Violence and paranoia rule in new 'Ice' age
The junkie came lurching out of the darkness, arms flailing, a wild look in his eyes.
'He came right up to me and stared into my face,' said a 35-year-old friend of mine, Victoria. 'Then he made a pistol shape out of his fingers and pointed it at my head. I was terrified.'
Such encounters are becoming increasingly common on the streets of Sydney, which, like any big city, is no stranger to drugs.
Heroin addicts slump on public benches in the grubby red-light district of Kings Cross, weekend clubbers pop ecstasy pills, and suited professionals discreetly dabble in cocaine. But the new drug hitting the streets makes the rest look relatively benign.
'Ice', or 'crystal', is the street name for crystalline methamphetamine, the most potent of the amphetamine family and dubbed 'the new heroin'.
What crack is to cocaine, Ice is to amphetamines. While common amphetamines may be less than 5 per cent pure, Ice can be up to 80 per cent pure, packing a massive punch. A single high can last more than 30 hours.
It first began to appear on Australian streets in the 1990s, but experts say Sydney is now 'knee-deep' in Ice. The drug is considered deadlier than crack cocaine and can spark severe mood swings, leading to sudden and extreme violence. Addicts experience violent hallucinations and paranoia.
The epidemic has caused a surge in violent crimes, including assaults and rapes, as well as an increase in child abuse and neglect.
Not far from where Victoria was threatened lies the rapidly gentrifying inner-city suburb of Surry Hills.
The leafy district was the scene of a horrific, Ice-fuelled murder a few years ago. Addict Damien Anthony Peters confessed to not only murdering and decapitating a woman, but also killing a man whose body he disposed of in a sewer and in rubbish bins.
Medical experts said the depression caused by his abuse of Ice was a major factor in his behaviour.
Police, emergency services and hospital staff are on the front line of the epidemic, with the health-care system coming under enormous strain and nurses and doctors fearing attack by addicts. In some parts of the country, one in five mental hospital admissions are linked to Ice.
Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital sees incidents of amphetamine psychosis daily.
Most of the Ice in Australia comes from Asia - some via Hong Kong. The Australian Federal Police has officers in Hong Kong, Beijing, Myanmar and Thailand in an attempt to disrupt the supply.
Australian police believe triads switched from heroin smuggling.
'Chinese trafficking groups ... appear to have sought, with some success, to create a market for crystal methamphetamine in Australia,' the Australian Crime Commission reported.
Increasingly, Ice is being manufactured in Australia. Last week, police arrested two Hong Kong men in a Sydney hotel after allegedly finding them cooking up Ice in a makeshift laboratory.
By giving users a sense of power and a disregard for dangerous behaviour, Ice encourages casual sex, a danger for Sydney's gay community. In the US, where Ice is also rife, it has been reported that almost half of new HIV cases among gay men involved its consumption.
Many American cities now have Crystal Users Anonymous groups for addicts whose minds and bodies have been wasted and their relationships and careers destroyed. Sydney can't be far behind.