Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Many Questions Unanswered in Drug Report  

Expert evidence contradicts some of its conclusions, writes Bill Bush.
Published in the Canberra Times (Monday September 22, 2003 page 11). Words in square brackets were in the copy submitted but not published:

Radiologist Chris O'Donnell's warning last week that amphetamines are linked to strokes gives a context to the recent report on substance abuse of the Family and Communities Committee of the House of Representatives.

He fears that such side-effects will increase as the current shortage of heroin pushes more drug users towards these drugs of varying composition.

There is precious little guidance about these psychostimulants - speed, for short - in the report.

In fact, a 53-page chapter [on prevention and treatment devotes only 2 pages to these drugs and] includes a fatuous recommendation that the Government should fund more research on their effect. The lion's share of the chapter is devoted to heroin and cannabis.

Expert evidence says effective treatments are available for heroin, but not for cannabis or psychostimulants.

I would not wish dependence on anyone, but if I had to choose between caring for someone addicted to any of them, speed would be the last.

Someone on heroin is at least peaceful under the influence and lethargy and apathy are most common characteristics of severe cannabis dependence in young people.

There is no relief at all for many who have become dependent on speed. Demands on parents are remorseless. With constant restlessness, panic attacks, extreme mood swings and paranoia, life becomes hell.
The report does virtually nothing to address the big increase in availability of amphetamine-like drugs.

As Dr O'Donnell observed, they contain an unknown cocktail of ingredients concocted by criminals. Some are passed off as somewhat safer drugs like ecstasy.

Of greatest concern is that they are being marketed with enticing names like "Harry Potter" [to a younger and younger set of consumers].

The report merely tells kids not to use them and recommends stricter control of precursors for their manufacture, but police are saying that an increasing amount is being imported in finished form. How does this fit in with the faith that the report puts in law enforcement to deliver on its recommended objective of "prevention" rather than "harm minimisation"? Like much else in the report, it is full of confidence that an abstinent, drug-free Australia is achieveable, but devoid of any clue about how this can be done. Indeed, the report contains much expert evidence that contradicts its conclusions.

The effectiveness of law enforcement is an example. In the same paragraph [as] the committee stated the heroin drought was "a good indicator of law enforcement's success", it referred to Australian Federal Police evidence to the committee that points to the drought being a conscious business decision in the light of a shortage of heroin.

There had been "a business decision by Asian-organised crime gangs to switch from heroin production as their major source of income to the making of methamphetamine, or speed, tablets" and "their market research ... tells them that these days people are more prepared to pop a pill than inject themselves".

The report does not mention that the Office of Strategic Crime Assessment forecast the heroin drought as far back as 1996.

One wonders what advice about the causes of the drought was given to the Federal Government in the lead up to the 2001 election when it was claiming the drought and consequent drop of overdose deaths as successes for its Tough on Drugs Policy.

We know the AFP Commissioner publicly disclosed the intelligence about business decisions that year (Herald Sun, June 19, 2001).

We also know that in August 2001 the National Crime Authority issued a report estimating that law enforcement was intercepting only about 12 per cent of Australia's annual consumption.

Drug traffickers regard interceptions in the same light as a tax. It is said they can lose 90 per cent and still turn a profit. The report does not go into any of this.

It did not consider whether the effect of law enforcement merely serves the traffickers by keeping the retail price high for the traffickers' addictive commodity a case of inelastic demand.

Nor did the report draw any connection between the heroin shortage and flood of imports of amphetamines which have occurred, just as police have warned and in accordance with the traffickers' business plan.

Yes, the report leaves many questions unanswered. They lie before the Government.

Bill Bush is a member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.



1. "Mr Keelty said the national heroin shortage was the result of several factors. A major one was a business decision by Asian organised crime gangs to switch from heroin production as their major source of income to the making of methamphetamine, or speed, tablets" (Keith Moor, "Drug lords push deadly new deals" in Herald Sun (Melbourne) Tuesday, 19 June 2001, p. 10)

2. "'They are making speed pills that look like ecstasy and in many cases they attempt to pass it off as ecstasy. Some people might think these tablets are sexier than heroin. And the syndicates have their market research which tells them that these days people are more prepared to pop a pill than inject themselves," he said" (Mr Keelty quoted in Keith Moor, "Drug gangs' new threat" in Herald Sun (Melbourne) Tuesday 19 June 2001, pp. 1 and 4 at p. 1)

3. Exchange between Mrs Julia Irwin, Deputy Chair, House of Representative Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, and Mr Ben McDevitt, General Manager, AFP National Operations, Australian Federal Police, Committee Hansard, Friday 16 August 2002, p. FCA 1,221 at http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/reps/commttee/r5665.pdf

"Mrs IRWIN--I want to talk about the heroin drought. I am going to refer to an article that was in the Melbourne edition of the Sun-Herald on 19 June titled 'Drug gangs' new threat'. There was a comment made by AFP Commissioner Keelty who himself disclosed in June 2001 police intelligence that there had been a business decision by Asian organised crime gangs to switch from heroin production as their major source of income to the making of methamphetamine or, as we know it, speed tablets. He was quoted in the article as saying that 'Their market research ... tells them that these days people are more prepared to pop a pill than inject themselves.' It seems from that statement that Asian organised crime gangs are calling the tune. I want to know what measures of effectiveness of law enforcement are stopping this supply--say, capture rates, even tip-offs, or police activity?

"Mr McDevitt--Are you asking what methods we are using at the moment?

"Mrs IRWIN--Yes. Because of the comment that Commissioner Keelty made in July 2001 regarding Asian crime gangs--where they are switching from heroin to speed tablets--I want to know what action the Federal Police are taking.

"Mr McDevitt--That is correct; the comments Commissioner Keelty made are correct. What we are dealing with is an incredibly active, dynamic, complex marketplace, and we see the commodities changing fairly regularly. As long as a market can be cultivated and as long as there is demand there, we will quickly have people who will step in to fill the void in terms of supply."

4. Dr Grant Wardlaw, Director, Office of Strategic Crime Assessments, "The future and crime: challenges for law enforcement" p. 5 in the 3rd National Outlook Symposium on Crime in Australia - Mapping the Boundaries of Australia's Criminal Justice System, 22-23 March, 1999, Rydges Hotel, Canberra, The Future and Crime: Challenges for Law Enforcement http://npeab.gov.au/conferences/outlook99/wardlaw.pdf

"The analysis of the impact of trends in the Chinese heroin market on Australia indicates that the future of the heroin market in Australia may be influenced by changes in the Chinese heroin market. There is potential for the supply of heroin to Australia to be temporarily affected by significant increases in demand elsewhere, particularly in potentially large markets such as China. Such a temporary shortage could alter the dynamics of the local market by increasing the price of heroin, lowering its purity, leading to users substituting heroin with other types of drugs and increasing drug related crime. The likelihood of this occurring is limited by the surplus of heroin internationally and the fact that heroin use in China is not likely to exceed 6.5 million people in the next five years. If the number of regular heroin users in China does exceed 6.5 million, it could be a catalyst for a heroin shortage internationally and in Australia.

"As has been the case with heroin, for synthetic drugs such as amphetamines, Ice, and Ecstasy, there has been an increasing demand in Asian markets. Partly to service this demand, production of synthetic drugs has increased in the Golden Triangle. Given that this region also supplies Australia with most of its heroin, the infrastructure and networks to supply synthetic drugs to the Australian market from this source are already in place.

"Relevant to this is the displacement of synthetic drug production from countries with stronger precursor controls to those with weak controls. In Europe, for example, production is shifting from the more developed Western European countries to less developed Eastern European countries. In Asian countries, precursor controls are generally weak. There is also a large regional black market emerging in Chinese ephedrine, a precursor for many forms of synthetic drugs. The purity levels of Asian produced synthetic drugs are likely to be higher than for those produced in Australia, where the introduction of strong precursor legislation has increased the difficulty of obtaining precursors, resulting in reduced product quality.

"On the basis of these observations, we are looking for indications that domestic illicit production of synthetic drugs in Australia, which currently services the bulk of local demand for amphetamines is being challenged by accessible and higher-quality synthetic drugs imported from Asia. Such challenges are likely to lead to increased availability of amphetamine-like substances and the possibility of increased violence in the marketplace as rival domestic and overseas suppliers vie for dominance. Such competition is likely to be accompanied by increased violence and aggressive marketing as suppliers try to hold on to or expand into markets."

5. Shona Morrison, "Researching heroin supply" in Trends & Issue Paper no. 257 (Australian Institute of Criminology) p. 5 (June 2003) athttp://www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi2/tandi257.pdf:
" . . . [T]he flow of heroin to Australia is likely to fluctuate to some extent and drops in supply may be experienced when local conditions lower cultivation levels in the source country. In short, the high retail value of the Australian heroin market is unlikely to benefit traffickers further up the supply chain. Those individuals will be more concerned with immediate needs to reduce the risks of trafficking and receive optimal returns on their investment. In 'lean' years, other markets closer to source, and with fewer trafficking costs (for example, the Asian markets) may simply offer a better proposition. In 1996, a scenario was considered by Australia's Office of Strategic Crime Assessments (OSCA) which made use of many of the supply indicators available at that time. The conclusion was reached that a shortage of heroin might be expected with five years in countries located at the tail end of international trafficking routes (such as Australia)."

6. Statements regarding law enforcement effort and production are analysed in W.M. Bush, "The Australian heroin drought: The case for an inquiry into its causes and the flood of methamphetamines" (February 2002) at www.ffdlr.org.au