Ice, ice baby—you’d better stop and listen
15 Nov 2019|

When the Australian law enforcement community continues to regularly break drug seizure records, it’s easy to assume that the supply of illicit drugs is being curtailed. Alarmingly, that’s not happening, and the government now needs to consider developing a new strategy for drug supply reduction.

Last month the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released its eighth National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program report. This report revealed that between December 2018 and April 2019, the population-weighted average consumption of methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and heroin increased.

Over the past two years, the program has tested wastewater sites across Australia using a scientifically modelled methodology to establish an evidence-based quantitative understanding of our national illicit drug use patterns.

On many occasions over those two years I’ve provided analysis and commentary on the program’s findings (see here, here, here and here). The challenge with commenting on this type of statistical reporting is two-fold. First, the data is often difficult for many to understand, and second, the numbers have a persuasive power that can capture our attention.

Following the release of the report, there was hardly a murmur about why—despite our best law enforcement efforts—the quantity of methamphetamine (ice) that Australians consume continues to rise. This isn’t surprising—as the ACIC’s media snapshot highlighted, comparisons between the quantity of drugs Australian law enforcement seizes and the amount that’s actually consumed are meaningless. But then all government departments are prone to promoting good news over bad.

When you start questioning current strategies for reducing illicit drug supplies, someone inevitably argues it would be so much worse if we weren’t seizing drugs. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the veracity of the argument that it could always be worse, the fact remains that ice consumption continues to increase.

Last year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime world drug report noted that, despite record seizures, global wholesale prices of illicit drugs are decreasing. According to the UNODC, opium poppy and coca bush cultivation is increasing, and the data also suggests that the markets for drugs like cocaine, heroin and synthetics are being oversupplied. The implication here is that large seizures by law enforcement authorities will have even less impact on the availability of these drugs in our communities.

I have previously argued that the problem is one of law enforcement focus. There are, after all, some big disconnects between the use of seizure rates as a performance measure and the achievement of the government’s policy intent of harm minimisation. That observation was never a criticism of the good work of our border and enforcement agencies. Rather, it’s a reflection on whether the concentration on higher seizure rates, at the cost of other more innovative enforcement strategies and measures, is the best approach to reducing supply.

In the past, the narrow policy focus could well be blamed on a lack of drug-use data to support any hypothesis on the impacts of police strategy. But with eight cycles of wastewater monitoring now in the can, we have the data.

The problem isn’t just about police trying to reduce illicit drug supplies. The wastewater data illustrates that more still needs to be done to reduce the demand for illicit drugs.

There’s a continuing ferocious demand for illicit drugs in Australia, amid increasing global supply and declining wholesale prices. For criminal syndicates, the Australian drug trade, with its high profits and low barriers for market entry, is a dream come true. Under these conditions it becomes clear that the efficacy of police strategies—focused on increasing seizure rates and decapitating the leadership of criminal syndicates—is declining.

Resolving this problem is a difficult challenge. The first step for policymakers and government is to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. As a starting point, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement needs to initiate an inquiry. It should draw upon Australian and international expertise from civil society, academia, law enforcement, education and health, and examine what isn’t working and how we can minimise illicit drug harm in Australian communities. Questions also need to be asked about why we don’t use the wastewater drug monitoring data as a police performance measure.

In the meantime, law enforcement, especially the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force and the ACIC need to double down on their international disruption operations. The increased operational tempo should be appropriately funded and strategically controlled.

The ACIC Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program was initially funded for nine quarterly cycles: the last will be delivered in early 2020. The data that this program has provided to date is invaluable, if somewhat controversial.

There might be some in Canberra who subscribe to the old adage that no news is good news, but they are wrong. The ACIC wastewater monitoring program must become a permanent activity.