Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

An information paper


There is an intimate link between illicit drugs and growth in crime. The prohibition of those drugs means that the use, possession and dealing in them are crimes. Of direct concern to the community at large who have had no family experience of those drugs is the large amount of crime committed by dependent users to support their drug habit.

Unless users who have become addicted have enough private income to buy their drugs they will resort to:

(a) property crime consisting mainly of burglary of homes, shop lifting, breaking into cars, bag snatching and hold ups;
(b) prostitution; and
(c) drug dealing.

Virtually everyone has a big stake in getting drug policy right including:

  1. Quantity of drug related crime
  2. Activity surround illicit drugs is the biggest single cause of crime and is responsible for the worrying rising crime rates. In the words of the Prime Minister, Mr Howard:

    "Research shows that more than half, and possibly up to 80% of property offences have some drug involvement. Between 45% and 60% of convicted offenders committed property crimes to support drug habits. Some 64% of offenders admitted using drugs (to give them a lift, or courage) to commit an offence."

  3. Strenuous law enforcement efforts have been ineffective in reducing the supply of drugs
  4. Turning off the supply of illicit drugs is the superficial answer to the drug-crime problem just as it is the superficial means of eliminating the drug problem as a whole. The sad fact is that virtually every police commissioner in Australia has acknowledged that major police efforts have been ineffective in reducing the supply of drugs.

    This is shown by:

    (a) rising levels of purity of drugs, and particularly heroin;

    (b) decreasing prices of illicit drugs;

    (c) the rapid spread of new designer drugs;

    (b) increased amounts of drugs.

    The Commissioner of the Australian Federal Policy, Mr Mick Palmer, said of Australia’s biggest seizure 400 kg of heroin off Port Macquarie in NSW in October 1998 that "the indications are we haven't made much dent on the market." Police and Customs estimate that only about 10% of illicit drugs imported into Australia are detected. More careful South Australian research strongly suggests that, in general, the interdiction rate is much lower. For example, in 1995-96 the figure was only about 4.5%. This accords with earlier research based on less certain estimates of the heroin using populations that the seizure rate was "almost certainly" much closer to an estimated lower bound of 3.7% than the upper bound of 17.2%.

    The remorseless rise in world illicit drug production as estimated by United States, British and United Nations authorities is another clear indication that efforts to cut off supply at source are ineffective.

    Policing within Australia has shown itself to be just as ineffective as policing of the customs barrier in stemming the flow of drugs. Research in Western Sydney published in 1995 showed that seizure of heroin either across Australia or within New South Wales had no detectable impact on "the price, purity or perceived availability of heroin at street-level in Cabramatta". Similarly, the same study found no detectable relationship between the rate of arrest for heroin use/possession and the price of heroin.

    More recently, under the name of Operation Puccini, the NSW Police carried New York style zero tolerance policing in Cabramatta. While dealers had been driven from the notorious locations in Cabramatta's business area so that the situation there improved, the police officer in charge stated that the activity had had "little effect on the core problem - the number of heroin users". What happened was that dealers moved "into the suburbs, making it harder for police to detect and apprehend them." Moreover the price tag of this police operation has been very high: 45 additional police had to be stationed in the area and video cameras installed.

    Displacement has been the common result of costly intensive policing of drug laws. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, in its lurid prose, has likened the drug trade to the many headed Hydra who, losing one, quickly grows others:

    "Cabramatta is losing its ugly reputation as the epicentre of the heroin trade. But as one victory is claimed, the battle moves. Now, in the meaner streets of Marrickville, syringes lie in filthy heaps as dealers and addicts make their cheap transactions."

    In Melbourne a police crack down in the central business district displaced drug trading to Swan Street, Richmond and elsewhere. The image of the squeezed balloon is apt. Pressure here, expands it there. A crack down in dealing can lead to a change in the mix of criminal activity such as more property crime or more prostitution.

  5. Why law enforcement is ineffective and even promotes illicit drug use
  6. There are sound reasons why so many senior police officers believe that reduction of the drug problem by law enforcement efforts is doomed to failure in spite of strenuous efforts and the deployment of substantial resources.

    Law deployment efforts in Australia, the United States and have had as their principal objectives:

    (a) the reduction rather than the elimination of supply; and

    (b) forcing users to stop their use and deterrence of newcomers from taking up a drug use.

    1. Ineffectiveness in reducing drug supply
    2. The realistic expectation has long been that only a small proportion of illicit drugs would be seized. (It was just 10% even in the in 1970s.) Law enforcement was there intended to make drugs less accessible not by cutting off the supply but by raising their price. Declining seizure rates, lower illicit drug prices and rising levels of purity are all indicators of the failure of this strategy.

      A United States study on cocaine gives a cogent reason for this lack of success. Seizure, it stated, "does not directly decrease the supply of cocaine reaching the retail market. Free entry into the cocaine business, at all levels, allows supply to expand to cover the losses due to seizures. To a first-order approximation, suppliers simply produce the market what they would have produced anyway plus enough extra to cover anticipated government seizures." The former Tasmanian Police Commissioner and member of the Board of the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence described Australian experience this way:

      "I don't think [police action is] having any effect on the supply in Australia. I think that what we do quite regularly when we catch some of the Mr Bigs is that we make life much easier for some of the other Mr Bigs who haven't been prosecuted and caught. We've put their competition in prison and left the world open for them and they're extremely difficult to catch and they go on with their business . . . ."

      The colossal profit margin — for heroin something like 3000 times the farm-gate price — to be gained from trafficking in illicit drugs ensures that any elimination of a dealer from the distribution network is quickly replaced.

      Another fact that is creating an insurmountable obstacle for law enforcement is that unlike, say, robbery drug dealing is a consensual crime: the purchaser of the substance wants a completed transaction just as much or more than the seller. The parties to the illegal act are therefore unlikely to complain about it.

    3. Using the law to force users to stop their use and to deter newcomers from taking up an illicit drug is counter productive
    4. Whether law enforcement against drug users is effective in reducing crime necessarily involves an assessment of so-called harm reduction or harm minimisation strategies. What is clear is that there is a direct link between the level of crime and the number of dependent users who feel themselves driven to commit offences to support their habit. Law enforcement will be effective in reducing crime only if:

      (a) it reduces the number of dependent users; and

      (b) it serves to curtail the number of recruits to the ranks of dependent users.

      A key issue is therefore whether harm reduction measures encourage or discourage drug use.

      1. Harm reduction strategies and crime
      2. Those who strongly endorse a continuation and even intensification of a costly law enforcement largely acknowledge the current ineffectiveness of law enforcement but insist that this is because the introduction of some harm reduction strategies since 1985 has hampered that effort.

        This objection is not credible for any of the factors already mentioned that influence supply because they are factors that apply in various countries and whether harm reduction strategies are put in place. Where, if at all, the objection may have some validity is in deterrence of users. To be effective, services like dissemination of advice on "safe" drug use, needle exchanges, excluding police from attendance at overdoses and introduction of safe injecting rooms require free contact with the drug using population. This in turn implies some restraint on the part of police in enforcement. Is it correct that such measures lead to more crime? The strong indications are that they do not and that in fact they reduce the level of crime.

      3. Reduction of crime among addicted drug users resulting from harm reduction strategies

Drug related crime committed by users is almost entirely committed by those described as dependent drug users: those who have become addicted. The many times larger population of so-called "recreational users" are not involved in crime to support their use. If the drugs are not available they do not use them; they do not take the extraordinary steps that dependent users do to seek out and pay for their drugs.

These extraordinary steps – the property crime, drug dealing and prostitution – are a measure of the desperation of addicted users. It is obvious that the more that addicted users can be brought into treatment the less they will be involved in these criminal activities to support their habit.

Encouragement to enter treatment is one of the principal objectives of harm reduction measures. (The others being health of the user and limiting the spread of life threatening infectious diseases within the community at large.) Users are brought into contact with health professionals, educationalists, counselors, and assistance is provided to detox. Harm reduction measures even have a community benefit from their effect on dependent users who do not decide to enter treatments. Their generally chaotic life style is improved and as a result they tend to stabilise and reduce their drug intake.

It is important to recognise that any treatment interventions that reduce reliance by dependent users on the illicit drug market have direct community benefits in reducing crime. Thus treatments have significant community benefits even if they lead only to a temporary cessation of use or even just a reduction. The United States study on cocaine described it this way:

"Even though the debate on the effectiveness of treatment focuses on treatment’s ability to get people to stay off drugs after they leave a treatment program, one-fifth of treatment programs’ overall effectiveness is due to the suppression of cocaine use while people are in treatment. Ignoring this effect in analysis of treatment program effectiveness would underestimate program benefits."

At worst harm reduction measures lead to no increased recourse to illicit drugs (and thus crime) by dependent users and, more likely, to a reduction of reliance on the illicit drug market. Survey’s have, for example, shown that as well as having irrefutable health benefits needle exchanges have not led to an increase in recourse to illicit drug use and crime.

Indeed some harm reduction strategies have led to significant reductions in illicit drug use. This clearly applies to methadone maintenance and, it is expected, will apply to newer drug substitution therapies such as buprenorphine and naltrexone. Spectacular reductions in crime have been documented from a maintenance therapy that was vetoed by the Prime Minister in 1997 namely the medical prescription of heroin. A trial involving 1,148 severely dependent users in Switzerland produced the following reductions in crime among those on it:

Dr Martin Killias of the Swiss Institute of Police Science and Criminology has since stated on Australian television that the reduction in crime was between 80-90%. He has added that "I know of no other crime prevention program with such a big reduction in theft and other serious crimes".** The reduction of crime has even been grudgingly acknowledged by General Barry McCaffrey, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control and ideological opponent of heroin maintenance.

Similar albeit less spectacular reductions in crime have been measured following the introduction of safe injecting rooms in Frankfurt:

• Cases of street robbery declined from 1,800 in 1991 to 1,300-1,400 in 1994;

• Cases of car break-ins declined from 40,000 in 1987 to 23,000 in 1994;

• Cases of house break-ins declined from 5,000-6,000 in 1990 to 4,000 5,000 in 1994;

• Cases of heroin trafficking declined from 1,400 in 1992 to 500 in 1994; and

• Legal proceedings involving drug users dropped 20 percent from 1995 to 1996.

      1. Law enforcement and the recruitment of new users

A fear that overwhelms many is that any lessening of law enforcement will lead to an explosion of drug use. This was behind the Prime Minister’s justification for vetoing the ACT heroin trial: it would send the wrong message to children. It was the point of General McCaffrey’s reserved welcome of the spectacular reduction in crime by dependent users as a result of medical prescription of heroin in Switzerland: "in the longer term," he asserted, "it will contribute to an inexorable growth in the rate of heroin abuse."

If the fear is correct there is a conflict between what is most effective in reducing crime among dependent users and what is required to limit recruitment to the ranks of recreational drug users who may develop a habit and become dependent users. In fact there are solid reasons for believing that this fear is groundless. Indeed there are indications that the reverse is true: far from harm reduction measures encouraging people to take up drug users, there are substantial grounds for believing that in fact law enforcement measures promote this recruitment.

Evidence for this is found in considering the average age of users of severely addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine in countries like the Netherlands and Switzerland that have adopted the most thorough-going harm reduction policies. If the fears of those who question harm reduction were correct the average age of drug users would be falling. In fact the average age is rising in both countries.

The reason for this is revealed in research that indicates that one of the main influences for people (generally children) taking up drug use is the degree of availability through friends and acquaintances. More particularly dealers will often carry or have access to a smorgasbord of drugs. Thus the 55% of Australian 17 year olds who recent research has found have used marijuana will more than likely have access to other drugs through the same peer contacts through which they obtained the marijuana. This contact network that penetrates the "clean" community is virtually invisible; in this it is different from trading among dependent users who "must" have their fix and which frequently takes place under public gaze in a few notorious locations. Law enforcement efforts against this invisible area market is particularly difficult.

The inevitable structure of the illicit drug distribution network greatly facilitates this process. The lower rungs of the distribution pyramid are largely in the hands of those who have the greatest incentive to maximise drug distribution: the users themselves. The recruitment of new users is a key part of this strategy. In Australia this is all facilitated by the failure of higher level supply reduction strategies. Prices are lower than they have ever been and availability is widespread.

It is clear that increased property crime would result if harm reduction strategies were ditched and greater law enforcement effort was focussed on the lower levels of the distribution pyramid. Many dependent users who have financed their habit from dealing would inevitably resort to property crime, prostitution or the development of markets in areas where police activity is not so intense. The worst of all possible worlds is thus likely to result: more property crime affecting the community and exposure of more people to drugs.

  1. Conclusion

Property crime committed by those addicted to illicit drugs costs the community $1.6 billion a year. Police commissioners are warning that the rising crime rate will continue to rise unless new strategies are tried. Increasingly it is the community at large that is having to bear the increased costs of security as well as bear the brunt of the crime. Private security agents and similar measures add to the cost doing business. Home contents and business insurance premiums are rising.

More intensive law enforcement is not the answer. In the longer term it will even probably lead to more drugs and related crime. Treatment has been shown to be 7.3 times more effective than law enforcement in reducing the drug problem and the related problems such as crime. Treatment is at the heart of harm reduction strategies. It makes good economic sense to intensify them.

World best treatment practice indicates that the application of similar strategies here would lead to a 60% reduction in the number of criminal offences. Extrapolating this figure to the 80% of property offences that our Prime Minister has said have some drug involvement strongly suggests that, with a drug policy focussed on treatment, Australia would be looking now to something like a 48% reduction in crime.


  1. Prime Minister John Howard, "Launch of the Australian National Council on Drugs" 16 March 1998. Go Back

  2. "All jurisdictions reported that during 1996-97 the purity level of heroin on Australian streets was either stable or increasing after having increased in many areas in recent years" (Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian illicit drug report 1996-97 (Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Canberra, December 1997) p. 41). INCLUDE ON WEB? "The dealers don't even bother to cut the heroin any more, and most times it is sold in as pure a form as it was when it left the hills of Burma" (Dr Paul Dillon from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Council quoted in Sydney Morning Herald (Sat, 17 Oct 1998) p. 33). Go Back

  3. "Generally heroin prices have been falling around the world" (Illicit drug report 1996-97, p. 42). " . . . [P]rohibition hasn't stopped anyone taking drugs; in fact the price of heroin has dropped from $40 a .03 gram cap in 1995 to $20 today" (Dr Lisa Maher of the national Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW quoted in The Bulletin (27 Oct 1998)). "An average cap of heroin on the streets of Cabramatta or Kings Cross dropped from $80 in 1996 to $50 in 1997. This year it fell again to $30" (Dr Paul Dillon from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Council quoted in Sydney Morning Herald (Sat, 17 Oct 1998) p. 33).

"In the past 15 years, the real price of cocaine per pure gram [in the United States] has fallen by more than a factor of 5. . . . During the past 15 years, the price of cocaine decreased while consumption increased—in spite of escalating public-policy attempts to reverse these trends" (C. Peter Rydell and Susan S Everingham, Controlling cocaine: supply versus demand programs prepared for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, United States Army (RAND, Drug Policy Research Center, Santa Monica, 1994) pp. 3-5)
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  1. "Australia's biggest ever heroin haul had not dented local supply of the drug, Australian Federal police Commissioner Mick Palmer admitted yesterday.
    "The seizure last month of 400kg of heroin with a street value of $400 million led to the arrests of 18 people and was among the largest heroin hauls in the world, Mr Palmer said.
    "But despite the size of the seizure, heroin prices had not risen and there did not appear to be shortage of the drug in Australia, he said.
    "Mr Palmer said it would have been optimistic to have expected the seizure to have impacted in Australia" (Herald Sun (Melbourne), Wed, 25 Nov 1998, p. 22).
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  2. A South Australian research Mr Prunckun has found that in 1995-96, that, "It's estimated that an average of 4.7kg of heroin was smuggled into Australia each day, but during that year law enforcement was only successful in seizing less than five percent." He said, "That means about 96.5% of all heroin which left places like the Golden Triangle destined for Australia ended up being sold on Australian streets. When you compare this to 1988-89 data, 10% is estimated to have been seized. So, in eight years we have actually gone backwards." REFERENCE TO WEB.
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  3. Don Weatherburn & Bronwyn Lind, Drug law enforcement policy and its impact on the heroin market (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney, 1995) p. 34.
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  4. "[T]here is no detectable relationship between the price, purity or perceived availability of heroin at street level at Cabramatta and average amount of heroin seized either:

(a) across Australia; or
(b) within New South Wales, and

there is no detectable relationship between the rate of admission to local methadone clinics and either (a) the price per pure gram at street level in Cabramatta (b) its perceived availability, or (c) the rate of arrest in Cabramatta heroin use/possession. Nor is there any detectable relationship between the rate of arrest for heroin use/possession and the price of heroin. " (Don Weatherburn & Bronwyn Lind, Drug law enforcement policy and its impact on the heroin market (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney, 1995) p. 33).
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  1. "Nor is there any detectable relationship between the rate of arrest for heroin use/possession and the price of heroin" (ibid).
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  2. "A 12 month operation attacking street-level drug dealers at Cabramatta has had little effect on the number of heroin users in the area, according to the police officer in charge of the region, Assistant Commissioner Christine Nixon. Ms Nixon said the operation had made Cabramatta's streets safer but had had little effect on the core problem - the number of heroin users. Under Operation Puccini, an additional 45 police were stationed at Cabramatta to crack down on the open selling of heroin on the streets. Security cameras monitored the CBD and railway station, and police were visible at all times. Her assessment was backed up by Dr David Dixon, a co-author of a study - Running the Risks - of heroin use in Cabramatta, who said police had few options other than pushing drug users into treatment. But there was little public money for treatment and no methadone clinic at Cabramatta, even though it had been proved that addicts on methadone committed less crime, he said. Dr Dixon said there was no doubt Operation Puccini had improved the quality of life for people in the Cabramatta CBD, but he said there had been a displacement effect. Dealers had been driven from their high-profile positions in Cabramatta's business area and into the suburbs, making it harder for police to detect and apprehend them, he said. Ms Dixon said police were working with the Health Department and other government agencies to take a broader approach to the problem through the Fairfield Drug Action Team" (Sydney Morning Herald 21 July 1998 p. 5).
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  3. Ibid.

  4. Editorial in the Daily Telegraph (Sydney) Friday, 11 December 1998, p. 10.
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  5. Rydell and Everingham, op. cit., (1994) fn , p. 6.
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  6. Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform, Drug lore: the questioning of our current drug law; a report based on the transcripts of the Parliamentarians' Inquiry and on papers presented to the seventh International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm, Hobart, Tasmania, 4-6 March 1996 (Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Canberra, February 1997) p. 30.
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  7. "[O]pium is worth $US90 per kg at the farm gate in Pakistan, $US2870 per kg wholesale in producer countries, $US80,000 per kg wholesale in the US and $US290,000 per kg retail at 40% purity, a mark-up of over 3000 times. Cocaine rises from $US610 per kg for coca leaves to $US25,250 per kg wholesale in the US and retails at $US50,000 per kg for crack and $US110,000 kg for cocaine powder at 65% purity, a mark up of 80 to 180 times. As a result farmers receive only 6% of revenue, processors 2% and traders 2%, with 90% of the return going to heroin traffickers controlled by organised crime. The attraction of the industry to organised crime is obvious, given willing buyers and huge mark ups" ("Illegal drugs" in Access Economics economics monitor, October 1997, pp. 14-18 at p. 14).
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  8. Rydell and Everingham, op. cit., (1994) fn , p. 23.
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  9. Ambros Uchtenhagen, Programme for a medical prescription of narcotics: final report of the research representative: summary of the synthesis report (University of Zurich, Zurich, 1997) p. 7.
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  10. Interview on Current Affair in 1998.
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  11. There has been criticism that the reductions were not as great as such figures indicate because they were based on unreliable self reporting by users. This has been refuted by Professor Haemmig of the University of Berne Psychiatric Service in an interview originally broadcast on the ABC Health report on 10 August 1998:

"Norman Swan: And what about ancillary criminal activities, such as burglary and so on? Did it reduce that?
Robert Haemmig: Yes, significantly, and this was monitored very closely because it was a major political issue. And we have self report data, then of course people say 'Oh self report, why do you think they do not lie?' They do not lie, we have today's literature, scientific literature, which clearly proves that the self report thing with addicts is quite reliable. Another thing they did was they looked at victimisation rates.
Norman Swan: I don't know what you mean by victimisation rate in that sense.
Robert Haemmig: It's an interesting factor that if you are involved in criminality the chances that you are a victim of criminal acts is much higher.
Norman Swan: So you're the object rather than the subject of criminal activity.
Robert Haemmig: Actually you are normally both. If you stop committing crime, then you normally also stop being a victim. So this status there's no sense to rely on the fact that you are a victim of theft or something like this. It also clearly showed a significant reduction, but even then politically, they wanted to have the police status, so they did a study on the police data, and they looked closely on police reports, and they went to all the police and they checked the register with all the names and they could prove that there was still this reduction they already found in the self reports."
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  1. While visiting Switzerland in 1998, he said such programs could help drug-related crime in the short term, but that "in the longer term, it will contribute to an inexorable growth in the rate of heroin abuse" (Associated Press, "U.S. Drug Czar Review Swiss Programs," Las Vegas Sun, July 15, 1998).
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  2. In an interview published in Maincity Magazine (Frankfurt) in February 1998 Mr Werner Schneider described the drop in crime following the introduction of safe injecting rooms as "significant". This article is reprinted in Report of the Capital City Lord Mayors Advisory Committee (August 1998). .
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  3. Dr Lisa Maher of the University of NSW quoted in The Bulletin, 27 Oct 1998 and the Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 18 July 1998. Access Economics had earlier estimated the annual figure at $1.5 billion ("Illegal drugs" in Access Economics
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