The drug “war” is yet another example of hyperbolic rhetoric where political and law enforcement public relations spin has replaced practical analysis and fiscal common sense. When ‘the powers-that-be’ realise that the basis for tackling drugs should be economic savings to the nation – with improved health and crime prevention benefits as a by-product – we might start to get somewhere, Bill Bush writes.
Bush: ‘We are allowing illicit drugs to
criminalise and kill our children’
By Bill Bush*
On the Federal Highway leading in to Canberra from Sydney, as you head down the hill to the suburb of Watson, is a sign that proclaims the mission of the Australian Federal Police: ‘To fight crime together and win’.
Is deterrence its purpose? It crowds among a clutch of warning signs about speed limits and cameras. Does it speak to the perception that all Sydney-siders are crooks who would be advised to retreat from the National Capital?
Maybe…but it’s the ”and win” that I chuckle at.
The sign evokes an intense discussion at headquarters with the top brass and a highly paid public relations consultant. It’s readily agreed that the AFP ‘mission’ is to fight crime. A cynic points out that in this era of so many wars with Australia on the losing side, a commitment to fight is not enough. We need to declare victory before we start.
The TV detectives exhibit a can-do mindset: the invariably victorious Ms Fisher embarks on her investigations with a positive approach, and M. Poirot’s ego exceeds that of his portly frame. So Canberra – and its AFP sign – always welcomes me as a city of indomitable optimism.
But the cynic was right to pre-empt victory in crime. According to syndicated extracts from Nick McKenzie’s The Sting, over the past 30 years the blue-uniformed police drug war record has been about as successful as their khaki colleagues. Sure, particular battles have been won but the war continues.
McKenzie says of a $500 million liquid ecstasy haul that “despite getting big busts, [the Australian Crime Commission’s] work was failing to dent the flow of narco-dollars overseas – or the corresponding flow of illicit drugs into Australia.” (Canberra Times, Saturday 24 March 24, Forum p4).
The then AFP Commissioner made a similar point in 1998 after Australia’s biggest heroin bust: “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 Mick 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. (Herald Sun Melbourne, Wednesday, 25 Nov 1998, p22).
There’s so often a disconnect between the bubbling public relations optimism of law enforcement agencies and their political masters and the reticent grim assessments of the “new” measure that will turn the tide on a gigantic illegal trade estimated by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2005 to be US$322bn which was then larger than international trade in iron, steel and motor vehicles and on a par with world trade in oil and gas. Organised crime in Australia is estimated to have an annual turnover of “up to $15bn”. The AFP’s total revenue from the government is $1bn. It is not an even playing field and senior police recognise that smart “new” ideas like following the money trail and stings will not be the answer. For one thing they are not new. A lot of my time working for the Australian Government was spent helping weave a network of extradition and criminal assistance treaties to net a previous generation of big fish.
Marketing to mates
The illicit drug marketing plan is impeccable.
Young Australians with a dependency are small-time dealers in it to to finance their habit: direct marketing to one’s mates. These are the cannon fodder. Those higher in the food chain are also dispensible. McKenzie concedes that Australian police have made numerous arrests of “key individuals from crime groups “but even where this affects the supply chain, new supply chains are quickly established. Such local arrests do not deter the criminal principals who are resident overseas.” (Canberra Times, Saturday 24 March 2012, Forum p5).
My dream is that politicians will wake up to the reality that “It’s economics, stupid!” The Australian Bureau of Statistics is at least starting to do so. A recent symposium in Sydney heard of steps to include “all forms of illegal drug economy into the Australian System of National Accounts.” The researchers reported that that in 2010, the “Gross Value Added by the drug market trade” was $6,684m.
Back in 1994 a Queensland Justice Commission member reported that: “Queensland is the supply state for Australian users and the 70 tonnes of cannabis produced each year is conservatively worth $360 million.” The member, Mr Bob Aldred, added that such a large crop was vital to the Queensland economy and small country towns would decline if the illegal industry was stopped. Lest Queenslander feel they’re libelously singled out, following the major bushfire in the Australian Capital Territory in January 2003, “the price of a pound of bush-grown cannabis increased from around $2400 to $3500.”
Seizure rate remains below what is necessary
Law enforcement ever only manages to interdict a small proportion of illicit drug supply. On the basis of its full access to criminal intelligence, in 2001 the National Crime Authority estimated that in 1999-00 law enforcement was intercepting only some 12% of heroin on the Australian market. Very rarely the seizure rate may reach 20%.
In the meantime the the kingpins are smiling all the way to the bank. A 2003 confidential intelligence report to the UK’s Blair Government observed of Afghanistan that: “…a sustained seizure rate of over 60% is required to put a successful trafficker out of business” though a rate “as high as 80% may be needed in some cases.” It added that “sustained successful interventions on this scale have never been achieved.”
No wonder you hear top police with integrity and intelligence talking more like social and health workers than law enforcement warriors. The pages of The Canberra Times reports the local AFP chief police officer talking of mental health, sobering up shelters and liquor licensing. The head of the National Crime Authority lost his job for declaring that, “The scale of the illicit drug problem and its onward progression is such as to demand the highest attention of government and the community – it simply is not a battle that can be won by law enforcement alone or in partnership with the health sector. A co-ordinated and holistic approach is required, building upon and updating the foundation already established.”
Former AFP Commissioner Palmer,who urged a similar approach, put his finger on the difficulty for politicians: fear. “Medically managing existing addicts doesn’t mean it’s carte blanche for the rest of society. When you read something in the paper that says heroin will be next to the bags of sugar on the supermarket shelves, it’s very annoying. It is emotive and wrong. Existing addicts would be managed. The criminal element surely would lose interest in it because there isn’t a dollar in it. (The Age Friday 28 May 1999, pp A16-A17).
The title of the report released on Tuesday 3 April 2012 of an Australia 21 Round Table in which Mr Palmer participated puts an irrefutable case for at least debating the issue: “The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen.” 
* Bill Bush is a member of Civil Liberties Australia, and Families & Friends for Drug Law Reform.
An edited version of this article appeared first in the Canberra Times: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/opinion/illicit-drug-trade-is-all-about-big-bucks-of-course-20120403-1waw3.html – ixzz1r1H1uung
1. . (UNODC) 2005, 2005 World Drug Report, vol. 1. analysis pp. 16-17 & 127-28, 130, 143 399 (UNODC, Vienna, June 2005) at http://www.unodc.org/pdf/WDR_2005/volume_1_web.pdf visited 11/08/05.
3. . Hon Robert McClelland MP (Attorney-General) & The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP (Minister for Home Affairs and Justice), A national approach to tackling organised crime, Joint media release, 10 December 2010
5. . Adam Gajewski and Derick Cullen, “Measuring the Illegal Drug Economy of Australia” in a National Accounts Framework,” (Australian Bureau of Statistics) paper delivered at DPMP Symposium, Sydney, 16 March 2012
9. . United Kingdom, Strategy Unit, SU Drugs Project: Phase 1 Report: Understanding the Issues (13 June 2003) P. 73 at HYPERLINK http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2005/07/05/Report.pdf visited 05/07/05.