in 2017.
Of that figure, 88 per cent of users are now using the crystal form of ice.
Most of the illicit drugs sold in Tasmania are produced interstate, police say. (ABC Local: Kate Hill)
Holyoake is a counselling service for people affected by drug addiction.
Chief executive officer Sarah Charlton says the most worrying aspect is the rapid rise in ice as the preferred drug of choice.
One third of Holyoake’s drug and alcohol clients are ice users — a total of 169 people in 2017. That’s up from just two people in 2011.
“Ice is now prolific, we hear all the time through our clients that you can have it delivered to your door,” Mrs Charlton says.
“It’s spoken about like it was as simple as ordering pizza.
“We have seen the use of the hardcore crystal form of the drug take hold among users in the last few years, this is really serious and what we would call a crisis, it’s exploding.”
‘Addicts are people too’
“Anyone can become an addict,” says Gerhard Willemse from The Salvation Army. (ABC News: Henry Zwartz)
Gerhard Willemse, from The Salvation Army, has a simple message: “Addicts are people too, rehab works.”
Mr Willemse is a clinical services manager for the organisation’s Bridge Program which helps rehabilitate drug addicts.
“Anyone can become an addict, we are all vulnerable at different times in our life”, he says.
Mr Willemse says 100 per cent of the 79 people who have accessed the Bridge Program over the last two years have abstained for drugs for more than six months.
‘We’re not the sole solution’
Inspector Riley says he recognises that police working together with rehabilitation providers is key to the ongoing battle.
“We’re not the sole solution in this … we are not going to enforce ourselves out of the drug problem,” he says.
Back in Burnie, Maria is on her phone again communicating with her clients and waving her thin arms while talking.
It’s going to be a busy evening.