Last Wednesday, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) released a report titled the Australian Methylamphetamine Market. It states that since 2010, border seizures of imported ice—along with other forms of methamphetamine—are on the rise. A previous ACC release, the Illicit Drug Data Report, outlined that in 2012-2013 border seizures, arrests and seizure weights of amphetamines, including ice, were at an all time high. It also reported that amount of clandestine laboratories raided nationally was the second highest on record.
But despite the success Australian drug law enforcement agencies are having, there's been little impact on the illicit ice market.
The 2013 National Drugs Strategy Household survey found that while amphetamine use was stable, users were switching from powdered form to crystal. Ice use had more than doubled and the frequency of use increased. Furthermore, the majority of respondents to the 2014 Illicit Drug Reporting System—a national survey of people who inject drugs—stated that it was easy to obtain and purity was high.
During a Radio 3AW interview last April, Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that even though the government is fiercely fighting the war on drugs, spending $88 million on border security, "it's not a war we will ever finally win." However, instead of looking towards alternatives, the federal government's inquiry into ice, announced last Friday, is set to continue the focus on law enforcement.
Since 2001, Queensland has accounted for the greatest proportion of clandestine laboratory detections in the country. The majority of these "clan labs" are amphetamine producing. By the end of June this year, the Queensland Police are set to have closed down around 900 clan labs over the last three years. In the last financial year 340 drug laboratories were seized, a slight decrease from 379 the year prior.
But the 2014 Queensland Drug Trends survey, about to be released in full on April 1, reports there's been no significant change to the state's ice market. Dr Fairlie McIlwraith, drug researcher at the Queensland Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre, said that the price of ice has remained stable at $100 a point, while 92 percent of participants stated it's readily available.
"We're looking at people who regularly inject drugs. They've usually got a pretty good idea what's pure, and so purity has been high. 40 percent said purity was high," McIlwraith told VICE and went on to explain about the clan labs. "Queensland has always had a lot of addict-based labs historically, it's had the highest in Australia."
The ABC recently reported that Queensland Police are proposing to turn to drug education at schools, aiming to create a stigma around ice use as a method of deterrence. This has led some harm reduction advocates to question the value of such a program.
A spokesperson for Queensland Police advised VICE that as the education program has not yet begun, they're not in a position to comment on it.
Jason, who prefers to keep his last name private, has been injecting amphetamines in the ACT and NSW for the last 25 years. Ice was not available when the 43-year-old began using, as it's been a recent development over the last decade. He said the availability of ice is up and so is the purity. And large busts have no real effect at street level.
Jason's not surprised the clan labs shutdowns are not affecting supply because the majority of these are small operations, where people produce for themselves and a few others. "They're talking about shake and bake labs, where you can get a kit together reasonably easily. It would generally be one off situations, you do one cook at one site and then move on," he explained. "They're talking about someone's backroom, backyard, whatever... They've got a few bits of kit together. It's hardly glassware and lab style."
According to Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, drug law enforcement is not working for all illicit drugs. And since Australia has relied on such methods the illicit drug market has grown and become more dangerous. Production and consumption have increased, prices have dropped and purity has stayed the same or increased.
"Why is anyone still surprised that the closure of 900 clandestine laboratories did not result in an increase in price nor decline in availability?" he asked, speaking to VICE via email. "There is very strong and continuing demand for drugs and that leads to lucrative profits for people prepared to meet that demand. We have to accept that our approach acts as a price support mechanism so that for the few major heads of drug trafficking organisations, immense amounts of money are made very quickly."
Evidence shows that education only plays a modest role in drug policy, Wodak explained. And the most effective person to teach young people about drugs is their usual teacher, not the police. He believes that education is not the solution as there is none, "we are just going to have to learn to live with young people using drugs that older generations disapprove of." There has to be a move away from punitive drug policy, which makes the situation worse, and drug treatment should be separated from the mental health system.
Project worker at the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League Jude Byrne said creating further stigma around ice would lead to the same problems that have surrounded heroin use. AIVL has carried out research into stigma and found that the community only believes it's a good thing because they think it acts as a deterrent, even though it's been shown not to.
"All stigma and discrimination does is make drug users less likely to go get medical treatment because of the way they get treated," she said. "People would rather get liver cancer and die from hepatitis C than go and see a doctor. So stigma is a really clumsy method of dealing with the problem."
Byrne pointed out the need for programs for people who use amphetamines, in the way that methadone programs are available for heroin users. "There's absolutely nothing for people who use amphetamines in a problematic way. There's no program they can access. That's a real dilemma. They have to look at amphetamine replacement programs."
By Paul Gregoire - Vice/March 39, 2015
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