14 Apr 2018
What Australia’s wastewater reveals about the country’s drug problem
By John Coyne
Last week the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) released its fourth national wastewater drug monitoring report. At its launch Federal Minister for Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity, Angus Taylor, concentrated on the obvious message: “we clearly have a big problem with ice”. Unfortunately, Minister Taylor was silent on the report’s most startling findings.
Australian police, amongst others, have always assumed that if they could increase the quantity of drugs seized, availability would decrease and street prices would rise.
Last week the ACIC unintentionally provided scientific evidence that this assumption is wrong.
In early 2017, many of the country’s top police predicted that the ACIC National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program would make surprising discoveries about the scale of our national drug problem.
The ACIC program involves the analysis of wastewater from 45 treatment plants from across Australia. These samples are analysed to identify illicit and licit drug markers. With this data, the ACIC can, for the first time, provide an estimate of the overall quantity of illicit drugs being consumed in Australia.
In the program’s fourth quarterly report, the annual national drug use estimates were compared with Australian Federal Police (AFP) illicit drug seizures. And the results are shocking.
The ACIC reported that Australians consume an estimated 765 kilograms of heroin a year, while the AFP seize around 200 kilograms of the drug.
In 2016-17 the AFP seized around 3,354 kilograms of methylamphetamine. Despite these efforts, Australians still manage to consume an estimated 8,387 kilograms of the drug per annum.
The ACIC estimated that every year Australians collectively use 1280 kilograms of MDMA or ecstasy. And this is despite the fact that the AFP seized around the same amount again on its way into the country.
The report also estimates that Australians consume an estimated 3,075 kilograms of cocaine a year, and the AFP seize well over that amount again.
Other ACIC reporting has previously revealed that for the most part, median purity of illicit drugs in Australia has remained relatively stable. Over the past three years illicit drugs have remained very easy to obtain. And despite the best efforts of our law enforcement, the price of some drugs are dropping.
I would suggest that the problem here is that globally there is an oversupply of illicit drugs. This in part can be linked to the production business models used by transnational organised crime groups.
While the Australian Government estimates the value of drug seizures using street prices, the real cost of lost shipments to organised crime groups is significantly less. As such, the loss of large quantities of drugs through police seizures is just a cost of business, with only marginal impacts on profits.
The cost of the production of illicit drugs, especially synthetic drugs like methylamphetamine and MDMA, is such that doubling or tripling manufacturing output is only fractionally more costly for criminals. It costs no more in terms of corruption to produce 100 tonnes than 100 kilograms of illicit drugs.
The easiest way for criminals to respond to law enforcement seizures is to simply produce larger quantities of illicit drugs.
Without doubt, the AFP, the ACIC and Australian Border Force need to continue to seize drugs at the border. However, the ACIC wastewater report shows that there’s a world of difference between seizing large quantities of drugs and shutting down global illicit drug supply chains or reducing supply.
Australia’s law enforcement agencies will now need to expand their international activity in illicit drug source countries such as China and Myanmar. These efforts need to be focused on driving the production costs for manufacturing illicit drugs upwards.
But let’s be frank: it’s going to take time and a lot of effort to increase the cost of producing drugs. In the interim, drug seizures should be viewed as tactical police successes rather than evidence of the effectiveness of our strategies and policies.