In the first part of a special WAtoday investigation, we look at the new designer drugs flooding Perth's streets.
There is a new breed of drugs on the streets of Perth, and authorities admit they are afraid.
Police are facing a new evolution in the drug war, as a system of established syndicates is joined by a wave of guerrilla drug manufacturers. These backyard "cooks" are using instructions downloaded from the internet to invent new chemical stimulants that are then flooding a cashed-up market.
And medical experts fear they have no idea what the fallout will be as the physical and mental health impacts of these new chemical cocktails sink in.
Forget cocaine, LSD or ecstasy, these new designer drugs contain unidentified combinations of chemicals that have never before been seen or tested. And they now make up almost half of all the drugs on Australian streets.
Law enforcers are racing to name these new drugs and get them prohibited under legislation. Mutated forms of amphetamines such as benzylpiperazine (BZP) and dimethylamphetamine methcathinone (meow meow) are just the latest to be identified.
The latest drug seizure statistics from the nation's top crime-fighting body, the Australian Crime Commission, highlight how a trickle of designer substances has swiftly developed into a tsunami.
The 2008-09 year saw an 1800 per cent surge in drugs listed as "other/unknown" compared to the previous year. This included both unnamed illicit substances and combinations of pharmaceuticals that were being used to create new drugs.
These nameless "other/unknown" drugs, according to weight, made up 39.9 per cent of all drugs seized in 2008-09, compared to amphetamines and stimulants at 12.3 per cent; cocaine at 4.4 per cent; and heroin at 1.4 per cent.
Cannabis made up 41.9 per cent, and police say this still makes up the backbone of outlaw motorcycle gangs' drug finances.
Health experts remain in the dark about the exact repercussions of new designer drugs on the human body. But Royal Perth Hospital emergency medicine Professor Daniel Fatovich said the dangerous side effects observed in well-known chemical drugs gave great cause for concern. For instance, the latest research had shown people in their 20s who had abused amphetamines were ending up with brains that bore scars similar to those inflicted by old age.
"Young people are acquiring lesions in their brains that are at the same prevalence of people more than double their age," he said.
"So we're kind of coming around to the view that using amphetamines not only ages you on the outside but it's probably also aging you on the inside."
One step ahead of the police
WA Police Assistant Commissioner Nick Anticich said organised crime had recently begun focusing more on the emerging drugs market. He admitted this development was "a huge part of the illicit drug problem" in the state and described the knock-on effects as scary.
Unlike traditional drugs, many of these chemicals did not come from an organic base, such as poppies or other plants, the effects of which have been tested in early medicinal practices.
Instead they were altered strains of chemical compounds. This made them exceptionally dangerous to recreational drug-takers, who effectively became guinea pigs to test long-term health impacts and addictive qualities.
"Under a range of substances there is a fair bit of experimentation, especially with the internet where there is a wealth of knowledge readily available," Mr Anticich said.
"This other stuff hasn't been tested as to what the long-term consequences will be.
"This is a generational change since kids are computer savvy and experimentation has always been part of youth culture. With more knowledge widely available on the internet and the world being such a small place, you can invent something overnight and have access to it the next day."
The criminal element
At a more sinister level, Mr Anticich said recreational users were at the mercy of organised crime syndicates that raced to manipulate and alter chemically-manufactured drugs in a bid to corner new markets and control the money flow from development to delivery at street level.
"This about marketing and finding the next buzz," he said. "(For example) MDMA didn't really exist in Australia in any broad (level) in the early '90s. It was only when Indonesian students started coming to Western Australia that we started to see syndicates, like those in the UK and USA, starting to kick up."
He said since the new drugs were not on the schedule of banned illicit substances - with many of the chemicals being derived from medicines - they provided loopholes for organised crime gangs to avoid prosecution.
The gangs could create new drugs and a market for them faster than the substances could be identified by authorities and banned.
"This is a gift from heaven for organised crime as (the gangs) are highly adaptive," Mr Anticich said. "Then they are able to abundantly multiply from there. As we move into the future we will see more and more of that abuse."
The substance of choice
Of all the substances available to backyard cooks, methylamphetamine is the substance most commonly mutated to create the next new high.
WA is already starting to see the effects from the explosion in the methylamphetamine trade, with more than 100 clandestine laboratories raided in WA this year alone.
Forensic drugs analyst Dominic Reynolds said the methylamphetamine trade was a consequence of the war in Afghanistan, which radically reduced heroin availability.
He said heroin users simply transferred to methylamphetamines, which were easily and cheaply manufactured from recipes off the internet.
It meant clandestine laboratories were being set up in backyard sheds and rental properties, using fast-track formulas of explosive and toxic chemicals to create the drugs quickly and cheaply.
"We've seen a more recent proliferation in the number of these cases, where it is a shorter manufacturing process that uses a complex range of chemicals. As long as you have the precursor pseudoephedrine, which you can buy across the counter, and equipment from a hardware store," Mr Anticich said.
"It's scary. These new drugs are derived off backyard recipes ripped off the internet which can cause a whole heap of problems."
Police face the difficult job of balancing legitimate community needs for available pharmaceuticals, such as cold and flu tablets that contain pseudoephedrine, against tough measures needed to target criminals.
"It's a complex scenario. Our primary role is supply reduction but while demand continues, police have to go beyond just the one role," Mr Anticich said.
"This is challenging us to try new things... to counter these new emerging drugs coming into existence."
November 22, 2010 - 10:14AM
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