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The great Australian methamphetamine flood

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Australian Federal Police officers during a 2017 seizure of over 900kg of ice (Screenshot via YouTube)

Statistics show that Australia is losing its war on methamphetamines, so perhaps it's time to rethink our strategy, writes Dr John Jiggens.

THE ILLICIT DRUG DATA REPORT (IDDR) is the annual summary of the “progress” of Austalia’s endless war on drugs.

Produced by the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Australia’s national criminal agency, their most recent snapshot of the drug war, IDDR 2016/17, records that the 154,650 Australian drug arrests that year was enough to fill AAMI stadium three times.

A record 27 tonnes of illicit drugs were seized that year, too — twice the weight of a QE2 anchor, the IDDR boasts. The rampaging illicit drug market has grown so huge, it can comfortably drag this staggering weight of seizures in its wake. If only our Government could “grow” other industries so well.

In his preface, ACIC CEO Michael Phelan reports that the drug markets in Australia remain ‘resilient’, though the enormous numbers of drug arrests suggest that “rampant” would be a more accurate characterisation.

In another carefully measured euphemism, he calls Australia’s methamphetamine market ‘large and intractable’, but, as the graph below shows, “going gang-busters” is a far more accurate assessment. This graph of amphetamine seizures at the border over the most recent decade exhibits the unambiguous profile of a methamphetamine flood.

(Source: ACIC)

The graph illustrates the weight (and number) of amphetamines seizures at the Australian border in each financial year for the decade before 2016/17. The period between 2011 and the present is what I call the “great Australian methamphetamine flood” when enormous amphetamine seizures from overseas criminal gangs began to be detected at the Australian border, which turned rapidly into the present unprecedented flood. The cause of this flood, ironically, was the war on ice, itself and the extraordinarily high price of ice caused by the war.

The war on ice

Now into its tenth year, the war on ice is portrayed as an outstanding success by the media and Government. Under this tough-on-drugs, lock-all-users-up approach, Australia has spent tens of billions on law enforcement while spending relatively little on treatment, trying to arrest our way out of the problem.

The policy has proved counter-productive because the anti-ice propaganda (remember those sensationalist “Ice Kills” ads?) is dismissed by users, despite their appeal to non-users. Most users are not having problems and when they do, being demonised makes recovery difficult because it cuts their support from family and friends.

Unlike Portugal, which treats drugs as a health problem and pours its money into treatment, we try to solve the problem using police, courts and prisons, with shock tactics, with military-style assaults, believing that we will win the war through shock and awe. As drug offences skyrocket, the cost of drug law enforcement – the amount of Government money spent on the police, prisons and courts securing these drug arrests – increases proportionally.

(*Sources below)

During these six years, we spent over $10 billion on drug law enforcement and received the methamphetamine flood as an unexpected consequence. While total drug arrests almost doubled because of the “tough on drugs” policy – increasing from 84,757 to 154,600 between 2010/11 and 2016/17 – the number of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) arrests in Australia almost quadrupled from 12,897 to 47,531 as the police in Australia unleashed the war on meth.

All that police attention that the war on ice brought should have caused the price of ice to rise, but after an initial spike the price of ice remained puzzling stable, nonchalantly navigating the crackdown because Australia now had the highest-priced ice in the world.

For the police and Government media departments, these were glory days. Record-breaking seizure followed record-breaking seizure; with every massive seizure, premiers and police commissioners, prime ministers and Border Force ministers claimed victory. But no matter how big the seizure was or how many stunning victories they announced, they never had any effect. The methamphetamine market wasn’t a market any more. It was an unprecedented flood.

Since May 2011, the Australian record for methamphetamine seizures has increased sevenfold, going from a then-record seizure of 240 kilograms that month to a new record of 306 kilos in July 2012, to a newer record of 585 kilos in November 2012, to another record ice seizure of 849 kilos in November 2014. In turn, this was surpassed by a new record seizure of 903 kilos in early 2017 which was again topped by a seizure of 1.2 tonnes in Geraldton later that year.

This brings us to the massive seizures of 2019 — the tsunamis. The first of these, the so-called “tsunami of ice”, was 1.7 tonnes of meth that was discovered in California en route to Victoria in January 2019. This can’t be counted as an Australian record; rather it is included because it is the largest ever meth seizure in the USA, giving Australia the U.S. record ice seizure as well. The latest Australian record – the Australian tsunami – is 1.6 tonnes of methamphetamine discovered in a consignment of stereo speakers in Melbourne in June 2019. These twin meth tsunamis were both valued at $1.3 billion.

Each of these massive seizures was hailed by politicians and journalists as proof that the war on ice was a great success because the police were taking billions of dollars of drugs off the street, but these figures were a clever way to lie with statistics, inflating the actual value many hundreds of time because they were based on a street value of about $1 million per kilo and not cost of methamphetamine production of a few thousand dollars per kilo.

The big picture was not one of continuing police success, as police spun the story, but one of a country swimming in illicit drugs because of its counter-productive prohibitionist drug policy.

When the Australian Federal Police (AFP) conducted the first of these enormous seizures on 4 May 2011, it earned breathless praise from Matt Doran, reporting for Ten News, who 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 $50 million, the biggest bust in Australian history”. He declared it had “dealt a major, major blow to organised crime in Australia”.

But this “major, major blow” had no effect at all. As the graph of seizures shows, it was the first small wave of the approaching flood. In 2011, a 200-kilo seizure was extraordinary. Since then, they have become almost commonplace.

In the eight years since, the market has been in flood and the seizures have been huge and growing in size — the scale of the flood is unprecedented.

Since 2014, the police have claimed several seizures each with a street value greater than a billion dollars. The two most recent, the record U.S. and Australian methamphetamine seizures, were valued at $1.2 billion.

In 2011, Matt Doran called a $50 million seizure a “major, major blow”. Eight years later, the market is many times larger and the big seizures – the tsunamis – are valued at over $1 billion. Of course, this is “street value” — real production cost would be only a few million dollars, but with the potential to become billions of dollars once they are successfully smuggled into Australia, so the incentive to continue the flood is staggering.

The enormous increase in price from the production cost of a few thousand dollars per kilo in countries like Thailand and Mexico to an Australian street value of a million dollars per kilo is entirely due to the huge amounts of money we spend on drug law enforcement, on policing, prisons and courts.

What the drug war warriors won’t admit is that the cause of Australia’s ice flood is the war on ice itself and the blowback from the police attempt to arrest their way out of the problem.

Before the flood, amphetamine-type stimulants were largely manufactured in Australia. In their 2012 annual report, the International Narcotics Control Board suggested that the recent crackdown on precursor chemicals in Australia caused the price of amphetamine-type stimulants to rise, which has, in turn, attracted the attention of foreign traffickers seeking to take advantage of the potential for profits.

The initial police crackdown on home-bake and precursors shifted the balance of the methamphetamine market toward importation and this is the reason for the record seizures at the border. Since the shortage caused by local law enforcement only drove prices higher, Australia became a focus for overseas gangs because it was the most profitable methamphetamine market in the world. Australia’s methamphetamine market was globalised and outsourced to the global amphetamine industry: the Mexican cartels, the Southeast Asian triads and the outlaw motorcycle gangs of Canada and the U.S. who found the Australian ice market very attractive. The great Australian methamphetamine flood rolled in.

By giving Australia the highest-priced methamphetamine in the world, the war on ice made Australia the target for these gangs and unleashed an unprecedented methamphetamine flood. As a result of the flood, seizures have increased sevenfold and amphetamine arrests have quadrupled while the price has remained stable.

Our prohibitionist policies criminalise all drug use when our aim should be to treat drug abuse. While 90 per cent of Australia’s illicit drug budget goes into law enforcement, the Portuguese turned this on its head by decriminalising and diverting the money going to police into health and treating drug addiction as a health problem. Arresting your way out of the problem doesn’t work.

* Sources: Illicit drug arrest figures are from IDDR (2016-17). COST DLE for 2010/11 is based on estimates in Jiggens (2013) and Ritter et al (2013). These papers estimate the cost of drug law enforcement that year as approximately $1,200 million, giving an average cost per drug arrest of about $14,000 for 2010/11. This is adjusted for inflation to give an average cost per drug offence for succeeding years, which is used to estimate Cost DLE for these years, using the equation, Cost DLE = average cost/drug arrest x number of drug arrests.

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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