HIGHLY potent marijuana is being blamed for youth suicides and psychotic episodes in a remote central Australian community, which is struggling to cope with increasing levels of drug use over the past 12 months.
The head of the internationally-recognised substance abuse program at Mt Theo outstation, Susie Low, said the level of marijuana use in her community of Yuendumu was rising.
She said the Government's intervention, launched on June 21, had increased uncertainty among at-risk youth in the community and was contributing to increasing substance abuse problems.
This had led to an upswing in psychotic episodes and suicides.
"In two out of the last three (suicides), the young men were under the influence of alcohol and marijuana," she said.
"That's in the last eight months.
"It's more the older teenagers. We've had some psychotic episodes, quite severe ones."
The most recent psychotic episode in the town of about 1000 people ended with the youth being committed to a mental health ward in Alice Springs.
"It was quite a severe case of marijuana-induced psychosis. I think it's the type of marijuana. If they're really giving it a nudge, there's the potential for self-harm," Ms Low said.
Her anecdotal concerns support the findings of two reports on marijuana use in the Territory, the most recent of which said 60 per cent of people in some Arnhem Land communities were cannabis users.
The survey of 240 people, conducted by researchers from Sydney and James Cook universities, discovered the high levels of use, which were described in the report as akin to eating snack food.
"If there is a bowl of ganja on the table, people will just smoke it from morning to night until it's gone," one community leader interviewed for the report said.
A report by the Territory parliament's select committee on substance abuse also found cannabis use had become widespread.
Ms Low said central Australia usually lagged behind the Top End in substance abuse problems, but she could see the use of marijuana growing.
Yuendumu is 290km northwest of Alice Springs and Mt Theo outstation is a further 150km north. There, young people with substance abuse problems are rehabilitated well away from the source of the addictions.
But as a further measure, Mt Theo's Jarupirrjirrdi (strong voices) program in Yuendumu has opened up a mechanical workshop to give young people real training, including offering apprenticeships to the most promising workers.
Ms Low said highly at-risk young people needed a path to a new life after they had overcome addiction.
"After the young people stopped petrol sniffing, they asked what's next," she said.
The first batch of young men began work two weeks ago. Jamie Nelson, 18, said he was happy to work nine hours a day in the workshop instead of "flopping" at home.
The workshop is being run by diesel mechanic Peter Malden, who gave up a lucrative mining job in Western Australia to work in the community.
"Most of these guys will jump at it if you're offering real training," he said.
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