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Huge cocaine busts don't affect drug supply. We need another way

By John Coyne

It's reasonable to assume that huge drug busts, such as Monday's seizure of 1.4 tonnes of cocaine, will deal a heavy blow to the drug's availability here. Minister for Border Protection Peter Dutton and Minister for Justice Michael Keenan told us as much in their joint media release: "In the past 18 months, the AFP and its partners have successfully stopped more than 11 tonnes of illicit drugs from reaching Australia".

The only problem is that there doesn't seem to be any shortage of drugs in our communities, nor has there been any substantive change in drug prices or purity, despite all these seizures. And I would suggest that this will remain the case.

Like most western countries we're winning the battles against specific syndicates by seizing drugs in large quantities. But in the process we are slowly losing the war, as our strategy isn't having any lasting impact on supply.

Our current approach of seizures isn't working and we must now re-calibrate our efforts towards reducing the harm of drugs to the community. In this re-calibration there is still plenty of room for supply reduction through offshore policing.

The seizure of a shipment of 1.4 tonnes of cocaine will be a heavy economic loss for any criminal syndicate. But to put this in context, this seizure may have an estimated street value of $312 million, but those involved in the syndicate would have paid significantly less for these drugs.

Despite the magnitude of this seizure, the syndicates responsible for its manufacture in source countries in South America no doubt continue to operate with impunity. These groups have already saturated the cocaine markets of North America and Europe, in the process driving their profit margins down.

Asia offers organised crime groups the opportunity to expand their cocaine distribution markets. Typically Asia offers criminal syndicates large user markets, but low profit margins.

For those seeking to expand their illicit drug distribution networks further, Australia stands tall as a market of choice for international syndicates.

An army of Australian street-level dealers are ready and waiting to distribute drugs in our community. And let's not forget that we also have an insatiable demand for drugs and we are happy to pay a premium.

So this week's record haul will no doubt be quickly replaced by another syndicate seeking to make the most of the ridiculously large profit margins available in Australia.

This isn't to say that AFP and ABF efforts are for naught. They have successfully investigated and disrupted a transnational criminal conspiracy to import a mind-boggling quantity of drugs. An operational outcome that should be celebrated. Imagine the devastating impact another 11 tonnes of illicit drugs would have had on our communities. But change is needed.

First Australia needs to get much more serious about developing a national strategy that integrates its national anti-organised crime and illicit drug activities. As it stands, the minister with primary responsibility for drugs and organised crime is not a member of cabinet. Given the magnitude of Australia's drug and organised crime problem the issue needs to be handled at a cabinet level. The first step in making this possible is promoting the Minister for Justice to cabinet.

Secondly, Australia's border seizure strategy needs to be supported by a re-calibrated international policing strategy, which is adequately funded. This strategy needs to take the fight to criminals offshore in countries in South America, China and the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately at a time when Australia needs more police offshore, successive budget cuts have drastically reduced the AFP's presence.

Australia's re-calibrated strategy will need to assist international partners with improving their policing skills. Traditional offshore disruption operations will need to be augmented with investments in the kinds of projects that encourage farmers to move away from the production of opium poppy and cocoa leaves.

The aim of this re-calibrated offshore strategy isn't to seize drugs, but to disrupt their production and to dismantle the organisations that make its distribution possible.

Dr John Coyne is head of the Border Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy institute. He is a former strategic intelligence co-ordinator for the Australian Federal Police.

Originally published: The Sydney Morning Herald. 08 Feb 2017. 

Originally published by: External link on 09 Feb 2017