A NEW ice age is breaking across the world, and our rural communities are leading Australia's charge into the wasteland.
The common image of an Australian illicit drug addict once resembled someone living in a highly populated urban centre - disengaged and skirting the edges of mainstream society. That image has been shattered.
As the highly addictive drug 'ice' or crystal methylamphetamine (meth) scourges the country, rural and regional dwellers' usage rates are "up to double" what their city-based cousins use on average, according to Professor Richard Murray.
"It's a problem we have to face up to without hysteria or exaggeration," said Professor Murray, who is the dean of the National College of Medicine at James Cook University.
He was selected as one of three members on the National Ice Taskforce, alongside former Victorian police chief commissioner Ken Lay APM and Dr Sally McCarthy, when it was launched by the Prime Minister in April.
Professor Murray said the increased usage regionally was not the only shift in meth habits concerning the government.
"The striking change is that we're seeing use trending away from relatively low-grade stimulants to the high-grade crystal form of ice."
The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed that, although reported usage of powder meth (speed) decreased from 51 per cent in 2010 to 29pc in 2013, crystal meth usage more than doubled, increasing from 22pc in 2010 to 50pc in 2013.
The added ease of 'lighting up' because ice can be administered by smoking, as well as intranasal or injection, has encouraged uptake of the drug.
Professor Murray said the overall challenging situation positioned ice to pose a higher threat than any other drug or alcohol.
"This has the characteristics of a particularly important challenge. Because of the combination of ease of access, readiness of uses, greater likelihood of addiction and dependency - and the health, social and economic impacts."
It's a burgeoning issue of international status.
The Australian Crime Commission identified amphetamine-type stimulants, such as ice, as the second most widely used illicit drugs in the world, after cannabis.
The findings were revealed in its report, The Australian Methylamphetamine Market, published on March 25 this year.
It was chilling statistics such as these that drove Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ramp up the federal government's response with the establishment of the National Ice Taskforce in April. The taskforce is charged with advising the Prime Minister in developing a national ice action strategy plan to tackle the epidemic.
Professor Richard Murray, Dean of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University, and Joe Conway, Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Facility, Townsville, at the community consultation held at Townsville last Tuesday.
Professor Murray acknowledged this was no easy task. He anticipates formulating strategy to be "one of the biggest challenges for all levels of government".
The federal government had made it clear the epidemic must be addressed through the "lens of rural communities", he said.
Through this lens, the taskforce is examining ways to take a co-ordinated approach to education, health and law enforcement.
Considerations from hearing first hand about the effects ice is having and the ways communities are dealing with these impacts will join online public submissions, helping the taskforce to produce its interim report.
The taskforce completed the last of eight community consultations across Australia, each of which was based in regional towns and cities, last Tuesday in Townsville. This report is due to be delivered to the
Prime Minister for consideration by the Council of Australian Governments in mid-2015.
Although he will not pre-empt the outcomes of the report, Professor Murray reiterated the emphasis would be on providing an environment for local community-sought solutions as part of a national co-ordinated approach.
"Particularly in terms of minimising harm done through effective treatment and support services in communities, as well as reducing demand by intervening with young adults and others."
Given the fewer existing health services in rural and remote areas, Professor Murray said it was necessary to "invest more in generalised services", suggesting increased access to expert health advice through tele-services as beneficial.
When asked whether increased investment required government funding to implement an action plan effectively, Professor Murray drew on past experiences. "I would observe from my career spent in rural and remote Australian communities that you can't wait for any government to come along with a pot of money to do things.
"While the government may invest in this and other issues, it's ultimately up to communities to work together to solve the issue."
Federal Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash is overseeing the taskforce and leading the government's response to the issue, alongside Minister for Justice Michael Keenan.
Ms Nash's office spruiked the Nationals senator's "20,000km tour of Australia to make sure rural and regional Australians were heard on this important issue" during the community consultations. Her spokesperson added: "The minister has the runs on the board, both in her tireless work for rural and regional areas, and on her commitment to tackling crystal methamphemine."
Yet, when Queensland Country Life asked whether Ms Nash would commit to pushing for additional resourcing, should the National Ice Taskforce report find a need, no response was made, despite repeated requests.