Australia struggling to rein in growing drug menace

Joint efforts with Asian police forces have led to record drug busts, but demand still rising

Some of the 903kg haul of Ice seized in Australia on April 4 - the country's biggest ever drug bust.
Some of the 903kg haul of Ice seized in Australia on April 4 - the country's biggest ever drug bust.PHOTO: REUTERS

Australia is grappling with increasing efforts to smuggle in huge quantities of the drug methamphetamine from across the region, prompting the police to create global task forces that have resulted in record-breaking seizures.

Fuelled by strong demand and high local prices, Australia has become a popular destination for syndicates from across the region, including China, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

"Drugs enter in almost every shape and form," said Professor Ross Coomber, an expert on the drug trade at Griffith University in Brisbane. Policing the nation's vast border and entry points was a huge challenge, he said.

This ranged from airline passengers carrying drugs, containers on ships and ordinary boats trying to sneak past coastal patrols to imported objects such as floorboards, pottery, food items and cars.

Street prices are believed to be about 10 times higher than in countries such as China, adding to the allure for smugglers.

  • $947m

  • Street value of 903kg of crystal methamphetamine seized on April 4 in Australia's biggest drug bust. The haul was hidden among 70 boxes of floorboards smuggled from China.

Prof Coomber told The Straits Times that ultimately Australia would have to try to focus on demand and treat use of methamphetamine as a public health problem.

According to federal government data, about 2.1 per cent of Australians above the age of 14 have used methamphetamine in the past year. And a study published last year by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre shows the number of users in Australia has tripled in the past five years.

The soaring trade has prompted Australian officials to set up joint police task forces with China, Thailand and Cambodia. This has resulted in massive seizures and numerous arrests, though experts say these may only be putting a small dent in the overall supply.

According to the manager of organised crime for the Australian federal police, Commander Bruce Hill, the China task force has resulted in seven or more tonnes of crystal methamphetamine, or Ice, being taken off the streets. Based in Guangzhou in south-west China, the effort started in November 2015 as a six-month trial but has been extended until at least next year.

The Chinese task force is the first such "ever commenced with any country before, and there has been a number of flow-on effects, not just the drug seizures, but also the first time the Chinese have ever given evidence in an Australian court", Commander Hill told a parliamentary inquiry in March.

"We have really been able to open up our relationship with China."

The task forces have helped lead to several significant seizures of crystal methamphetamine in Australia in recent years.

On April 4, police revealed they had made Australia's biggest ever drug bust - intercepting 903kg of crystal methamphetamine hidden among 70 boxes of floorboards smuggled from China. Police photos show the drug being scraped off planks of wood in the shipment.

The haul was unprecedented: it totalled about nine million drug hits and was given a street value of A$900 million (S$947 million).

The seizure followed other recent large drug hauls. In February, 720 litres of liquid methamphetamine was found stashed in bras and art objects in Sydney.

Australia has been holding a parliamentary inquiry on the problem.

The authorities believe most of the methamphetamine in Australia was imported. There is also a trade involving imports of precursor chemicals which are then converted into methamphetamine in domestic drug labs.

Commander Hill said 1kg of Ice could cost A$6,000 to A$7,000 and would be worth about A$80,000 to A$100,000 when it lands in Australia. Its street price could then rise again to about A$200,000.

"The profit margin on this is just phenomenal," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'Australia struggling to rein in growing drug menace'. Subscribe