Dandenong, Victoria – one summer evening not that long ago. I was standing inside a middle-ring suburb’s 1980’s indoor shopping centre with the smell of potato cakes, and kebabs, and Kentucky Fried Chicken not so much lingering but dominating the air amidst the cheap clothing stores, the buzz of a hundred voices murmuring at once.
My companions for the evening: two young crystal-meth-using parents, Samuel and Jodie. Both were in their early twenties: Samuel was bone-thin with blue eyes and very white skin, and his wife was heavyset, Italian. They were not every-day-of-the-week, skin-falling-off-their-face addicts, but they did pay for their habit with crime.
I had come along to see how they generated cash through crime. For a few weeks prior, I had seen them coming back to Smithy’s from their crime sprees with hundreds of dollars — all obtained by stealing from department stores, and not by visiting pawn stores, which is a sure way for the amateur criminal to get caught.
Samuel had a slouch when he walked; he wore a cap and fluorescent worker’s clothes to make it look as if he’d just come from work when he walked into a store. Much of his behaviour was subterfuge, designed to detract from the fact that he had sticky fingers and a smooth, deceptive tongue. Samuel had been in jail, and he knew the kind of crime he was carrying out is often considered petty and not worth the risk by other criminals. It didn’t involve violence or weapons or gangs, and yet he still took pride in telling me that his trick would earn ‘six hundred bucks in less than hour … it might be petty, but it brings in the cash and I have never been caught’.
And on that note, he asked, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Yep,’ I said, wanting to play it cool, and not show how excited and nervous I was. We walked through the entrance of a low-end department store. ‘Come with me’ Samuel said, and he took me down the aisle. ‘Now find the smallest, most expensive thing you can, and put it in your pocket.’
But the biggest weapon in their department store scandal which brought in hundreds of dollars a week was being wheeled in a few metres behind us. Jodie came in behind us with their handsome, blue eyed, 18-month-old son Greg in a large, multi-compartment stroller. Both Jodie and Samuel had said hello to the female bag-checker, who smiled approvingly at them and their baby. There is after-all, only, so many things you can fit in your pocket.
Jodie and Samuel are one of many thousands of Australian parents who use crystal meth. Sometimes, and thankfully not in their case, Australian parents, and their parents, use the world’s powerful stimulant with their kids too. When Perth woman Cassy McDonald was in her early 20s and dealing drugs — all day, every day — she had one trio of regular customers who would offer to clean her house in exchange for drugs.
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‘A grandmother, a mother, and a daughter,’ she told me. ‘Gran was about 60, the mum was 39, and the daughter was 18. I would give them a point of meth between them, and they’d clean my house from top to bottom, cut my lawn, and then go over it with nail clippers to ensure the blades were even, wash and iron all my clothes, even stuff that was brand new.’
Cassy’s mother also used meth — as Cassy found out when she started using herself at the age of 17. ‘It all added up,’ she told me. ‘My mum has always had big mood swings — she always had people over, and she never slept.’
Intergenerational meth use is more common that you might think. Geoff Munro from the Australian Drug Foundation told me that it’s relatively widespread, often involves grandparents, and is ‘deeply problematic’. Dianne Barker from St Luke’s Anglicare in Bendigo told the Victorian parliamentary inquiry that she had been involved in a case where a mother was facilitating the delivery of ice to her children while they were in residential care in St Luke’s.
In the worst cases, the children of meth users don’t live long enough to share in the lifestyle. There are stories from all around the world of people and parents who slip over the edge and fall so deep into the pit they can no longer see the cliff from where they fell. These stories never cease to horrify. There is the 25-year-old Californian woman Jessica Adams, who after a 4-day meth bender returned home from a party ready to crash. And crash she did, with her two-month-old son asleep next to her. At some stage during the night, she rolled over in her sleep, suffocating the baby to death. Across the border in Nevada, meth addict Bransen Locks was charged with shaking his girlfriend’s 1-year-old to death while on a bender. An autopsy would reveal the baby had ‘midline shift’ of the brain after the incident.
In Wales, former Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins said he was on crystal meth when he engaged in an online sex session via Skype in which he instructed a woman as she sexually abused her infant for his entertainment. He later sent another woman a message saying he wanted a ‘summer of filthy child porn’ and spoke of a desire to ‘cross the line’. In the Slovak Republic, a 4-month-old baby was left brain-dead after his parents gave him crystal meth to stop him crying.
In Phoenix, Arizona, the 5-year-old daughter of a meth user tested HIV-positive, after the girl complained about her mother sticking her with needles in late 2014.
Dr Keith Humphreys, Professor (Research) of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University, describes crystal meth as a ‘seductive’ and ‘powerful’ drug that affects the part of the brain that signals our most essential functions including safety, eating, sleeping, and taking care of children. It is his view that the drug ‘takes over’ and leads users to believe that meth can replace these essential functions — hence why, in many cases, kids are neglected by their meth-using parents: the drug is competing for ‘resources, attention, and love’ that would otherwise be given to them.
From my own experience, the effect of meth use on parenting is often far more subtle and far harder to detect than outright abuse. I saw parents slowly lose interest in their children, their instincts apparently lost in the fantastical fog of regular use. The man, I embedded with while I wrote this book - occasional drug-dealer, a long-time friend, and a full-time drug-induced house cleaner — a cricket-loving, needle-using, dole-bludging Collingwood fan – spent most of time when he was using meth engaged in a sexual-fantasy world that released him from his most pressing, most unpleasant, and most urgent real-life problems as the father of three kids.
His ex-girlfriend, also a crystal meth addict, Beck had a daughter Hayley, who was 15 when I was living with Smithy. To be totally frank, if Beck wasn’t screaming and yelling or threatening violence, she was crying. Hayley spent more than half of her week staying at a friend’s house. ‘She’s worse when nobody is home, and it’s just us kids,’ Hayley said.
A few days after Christmas in 2014, Hayley — still 15 — contacted me to say Beck had kicked her out of the house on Christmas Eve. Apparently, the camera I’d bought for Hayley a few years earlier was missing as well, along with several other things from the house, and Hayley told me that — along with some of her niece’s things — Beck had sold them in a pawn shop. ‘I know I’m not 16 yet, but I really want to move out,’ Hayley said. And so she did, choosing to live with a strict Christian family where the rules had to be followed and where dinner was served every night.
The department store was still buzzing along with the smell of potato cakes and the nonsensical chatter. I was waiting in line with Samuel, who had managed to stuff no less than six printer cartridges in his pants and under his top. These printer cartridges were worth $53 each. Samuel was making a purchase — a packet of Smith’s salt and vinegar chips — both to make him look less suspicious, and to get him a branded plastic bag, which was crucial for the next stage of his operation.
After charming the cashier, Samuel paid for his chips and — just as he had predicted — walked through the security gates with over $300 worth of stolen goods. He texted Jodie, who followed him through the same checkout a few minutes later. Her purchase was chocolate; when we got back to the car a few minutes later, she revealed more secret compartments in the baby’s pram than you’d find in a military bunker. These compartments were filled with more printer cartridges, as well as DVDs and CDs — perhaps about $700 worth.
‘Now we go to the next store,’ Samuel said. He drove us 20 minutes down the road to the next suburban shopping mall, which had the same department store. ‘As it turns out, you don’t sell the cartridges I need,’ he said. ‘My ex-wife is really angry with me — we need the printer for a big school assignment, and I’ve spent all my cash. Can I get a refund?’ The clerk scanned them and said ‘Well, I can see they’re from here. I can give you a refund, but I will need to record your ID.’ Samuel handed over his fake ID, and the clerk entered some data, and then handed over $318 cash. ‘Oh, thanks so much,’ he said. ‘You’re a life-saver,’ and the girl glowed with satisfaction.
Samuel didn’t celebrate until we were a hundred metres or so away from the store. ‘Now what?’ I asked. ‘Time to get some meth,’ he said.
This is an edited extract from THE ICE AGE: a journey into crystal-meth addiction by Luke Williams (Scribe $29.99).