The sun is an hour down and the winter evening chill setting in as men start moving into the bush near the empty Byron Bay Markets to set up camp.
Earlier, in the dying minutes of daylight, one had wandered the nearby Woolworths supermarket yelling he was short $25 for a bed. He raised the money, found a guy he knew and bought some warmth for another night of sleeping rough.
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.
The Richmond Local Area Command – including Byron Bay – takes in the stretch of coast running between Tweed Heads and Ballina across to the Great Divide and provides a glimpse of the difficulties faced by authorities trying to stop the ice trade.
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.
Police say the purity of the drug being sold has also improved since 2014. It used to be that crime groups would buy broken down cold and flu tablets, extract the pseudoephedrine, turn it into meth oil and then into ice. It was a costly and time-intensive process that also required a level of expertise to carry out. Now the drug, or at least it's precursors, are sent from overseas crime gangs who have suddenly perceived Australia as a lucrative market. Despite record busts, organised crime manages to bring so much ice into Australia that ice's wholesale price has dropped significantly.
Two years ago, kilogram of ice would cost a crime group $220,000 a kilogram – now it can be bought for between $75,000 and $95,000. Unsurprisingly, as profits soared, price has not changed.
Ice used to be a cottage industry in Australia, but much is now being imported from China.
Lufeng, in China's Guandong provence, is a favourite port for drug smugglers. Locals call it the "city of ice". Large-scale drug busts in that area are not uncommon, with two or three tonne of ice seized at a time. But law enforcement agencies say it is failing to put a dent in production.
With China being Australia's largest trade partner, a law enforcement source says shipments of the drug are hard to detect among the volume of legitimate imports. "You don't need a corrupt worker down in the docks," the source says. "If you send 10 shipments of ice from China to Australia and only one gets through you are still making money." Mexican cartels, long known for the cocaine trade, have seen the profits made in Australia and have also begun exporting ice across the Pacific.
Demand has reached such levels, and the potential profits so high, that law enforcement are now seeing instances where overseas crime groups are sending ice to Australia even before they've found a buyer – so confident they can shift their product.
Overseas crime groups will generally deal with local bikie gangs and Australian Mr Bigs who will then on sell the drugs to mid-level dealers, who then supply low-level dealers.
"It would be pretty easy for someone to take a kilogram of ice to Byron, that would give about 1500 deals," a law enforcement source says. "That would supply that township for a whole month."
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.
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.
They say the sun is the blanket of the poor, so perhaps it is little wonder that Byron Bay can also lay claim to being homeless central.
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.
In Kyogle, they ran a local ice dealer out of town.
And on the edge of the Great Divide, the beef centre of Casino has been fighting a growing reputation for surrendering many of its young to ice.
Kevin Hogan, the National Party MP for Page, says the drug had been a real problem for the town but a crackdown had stopped petty crimes. However, Krystian Gruft, of The Buttery, a not for profit community based program specialising in the treatment of alcohol and other drug misuse located in the hills behind Byron, says the age of some Casino teenagers taking part in his outreach programs due to ice usage has fallen noticeably. "Whereas we used to see kids usually 15 or 16, we now see a few who are 14, maybe less," says Gruft, manager of The Buttery's outreach programs.
Hogan says the federal government had tipped $6 million towards tackling the use of ice on the north coast and the local primary health network is in the process of appointing people to provide rehab, family support and train local GPs how to treat ice users.
On October 13, the latest Baird government's "breaking the ice" forums will be staged in Byron. It aims to help build and strengthen community partnerships by bringing together local police, health services, youth services, Family Drug Support and local non-government drug and alcohol services.
Years ago, often acting on police advice, the media gave marijuana and heroin their own epidemic treatment. Users knew the disconnect between journalism and reality but ice its different: the addiction is immediate and debilitating. Many Australians know heroine addicts who functioned at work for years but ice addicts set like the sun.
Nicqui Yazdi, leader of the BUDDI Community Action Team, says government emphasis on controlling ice by police is to miss the point.
"Perhaps the best step forward is to recognise that ice is not necessarily a policing issue but rather a health issue and a social issue," she says.
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