Arresting our way out of the Drug Problem?

On 29 November 2014, the Australian Federal Police announced an illicit drug seizure of 1.9 tonnes of MDMA and 849 kilos of methamphetamine. The police declared it to be the second largest illicit drug seizure ever in Australia and estimated the street value of this monster seizure at an extraordinary $1,500 million.

pill-testing-article1.pngIn a joint statement, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison and Justice Minister Michael Keenan praised law enforcement agencies and hailed a 'landmark day' in the fight against drugs and organised crime

NSW Police Commissioner Scipione declared that the NSW Police Force and their partner agencies have taken billions of dollars-worth of illicit drugs off the streets. The Commissioner added that the effects of this great seizure would be seen far and wide across the Australian community.

Not for the first time, Commissioner Scipione was wrong.

Extraordinarily, the Australian illicit drug market was so massive it could shrug off a seizure of this size. The monster of November 2014 had little effect on the great Australian methamphetamine flood.

So how can such an enormous seizure not have an effect??

The origins of the Ice Flood

The monster methamphetamine seizure of November 2014 was an Australian  record. Indeed it was the fourth Australian record inside three years. Since May 2011 the Australian record for methamphetamine seizure has increased fourfold going from a then record seizure of 240 kilos that month, to a new record of 306 kilos in July 2012, to a newer record of 585 kilos in November 2012, to this current record ice seizure of 849 kilos in November 2014. All of these were hailed by our leaders and journalists as proof of how well the war on ice was going.

drug-consumption1.jpgWhen the AFP conducted the first of these enormous seizure on 4 May 2011, Matt Doran, reporting for TEN news, exhausted his superlatives describing how this massive bust had delivered 'a monster blow to those who organise the traffic in deadly and illegal drugs'. It was, Doran continued, 'an extraordinary 240 kilograms of ice with a street value in excess of S50M, the biggest bust in Australian history'. He declared it had 'dealt a major, major blow to organised crime in Australia'.

However, this major, major blow had no effect other than to mark the beginning of the Ice Flood. Two-hundred kilo seizures and bigger are far more frequent now, but at the time such a seizure was regarded as extraordinary. But the record hauls kept coming because the flood of ice kept growing. Over the last several years, Australia has experienced a rising methamphetamine flood.

The best idea of the size of Australia's illicit drug market is gained from the many reports of drug seizures that feature so regularly in our news broadcasts. For the sake of analysis, I categorise the biggest seizures as monster (value greater than $250 million street value); massive (seizures in the $50 million to $250 million street value range); enormous ($10million to $50 million); and big ($1 million to $10 million).

In the last six months of 2014, massive amphetamine seizures occurred all over Australia. In early August 2014, Victorian police found 135 kilos of methamphetamine in a Melbourne apartment. It was the start of an astonishing week of large ice seizures, leading Richard Grant of the Australian Crime Commission to claim, 'In the past week, Australian law enforcement in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have seized approximately 220 kilos of this drug.' Only a few years before, this would have been an extraordinary week. But the flood rolled on: 90 kilos were seized in Perth, 28 kilos in the ACT; another 50 kilos in Melbourne. And then in mid-November, came the Sydney monster!

Counting the 'monster' and the 'massive' seizures alone, and ignoring the 'enormous' and the 'big', over 1.2 tonnes of methamphetamine were seized in five months between July and November 2014! This gives some idea of the size of the market. When the 2014/15 Illicit Drug Data Report is published the amphetamine seizures are expected to fall in the 2-3 tonne range.

The 2013/14 Illicit Drug Data Report records that 1.8 tonnes of amphetamines were seized at the border, and that five large detections had a combined weight of 530.9 kilograms and accounted for 29.3 per cent of the total weight; the largest, 203 kilos, was sea cargo from China to Brisbane; two more were sea-cargo China to Sydney; another sea-cargo USA to Melbourne; the smallest in air cargo from Mexico to Sydney. The flood comes in from all over the world, driven by the high price of ice in Australia. However, despite seizing almost two tonnes of amphetamines at the border, 2013/14 was only the second biggest year for such seizures.

The year with the record for the most ice seized at the border, with 2.14 tonne of amphetamines seized, was the previous year 2012/13, which included the two previous Australian record seizures. Before these two years, the largest annual totals seized at the border would be in the 200 kilos-300 kilos range, which is why the 240 kilo seizure in May 2011 was regarded as extraordinary.

Seizures at the border went up 1000% after June 2012, because the 'kitchens' where most of Australia's amphetamine was home-baked were taken out in the first years of the war on ice and there were large seizures of precursors. Price was forced up in Australia till the profits that could be made became extremely attractive to the global ice market and the flood started. The drug began flowing in from China, the USA, Canada, Mexico, the United Arab Emirate and from Southeast Asia. The war on ice caused the Australian methamphetamine market to be outsourced and globalised.

Big seizures of ice are common now. You read about them every week: the current week had 140 kilos of ice seized in Perth on 3 June, and 117 charges and 13 arrested in Charleville(!) on 5 June, and a bust of 448 kilos of ice in New Zealand.

As the old saw says: each year more people are arrested for drugs; each year more drugs are seized; and each year there are more drugs on the street.

 So what is the solution? I'll be dealing with alternative strategies for the war on ice at the Drug Law Reform campaign launch for Griffith at 2pm on Sunday 19 June at Kurilpa Hall West End.

Dr John Jiggens

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