It’s time to change: a new national ice strategy
12 Oct 2015| and

Math not meth

Tomorrow, ASPI’s Border Security Program will launch its new Special Report on crystal methamphetamine (‘ice’): Methamphetamine: focusing Australia’s national ice strategy on the problem, not the symptoms.

Australia’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for ice has created major social, health and law enforcement challenges for all levels of government and the bureaucracy.

The problem, although complex, can be summarised simply. A large proportion of Australians (by global standards) use ice—and they do so frequently. Despite law enforcement agencies’ record seizures, the price of ice for Australian users is statistically stable, and the drug’s availability is spreading from capital cities to bush towns. From street dealers to global organised crime syndicates, there are big profits to be made in Australia’s ice market. Australia’s families and communities are feeling the impacts of this problem daily.

There’s no evidence or indication that current strategies are decreasing the demand, supply or harm from the drug. The traditional programmatic approach to counter illicit drugs—with its multipronged health, education and law enforcement strategies—has failed to prevent the problem or address it in a meaningful way.

As is often the case in Australian policy circles, extraordinary challenges result in extraordinary policy measures—in this case, the establishment of the National Ice Task Force.

To be fair, Australia’s National Drug Strategy has a range of innovative and highly successful components. But, as in any large system, if the strategic software for integrating the various subprograms has too many bugs, there’ll be a lot of error messages. While neither arrests nor rehabilitation on their own will fix the ice challenge, that fact doesn’t necessarily support the adoption of extraordinary powers or policies.

To address this problem, the National Ice Task Force must do more than recommend new policy initiatives to target supply, demand and harm reduction.

There are no simple solutions for Australian policymakers trying to address the ‘ice epidemic’. In our report, we outline and discuss an alternative strategic framework to respond to the Australian ice challenge. Contrasting with more traditional responses to drug problems, we argue that Australia needs a paradigm shift in its design and delivery of an ice strategy.

We argue strongly that Australia’s drug policymakers ought to take a principled approach to the development of an ice strategy. This approach needs to be strategically focused on reducing harm to Australian communities, not on seizing drugs or making arrests. With this focus, strategists and policymakers will be able to develop surgical interventions to disrupt the factors that contribute to harm, and not merely the symptoms of the problem.

In our proposed strategy, law enforcement isn’t focused on arrests, prosecutions, custodial offences or seizures, as none of those will have a guaranteed impact on the problem. The focus is on means to reduce the availability of drugs, the disruption of user behaviour and the integration of education and health initiatives.

We don’t advocate the decriminalisation of ice or ice use. Instead, we urge the government to underpin its National Ice Strategy with three key principles: integration, innovation and disruption.

Developing an integrated National Ice Strategy will involve substantially more than a series of good ideas linked under the banner of a single title. Reducing drug harm at the national level requires an array of activities. The policy challenge involves more than the management of a complex system of measures. Rather, genuine strategic harm reduction will require networks of systems that have operational and managerial independence. The education, health and law enforcement systems involved haven’t been developed as a single system. In this ‘system of systems’ environment, the National Ice Strategy will need to link and integrate the various systems so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Current law enforcement decision-making, from strategic to tactical levels, is focused on achieving higher seizure rates as opposed to harm reduction. Although those mightn’t always be mutually exclusive goals, higher seizure rates won’t always result in the most efficient harm or supply reduction. From a performance measurement perspective, the performance outcomes of more innovative enforcement actions, such as offshore disruption are often less tangible than direct seizures. While drug seizure rates remain an important performance measure for law and border enforcement agencies, pressure from governments to increase those rates should be reduced. Policymakers should review the impact that the use of drug seizure rates as a police performance measure has on innovation.

Our current strategies’ lack of success highlights the possibility that traditional programmatic or functional approaches to the problem might not be efficient or effective. In part, this could be because the adversarial model doesn’t recognise that the focus of the activity at the strategic level is not on defeating a drug or those who sell or use it. Arguably, the strategic intent of programs such as Australia’s National Ice Action Plan is concerned with reducing the harm to the community that ice creates.