Same same but still same same: Australia’s national drug supply reduction strategy
27 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tony Webster

With Sunday marking the 28th International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and the federal election drawing ever nearer, it’s worth reflecting on what Australia’s next government ought to be thinking about when it comes to illicit drug supply reduction policies.

In 2015 the Australian Crime Commission’s (ACC) illicit drug data report—and the unclassified version of the organised crime threat assessment—made it clear that record illicit drug seizures by law enforcement weren’t having an impact on the domestic availability of ice (crystal methamphetamine) or any other illicit drug. On 8 April 2015, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia was in the grip of an ice epidemic. By June 2015, Australian media was abuzz with reporting of our ice epidemic and its insidious impacts on communities.

Australia’s unquenchable appetite for ice—and its high profit market—has impacted on drug supply and organised crime beyond our shores. Australia’s market demand has led to a surge in ice production across China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the by-product of Australia’s demand is that the ASEAN region is now flooded with cheap ice.

In December last year the Australian National Ice Taskforce handed down its final report. A few weeks later we saw the release of the Council of Australian Governments National Ice Action Strategy 2015. Both the report and strategy made it abundantly clear that Australia wasn’t going to arrest its way out of the ice epidemic. But it was equally clear that supply reduction still has an important role in our national drug strategy that contributes to harm reduction.

So for six months we’ve been waiting to see how the Turnbull government’s new softer harm minimisation and demand reduction strategies—worth $300 million over the next four years—will make a difference. In the meantime neither ice, nor illicit drugs more broadly, have received much media attention.

If you look to Australian law enforcement’s key performance measures—seizures of illicit drugs and arrests—supply reduction efforts have continued at a striking pace. But in reality, the vast majority of enforcement work hasn’t been targeted at innovatively disrupting the supply of those drugs to Australia. Australia’s border and law enforcement work is still focussed on seizing drugs, and as one senior federal police officer colloquially described it ‘banging up crooks’. But the high profit Australian market ensures that those crooks’ and their drugs are quickly replaced.

We’ve had the new ‘dob in an ice dealer‘ hotline implemented. The ‘hotline’ approach was a great political announcement. It presented a tangible initial deliverable for the federal government’s investment in the National Ice Task Force. This otherwise well-intentioned idea most likely diverts police resources to the investigation, disruption and prosecution of low-level ice dealers.

ACC reporting highlights the pivotal role of China in the production and shipment of ice and its precursors. That’s made possible because of China’s enormous chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The importance of the Chinese connection for ice supply reduction shouldn’t be underestimated, which is why the jewel in the crown of Australia’s recent international disruption efforts is Taskforce Blaze.

Taskforce Blaze is a collaborative effort between Australian and Chinese police focused on stemming the flow of ice to Australia. Taskforce Blaze is likely to be a pivotal component of Australia’s supply reduction strategy in the future. In addition to intelligence sharing for investigations, the taskforce allows for the transnational disruption of criminal syndicates in Australia and China.

It’s startling that with a domestic ice epidemic and a regional ice flood, law enforcement is nowhere to be seen in any Australian political party’s election promises or policy platforms.

Australia’s ice epidemic hasn’t disappeared, nor has it been addressed or mitigated. Right now Australia’s major political parties should be considering how they might make a stronger commitment to addressing the supply, demand and harm of illicit drugs in Australia. Six months down the track from the release of the National Ice Strategy, Australia’s national illicit drug supply reduction strategies lack both focus and innovation.

The next Australian government should consider developing a law enforcement policy statement focused on clearly articulating its strategic intent, its expectations of agencies, and the resources it will assign when it comes to offshore supply reduction.

To innovate our drug supply disruption strategies, Australia’s next government needs to consider how to further internationalise its law enforcement activities.

That internationalisation will first need to focus efforts on strategic interventions in illicit drug transit and production countries. The expansion of existing law enforcement partnerships with ASEAN member states and China are key to having meaningful impacts on supply.

To have a lasting impact on the availability of ice, Australia needs to pursue less tangible, but more complex and difficult strategies focused on addressing the diversion of drugs and precursors in the Chinese chemical and pharmaceutical industry. That kind of capacity development and international engagement will require a whole-of-government approach, which is yet to materialise. It will also require careful diplomatic moves from the DFAT, who until now have left police diplomacy to the operational agencies.

The government should consider establishing a small team within the Attorney-General’s Department with responsibility to work with the ACC, Australian Federal Police, DFAT, AUSTRAC and Australian Border Force to develop innovative new strategies for regional offshore disruptions.

But let’s be frank—even with new ideas and money it’s going to take time and a lot of effort—to reduce the supply of illicit drugs to Australia.