ALEX WODAK. Do large seizures of illicit drugs really make a difference?

Jan 27, 2017

Large seizures of illicit drugs always attract considerable publicity, and are no doubt very positive for the law enforcement agencies and politicians involved. But do they benefit the community?  

In December 2016, Australian police announced the seizure of 1,100 kg of cocaine, said to have an estimated street value of $360 million.

Do seizures reduce the effects of drugs that the community are most concerned about, such as deaths, disease, crime and corruption? Are attempts to interrupt the supply of illicit drugs effective and cost effective? Are they free of severe side effects?

There have been many large drug seizures, including in Australia.

In October 1998, 390 kg of heroin were seized off the coast of Port Macquarie. Mr Mick Palmer, the then Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, said that even this large seizure had had no effect on the price, purity or availability of heroin.

In November 2014, Australian Customs seized 1,917 kilograms of MDMA and 849 kilograms of methamphetamine with an estimated street value of more than $1.5 billion.

In August 2008, Australian authorities seized 4.4 tonnes of ecstasy estimated to have a street value of $440 million.

In 1984, Colombian and US authorities found 14 tons of cocaine estimated to be worth over $US 1 billion belonging to Pablo Escobar in the Colombian jungle.

In September 1989, police in San Francisco found over 20 tons of cocaine said to have an estimated value of $US 2 billion wholesale.

In November 2011, a raid in Mexico found a warehouse with an elaborate underground tunnel, hydraulic lift and light rail system. 52 tons of cannabis were found in total.

In 2009, authorities seized 92 tons of opium poppy seeds in Helmund province, Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

105 tonnes of cannabis worth an estimated $US 430 million were found in a Mexican warehouse in October 2010.

In 2008, 260 tons of hashish worth an estimated $376 million was seized in southern Afghanistan.

There is a strong tendency over time for increasingly large and more frequent drug seizures to be made. Some senior law enforcement officers have noted that quantities seized at the start of their careers, which raised eyebrows then, are not uncommon now. The quoted value of the drugs seized often seems somewhat arbitrary.

The huge disruption of the opium market in Afghanistan in 2001 is very instructive. At the time, Afghanistan was already responsible for more than 90% of the world’s supply of illicit opium and heroin. In 2000, a Taliban leader announced a substantial reduction of opium cultivation would be strictly enforced. In 2001, opium production in Afghanistan fell by 94%. Despite this huge decline, the price of heroin in Western Europe, mainly supplied by Afghanistan, was much the same as it had been before and afterwards.

In 2005 the Guardian published a 2003 study by the ‘Strategy Unit Drugs Project’. This study, commissioned by the Blair Cabinet from a government research centre and intended to always remain confidential, evaluated the effectiveness of Britain’s drug policy. The report concluded that ‘a sustained seizure rate of over 60% is required to put a successful trafficker out of business – anecdotal evidence suggests that seizure rates as high as 80% may be needed in some cases. Sustained successful interventions on this scale have never been achieved’.

Many of the 35 senior Australian criminal justice professionals interviewed in 1999 believed that the approach to drug users should primarily emphasise health measures. Most supported ‘imaginative and liberal approaches designed to minimise the harms associated with illegal drugs’.

In the USA between 1990 and 2007, the average inflation-adjusted and purity-adjusted prices of heroin, cocaine and cannabis decreased by 81%, 80% and 86%, respectively, while average purity increased by 60%, 11% and 161%, respectively. Similar trends were observed in Europe and Australia despite generally increased seizures of these drugs in major production regions and major domestic markets.

In 2016 Australians who use drugs reported the following drugs were either ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to obtain: heroin 91%; crystal methamphetamine (ice) 96%; cocaine 61%; and hydroponic cannabis 92%.

A blaze of publicity for large drug seizures certainly helps keep the public onside. So does quoting a much higher retail price for drugs seized although the large quantities of drugs seized would be replaced at lower wholesale prices.

Why is drug policy so resistant to change when it has so obviously and abjectly failed? In 2009/10, 66% of the $1.7 billion expended by Australia’s nine governments in response to illicit drugs was allocated to supply control (customs, police, courts and prisons). That translates into a large army of people (and families) who would not like to see policy changed to a health and social approach.

After more than half a century of a criminal justice approach to drugs, the drug market is bigger than ever and much more dangerous. Deaths, disease, property crime, violent crime and corruption are much higher now than they were decades ago. Law enforcement attempts to interrupt the supply of illicit drugs are neither effective nor cost effective and they produce substantial collateral damage. Change is starting to happen in some countries and will eventually start in Australia.

The annual turnover of the global illicit drug market is several hundred billion dollars. The ‘Strategy Unit Drugs Project’ estimated that profit accounts for an astonishing 26-58% of the turnover of the drugs industry. Global drug law enforcement would be equivalent to only a small fraction of the annual turnover of the illicit drug market.

Every now and then an elite politician lets slip that they see drug law enforcement for the sham that it is. At his confirmation hearing in 2001 for Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld said that he believed that illicit drug use is ‘overwhelmingly a demand problem. If demand persists, it’s going to find ways to get what it wants, and if it isn’t from Colombia, it’s going to be from someplace else.’

Dr Alex Wodak AM, a physician, is the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and a Director of Australia21. Dr Wodak and colleagues established Australia’s first needle syringe programme and first Medically Supervised Injecting Centre when both were pre-legal.

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