A heartbroken mother has revealed how her son went from an outgoing teenager with a passion for art and music to a zombie addicted to synthetic marijuana sleeping on the streets of Melbourne in a matter of months.
Brisbane mother Leanne Thompson fondly described her son Daniel, 25, as ‘six-foot-four, with broad shoulders, a good looking face and an amazing sense of humour.’
Graduating from a prestigious Catholic school in Victoria and completing a TAFE certificate in horticulture, land conservation and land management, the ‘exceptionally strong-willed’ man quickly found full-time work in landscaping.
But one trip to the notorious Rainbow Serpent music festival in 2014 – an event marred by countless drug arrests and overdose deaths in recent years – triggered a downward spiral that ended with drug addiction and homelessness.
Now Ms Thompson flies interstate to Melbourne once every week, 1,400 kilometres each way, to stand guard over her estranged son through the night, reminding him he is still loved and welcome back home.
‘It makes me sick, it’s an absolute nightmare,’ Ms Thompson told Daily Mail Australia.
‘Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that my son would be using something as dangerous and insidious as synthetic marijuana.’
Ms Thompson has no idea what caused her son, the youngest of three girls and two boys, to leave his family and job behind to live in a dingy share-house in Melbourne.
‘He has had every opportunity available to him in life and more,’ she said.
‘He’s been a very lucky young man with a loving and supporting family, he’s had a good education, he’s never had any huge family issues that have damaged him.
‘Everybody loved him – maybe not the teachers so much – but amongst his peers he was very much loved, he was an extremely popular boy.’
Transfixed by the vibrancy of Melbourne; with graffiti sprayed across its laneways and musicians busking on street corners, Daniel moved out of home in July last year.
But by March this year, his casual drug experimentation had blown out of control and turned into total and hopeless dependence on the addictive and deadly drug.
‘Things got drastically worse almost from the very day he got down there,’ she said.
‘It’s a chemical cocktail (synthetic weed). I don’t even know what state his brain is in.
‘He hasn’t been without drugs in his system long enough for us to know if it’s caused permanent damage.’
Daniel eventually dropped out of his arranged accommodation and started sleeping in arcades at night, all the while smoking ‘fake weed’.
WHAT IS SYNTHETIC MARIJUANA?
Synthetic marijuana contains man-made chemicals that act on the same cell receptors in the brain as THC does in natural marijuana
The synthetic high gives the body the same artificial rush of endorphins – or ‘high’ – as illegal drugs such as cannabis or ecstasy
Reported effects include convulsions, shortness of breath, kidney failure and cardiac arrest, as well as hallucinations and irreparable damage to the user’s mental health.
Products are banned individually in Victoria, but a legal loophole means manufacturers can avoid the banned register with a slight tweak to the formula and a ‘new’ product
State Government is pushing to have a blanket ban enforced on all products
Source: National Institute of Drug Abuse Read
His mother fears he is also smoking crystal methamphetamine – or ice as it’s known in Australia – after hearing him asking another homeless man if he had any ‘shard’.
‘I’ve resorted to sitting across the road or standing near by when he’s asleep,’ said Ms Thompson, who fears for her son’s safety living on the streets.
The mother-of-five said she had watched other homeless people steal the socks off her son’s feet while sleeping, take his personal belongings and in one case inject ice into a teenager’s arm less than a metre away from her without batting an eyelid.
She said she saw ‘glimpses’ of her son, but his personality fell victim to his drug habit.
‘I’ve seen him smoke and turn sleepy and zonk out and other times I’ve seen him high as a kite, erratic and completely menacing,’ she said.
‘It’s very wrong that the government is allowing this synthetic drug to be smoked openly on the streets, it’s a huge public health risk.’
Ms Thompson said she would put her son into an involuntary program ‘tomorrow’ if she could, but nothing of the sort existed in Victoria.
‘We need to have compulsory rehab. Daniel doesn’t even see he has a problem and I don’t think any of the homeless people really do.’
She said the government needed to take action, and placed the blame on the legal system for being too lenient on people taking illegal drugs.
‘Daniel’s been arrested for smoking cannabis on the street, and a magistrate actually reprimanded the police for doing something about it,’ she alleged.
‘The police aren’t getting backup from the courts, there’s no communication between mental health and the courts and police.
‘It’s no wonder Melbourne’s got such a drug problem.
‘I just feel every minute of every hour of every day his brain is becoming more and more damaged and Daniel Andrews’ government doesn’t seem to understand that.’
She is meeting up with Andrew Fisher, the Federal member for Fisher, next week to push for the introduction of involuntary (compulsory) rehabilitation treatment in Victoria – similar to programs offered in NSW and Queensland.
Ms Thompson says she will never forget the first time she saw her son living it rough in Melbourne – the painful image is seared in her memory.
‘The first time I saw him on the street I was haunted by that and forever will be,’ she said, describing Daniel on his hands and knees covered by a flimsy blanket.
‘Every time I look at that photo it brings a tear to my eye … people walking by him without a second thought.’
She dreams of a future where Daniel is freed from his addiction.
‘I would just love to see him back leading a productive life out working, travelling, having fun with his friends.’
‘Giving something positive to society rather than sitting on a footpath chain smoking all day, wasting what could be a young productive life.
‘Underneath it all he is a great guy. He could be anything if he put his mind to it, but he’s chosen to go down this path and it’s heartbreaking for everybody that knows the real Daniel before he was drug-affected.’
Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos said a psychiatrist was looking into Daniel’s situation.
The Salvation Army’s Major Brendan Nottle said workers offered Daniel help.
‘We’ve spoken with Dan and we’ve had workers say to Dan, “we can drive you to the accommodation now”,’ he said.
‘”We can go and pick up your gear and take that as well”‘, but Dan’s actually said, “let me think about that”, and hasn’t gotten back to us.’
Daniel’s rejection of his mother’s help was criticised by others living on the streets of Melbourne.
A man only known as Darren said the 25-year-old was crazy for choosing to be homeless.
‘I’ve been trying to get accommodation and I can’t. This person’s got everything he wants, and doesn’t want it,’ he told Nine News.
‘I thought, “what a lucky kid, he’s got parents who care”.’
Daniel’s story garnered huge attention on Monday, with people flocking to social media to voice their opinions.
While the majority supported Ms Thompson and her efforts to help ‘save’ her son, the response was divided.
‘Yes, the mental health drug and alcohol system needs an overhaul, but adults are also allowed to make choices. Even bad choices. Tough situation,’ one woman said.