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CHINESE drug syndicates are targeting Australia as a growing market for crystal methamphetamine - a cheap, addictive and highly dangerous drug that police and doctors warn is the new heroin on Australian streets.
Known as ice for its highly pure crystalline form, the drug can be bought for as little as $50 a gram and is earning a sinister reputation as users swamp the nation's hospitals, psychiatric services and courts.
A National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre study has found the methamphetamine problem is now as large as heroin abuse was during its peak in the late 1990s. As many as 73,000 people nationwide are addicted to methamphetamine, about 1 1/2 times the number of heroin addicts.
Australian Crime Commission spokesman Kevin Kitson said many Chinese syndicates involved in heroin importation had switched to synthetic drugs because they were not crop-cycle dependent and could be manufactured in almost any location.
The commission's latest drug report found the syndicates were deliberately carving out a market in Australia, and noted a rise in the median purity of crystal meth on the street market.
Smoked, injected, snorted or anally inserted, crystal meth releases a flood of dopamine and seratonin to the brain, removing inhibitions and creating a feeling of euphoria.
But the comedown from the drug can involve depression, and in a growing number of cases serious psychosis.
The NDARC study found a 58 per cent rise in the number of hospital admissions for drug-related psychosis since 1999. Between 2003 and last year, 3190 methamphetamine users across the nation were taken to hospital for mental and behaviour disorders.
Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital emergency care director Gordian Fulde estimated violence associated with crystal meth in his hospital had risen five-fold between 2000 and last year. "I have been emergency department director here for 25 years and nothing has scared me as much as these people," Dr Fulde said.
"We see people who are totally disinhibited, totally violent and out of control."