Fighting the war on drugs has never been easy. But 2015 was a particularly brutal chapter in Australia’s illicit drugs history. The methamphetamine crisis and its countless headlines pushed the country into uncharted waters. Many types of illicit drugs, including some new ones, challenged the way we think about their influence and our responses to them. But Australia fought back. 2015 is over, but 2016 will call for further efforts on the part of Australian law enforcement so it’s time to better understand last year’s lessons on drugs—and there are seven major ones.
First, ice is a crisis for all levels of society to tackle. Record seizures and arrests for ice-related crime have had little effect on the use of the drug and its availability, which indicates that Australia can’t police its way out of the epidemic. The drug’s well-known and dangerous effects led the call for an integrated approach focused on harm minimisation. Former prime minister Tony Abbott established a National Ice Task Force in April to search for strategies to stop the rapid spread of lethal ice use in Australia. After months of consultations, Australia’s response to ice is shifting from policing to treatment. The taskforce found rehabilitation services have fallen short of demand and recommended governments invest more money in treatment and rehabilitation.
The second lesson is that there’s a bright side to marijuana. After September’s leadership spill, the Turnbull government began the process of legalising the growth of medicinal cannabis in October in a move many chronic disease-suffering patients believed to be overdue. The proposed changes to the Narcotics Drugs Act were passed, allowing cannabis to be grown for medicinal and scientific purposes. Christmas Island will be the first place where the Act will take shape, as AusCann will begin planting trial crops of marijuana on the detention centre island.
Third, in the words of Commissioner Andrew Colvin, much of what the AFP does is topical, controversial and puts it in the centre of the media cycle and public consciousness. Timely and effective police-to-police cooperation between the AFP and Indonesian counterparts during the Bali Nine investigations led to drug-related arrests and drug seizures, but surprisingly the AFP was criticised for disrupting the drug-trafficking network. Some suggested that the AFP had imported the death penalty into Australia. In May, following the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the AFP confirmed that it wasn’t in the position to arrest any of the members of the Bali Nine prior to their departure from Australia, when they were arrested in Indonesia. The execution of Chan and Sukumaran is a reminder for all Australians of the risks associated for those who travel overseas to participate in drug trafficking and other serious crimes.
The fourth important lesson is that Australia knows how to maximise resource dividends to disrupt drug importation. In October, Australia joined forces with Chinese police to investigate the smuggling of methamphetamine into Australia. The internationalisation of Australia’s ice market increases the importance of international cooperation efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the country. The disruption of offshore criminal networks often demands greater human and financial resources. But the Chinese–Australian joint task force set an example of timely and cost-effective police cooperation while using assets and personnel already in place in the region.
Fifth, ecstasy is becoming more lethal. The staggering number of people treated for drug overdoses—and the deaths of two teenagers at the Stereosonic music festivals last year—suggests that Australia is home to poor quality ecstasy. Although pure MDMA is perhaps the least dangerous illicit drug, the use of MDMA variants like PMA or PMMA are making the so-called recreational substance more dangerous. While the tragic deaths brought back the case for introducing pill testing at Aussie music festivals, different approaches have opted to advocate for making ecstasy legal and selling a regulated version at pharmacies.
Sixth, we’ve learnt that pharmaceutical opioids have much to do with the growth of the online illicit drug trade. The number of prescriptions for pharmaceutical opioids in Australia has soared, particularly prescriptions for oxycodone. But what has alarmed researchers is the growing trend to buy and sell those legal drugs online. Despite the closure of Silk Road two years ago, the number of drug dealers selling their wares online has increased by between 30–100%.
And finally, it turns out that Spanish-speaking police intelligence officers are strategic assets. The Sinaloa Cartel has been in the eyes of the Australian authorities for years, and to no one’s surprise when Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman escaped from prison in July (only to be captured again this month), Australia swiftly joined the ‘marathon’ manhunt. Latin American drug syndicates have expanded their networks in Asia—particularly in the Philippines, where Hispanic heritage and basic Spanish language skills help to build trust among criminals and facilitate the group’s incursion in the region. They have also increasingly targeted Australia as a destination point for all major drugs. Disrupting the expanding Latin American drug networks operating in the region will require more Spanish-speaking intelligence officers in the lines of the AFP.
2015 provided Australian authorities with a number of poignant lessons to combat illicit drugs. And it was indeed a tough year. This year, the United Nations General Assembly will have a Special Session (UNGASS) on the world’s drug problems, where leaders will ponder whether the global war on drugs approach has failed or not, as well as offering participants the chance to share their own experiences. Australia’s 2015 campaign against drugs will be one to remember, especially if learning from the past prepares the nation for the future.