Byron Bay party town with a dark ice problem

In Byron, ice is a pain reliever and a party drug.

Byron is certainly a party town for locals and tourists. Backpackers own the week but come the weekend, Brisbane arrives en masse courtesy a two-hour dash down the freeway. So much fun also draws the down and out. Some want something to get them through the night, or the day.

Mainly its alcohol, but ice, or crystal meth (methamphetamine), the so-called “poor man’s cocaine”, has also become the drug of choice for some. The media has been banging on about an “ice epidemic” roaring through NSW. It affects every level: affluent suburban teenagers, the urban poor, and rural towns with large Aboriginal populations and disappearing jobs. Communities across the state have been battling the problem for about three years.

Police statistics show the number of people caught in possession or using amphetamines in the Tweed-Richmond area has increase from a handful each month to dozens since the start of 2014. There have been 100 people busted for dealing or trafficking ice in the past two years.

Northern NSW features in police drug and alcohol records – grog is a far greater problem – because they are frenetically busy keeping a lid on a party town.

Homeless men at the main bus shelter in Byron Bay. Photo Natalie Grono
Homeless men at the main bus shelter in Byron Bay. Photo Natalie Grono

But Byron created its own crown of thorns.

Established in the late 19th century as a port when the Big Scrub of the hinterland was cleared for diary and beef cattle, it dozed off after the Second World War until the 1960s brought surfers looking for waves. The Nimbin festival in 1973 gave it wider exposure down south and fused drugs and a laid-back lifestyle with tourism. When the freeway put it within two hours of Brisbane, Byron roared into life as a party town and overseas backpackers destination.

There is a tension between the law as it applies to drugs and Byron’s trademark laissez faire, the inheritance of the Nimbin days and the herd of music festivals predicated on sex, drugs and rock and roll that have erupted since 1990. These days, police are torn between enforcing the law at the festivals or turning a blind eye.

Byron is now both a money spinner and a middle-class paradise, sporting middle-class house prices and rents replete with a surprising underbelly of poverty that informs drug usage beyond the hippy, music festival rager mind set.

The last census found the Richmond Valley – stretching from Ballina to Tweed Heads – had about 500 homeless people and 211 of them were sleeping rough. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said only the Sydney inner-city area had more homeless sleeping rough.

Welfare and health workers say the homelessness is also exacerbated by Byron becoming a favoured destination for people coming off rehab programs who head to northern NSW to chill out.

Not long ago, their camps seemed everywhere around Byron: there were some 20, in the bush, along the railway track, the sand dunes. But tolerance gave way to “green” hegemony: complaints came in about environmental damage to the dunes and the fire risk. Council rangers (community enforcement officers) carried out sweeps and crown lands moved in with bulldozers and cleaned out everything.

Byron Bay Community Centre community services manager Cat Seddon says rough sleepers made up only a small proportion of the town’s total homeless and many were sleeping in cars or in friend’s garages or friend’s couches, victims of rising rents or the absence of affordable housing.

She also said drug and alcohol usage was a symptom but the cause in Byron was often mental health issues and domestic violence, a situation made worse as the Baird government scrapped funding for some local community based programs. “The social fabric that protects most people from homelessness – family, affordable housing and access to government services – are not always readily available in Byron and it’s easy for people to fall through the cracks,” she says.

Maybe Byron’s juxtaposition of the haves and the have nots makes it too delicious to resist pointing the finger but the story remains the same in other NSW towns as they try to come to grips with the rise of ice.

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