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World Update

'Ice' Epidemic

Yoshiyuki Aoki, Sydney

Australia's leader says his country is facing its worst ever drug problem. Prime Minister Tony Abbott says an alarming proportion of young people are becoming addicted to crystal meth, or "ice." He has launched a national task force to try to tackle the issue.

Police in protective SWAT gear smash in the door of a house during a drug raid in the suburbs of Sydney, New South Wales. Recently, such incidents take place almost every day. The biggest problem is methamphetamine, a stimulant also known as "crystal meth," or "ice." It is highly addictive and has been linked to violence.

Last November, police seized 849 kilograms of the drug -- the most ever. They have also shut down numerous ice labs. Across New South Wales, arrests related to ice have doubled in 5 years. Almost half of the seized drugs are thought to have been domestically produced.

The Australian Crime Commission says more than 7 percent of the population over the age of 15 has used stimulants. In the US, the figure is 5 percent.

During a press conference last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the creation of an ice task force. "Ice is far more addictive than any other illicit drug," he said. "It does far more damage than any other illicit drug. We will take every possible step to combat this dreadful, dreadful scourge."

International gangs are thought to be targeting Australia because its drug users are prepared to pay high prices for ice. According to UN research, the drug's street price is about 500 US dollars per gram -- compared to around 80 dollars in China.

The use of ice is spreading especially fast among teenagers. One 17-year-old girl is trying to rebuild her life through a rehab center. Her mother was an ice addict, and the teenager herself starting using the drug at the age of 13.

"It's great, I'd feel energized. I didn't want to sleep for three days," the girl says. "All my friends started to use it a bit after. I introduced it to them, so they started using it after that. I chose it over my family, I chose it over my friends."

In the past few years, Australia has suffered both floods and drought. Farms have failed and people have lost their jobs. For some, the psychological impact has led to drug use.

The problem has reached the small town of Moree, located about 500 kilometers from Sydney.

Warren Cain works with an organization that provides support to addicts. Last year, he set up a program to collect used syringes. The goal of the program is to prevent the spread of hepatitis and other infections caused by shared needles. The diseases are another consequence of the drug epidemic.

"There's that much of it around," says Cain. "It's just turning into the next empty beer bottle."

Many believe that the best way to treat addiction is through continuous support at rehab centers. But the closest facility to Moree is a five-hour drive away. There are so many applicants from the surrounding area that the waiting list is often over 2 months.

Norm Henderson works at the Orana Haven Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre. He says, "There needs to be more rehabilitation services. Don't make existing ones bigger."

Australia's latest drug problem is unlike any the country has seen before. Many hope these countermeasures have not come too late.

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