Launch of the Illicit Drug Data Report

JASON CLARE: John Lawler Chief Executive of the Australian Crime Commission, Tony Negus Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Tony Negus, Dr Peter Fisk, Chief Executive and Chief Metrologist of the National Measurement Institute and Dr Michael Collins, Director of the National Measurement Institute Drug Laboratory

Can I also recognise the traditional owners of this land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Ladies and gentlemen it’s a pleasure to be here to launch the Australian Crime Commission’s Illicit Drug Data Report for 2010-2011.

What we’re dealing with here is the scourge of drugs and the effect that it has on our society. Growing up in Cabramatta I saw this up close. Catching the train home from university and being offered heroin almost every night. Going to school and seeing friends become heroin addicts, knowing people that ended up going to gaol, seeing the violence, seeing the way that it affected my town, my home.

Cabramatta’s a different place today; it’s a better place. But you still see the violence. You still see the damage in Sydney and all around the country that drugs have caused. The war that’s going on in Western Sydney right now between rival bikie gangs fighting over drugs and fighting over turf is just one example of that. It’s all linked back to drugs and to money. And it’s a challenge that we don’t face on our own. It’s a challenge that’s faced by countries all around the world.

Now we can’t be naïve about this. There will always be crooks that will try and import drugs because there’s a lot of money in it. There are a lot of millionaires across the country that have become rich off the back of drugs; off the back of the destruction of a lot of people’s lives.

But there’s also a lot of crooks in jail too because of the work that law enforcement does. And this report’s got good news in it. It tells us that police and customs have seized more drugs in the last year than any time in the last decade – more heroin, more cocaine, more amphetamines, than any time in the last decade.

More than nine tonnes worth of illegal drugs, worth more than a billion dollars. So that’s a billion dollars worth of illegal drugs that aren’t on the street; that aren’t destroying lives; that aren’t potentially killing people.

The secret to this success is criminal intelligence. It’s the information that police collect here at home and overseas. What law enforcement tell me – state and federal – is intel is the key. The more intel you have the more people you arrest and the more drugs you seize on the street and at the border.

Proof of this is this statistic: 96 per cent of the drugs we seize at the border are seized through the use of criminal intelligence. Of course, the more drugs we seize the more ways criminals will find to try and import drugs.

And in the last 12 months we’ve seen criminals try to put heroin into herbal hair dye. We’ve seen cocaine in engine oil, and we’ve seen ecstasy in cleaning products.

This report shows big hauls of heroin that have come in through Pakistan, as well as Malaysia. Here’s just a couple of examples of attempts to bring heroin into the country.

From Pakistan we had a container that was declared as kitchen and hardware items, and we found 26 cardboard boxes in that container with a large number of vaults. Inside those vaults was 25 kilos of heroin.

The hauls from Malaysia were in a container of wooden doors. Inside those wooden doors were 40 packages of white powder totalling 168 kilos of heroin.

Another example is the 400 kilos of cocaine that were seized last year from two yachts with an estimated value of $160 million. This followed a tip-off from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. Customs conducted surveillance on these boats and were able to nab one yacht at a marina in Brisbane and another off the coast of Queensland.

In all of these cases, Malaysia, Pakistan, the big haul of cocaine off the yachts, it was intelligence that was the key to catching the crooks and seizing the drugs.

That explains the action that our law enforcement agencies are taking now. That’s why we’ve got an intelligence and targeting team inside Customs of something like 400 people – 400 analysts.

That’s why we’ve got 270 people dedicated to working in intelligence roles in the Australian Federal Police. That’s why in the budget last week we announced that we would build a new purpose built forensic facility for the Federal Police. And it’s why two years ago we established a fusion centre inside the Australian Crime Commission. Because this is the way to catch crooks and this is the way to seize drugs.

Can I congratulate the Federal Police and Customs on this data, on these record seizures, and can I congratulate the Australian Crime Commission and all of the agencies that have contributed to this report.

It’s my pleasure now to officially launch the Australian Crime Commission’s Elicit Drug Data Report 2010-2011.

Thanks very much.

QUESTION: So the second-highest number of arrests in the past decade was 2010 to 2011. Does that represent more effective law enforcement? Or does it also represent a greater number of drugs being imported into Australia?

JOHN LAWLER: It certainly represents a very good law enforcement response. But it is true that where – with all elicit markets, there is some uncertainty to the size and the breadth of markets. So we draw on other pieces of intelligence to help inform us. Like the drug surveys that are undertaken in watch houses, the consumer surveys that are taken that point to recent drug usage, purity levels and price, all are combined to try and give us a greater understanding of the markets. And what that’s showing is that with amphetamine-type substances and cocaine, there has been a slight increase in the size of the markets we believe. And across the other crime types – across the other substance types, we think a relative stability.

So what that tells us is that we don’t think it’s an increase in the amount of drugs coming into the country. We think it’s good police work that’s actually led to these seizures. Might I say in supporting the Minister that 9.3 tonnes of drugs removed from the community has three impacts: the first is that it doesn’t go to users, and the damage that we know it causes. The second is that organised criminals have had to front up the money to by these drugs, and that’s deprived of them. And ultimately the profits, as you heard the Minister say, in excess of a billion dollars profits has been deprived of organised crime.

So on any read of that, you’d have to say a very successful outcome.

QUESTION: Can I ask the Minister, last month a group of common Australians, including a former AFP Commissioner and a colleague of yours, Bob Carr declared – drew a report that the war on drugs was being lost. Do these numbers and those record numbers actually support that thesis or contradict it?

JASON CLARE: Well I don’t think any decriminalisation of drugs is going to stop organised crime. There’s always going to be organised criminals wanting to try and make money out of drugs. If you go down the decriminalisation path, you are potentially going to have more people become to addicted to these wretched drugs.

My approach to this is you’ve got to throw the book at the serious organised criminals that are involved in importing, manufacturing and supplying drugs like heroin, cocaine, amphetamines – we know what they’re responsible for. But at the same time, you’ve got to take a different approach to the people that are addicted to these drugs.

We’ve all got mums, dads, brothers and sisters. Many of us have got children. You could imagine how you would respond if they were addicted to heroin. That’s why I support things like the safe injecting room in Kings Cross. It’s saved dozens and dozens of lives. What we need to be about here is saving the lives of people that are addicted to drugs, but stopping the criminals that are trying to import these drugs.

And just to wrap up that answer, what this report shows is that with the right policing approach you can do that.

QUESTION: But the deterrent isn’t working, is it, if the record numbers of seizures and arrests keep rising? How are you deterring those criminal organisations?

JASON CLARE: Well let’s not be naïve; we need to recognise there’ll always be criminals and there’ll always be criminals trying to either import drugs or make them and sell them. But this report tells us that we’re seizing more, arresting more. Eighty odd thousand people arrested; a lot of them now locked up. They’re people that can no longer be involved in the drug trade. So that’s a good thing.

The one extra point I would make here is that there’s one thing that criminals are more afraid of than going to jail; and that’s having their money or their profits taken off them. So in addition to this – in addition to making sure that police are targeting the right criminals and targeting the right packages we also need to give law enforcement more powers to seize the assets of criminals. I’ve asked the states to give me the constitutional power to set up national unexplained wealth laws. It’s something that the chief executive of the Crime Commission has been calling for and that I’m now pushing for.

It reverses the onus of proof and tells criminals if you can’t explain where you got that wealth from then it will be confiscated from you; your mansions, your yachts, your Ferraris and so forth. And by having a national law it will mean you can’t move assets from one state to another. It will mean that we’ll be able to take more off the criminals.

So that’s an important part of this puzzle and that’s the next step that I want to take in introducing national unexplained wealth laws.

QUESTION: The number of seizures is the highest in 10 years but the weight of the seizures is down. Does that go to the issue of criminals using the post and smaller packages, and how much more difficult is it to detect that activity than the big shipments coming in?

JOHN LAWLER: It’s a very good question, and the answer to that is yes. What criminals will look to do is to minimise risks, and if they can have small amounts with frequency the chances are that they will – some of those packages will get through.

There is some work that Tony Negus could talk about, working with the Australian Federal Police and Customs to particularly focus on importations through the post. And you heard me talk about the internet and the change in the buyer supplier dynamic there.

To your point of weight of seizures it’s also important to note that this fluctuates because sometimes very large seizures in particular years can distort the overall picture, but it’s very clear from the figures that by weight and by seizure number very significant interventions on the supply side of the equation has recorded.

QUESTION: And cannabis is – cannabis is quite a prevalent drug that’s being seized and there’s a graphic report that shows it looks like it’s making a comeback in recent years. How difficult is that going to make your jobs?

JOHN LAWLER: Well cannabis is, as the report indicates, a very prevalent drug. And of course we all know the dangers of cannabis, long term psychosis and other mental health issues that are directly attributable to cannabis use. The cannabis of course is produced locally in Australia and of course the State and Territory policy, particularly in a domestic context, have been very successful in detecting cannabis and making arrests in that regard.

It’s also important for people to understand that law enforcement intervention can actually be the catalyst, can be actually the break point to divert people into treatment and to get them help for their addictions. As I mentioned in Odyssey House we saw examples of just exactly that.

So the fact that there are large numbers of law enforcement interventions, arrests and through the judicial process, into treatment and other support services.

QUESTION: Commissioner, what are your concerns about where the drug market is heading?

TONY NEGUS: Look we, as John mentioned, we’ve seen changes in methodology being used as law enforcement becomes more adept at intercepting large seizures, multi hundred kilo seizures of narcotics. Criminals do use smaller attempts through the post and through other methods to get drugs into this country. So we’re continuing to adapt. And as John said our partnerships with our regional and international colleagues, such as the DEA and others, works very well in identifying these trends and how people are moving this forward.

Obviously cocaine is a big issue and we’ve said that for the last couple of years. We’ve seen a steady rise in the use of cocaine in this country. It is a drug that I think people can see as being somewhat glamorous, it tends to be glamorised in movies and other things but, as you’ve seen from the video today, I mean it can be extremely dangerous and deadly in fact, and people need to be very aware of what they’re actually taking. But the shifts in time over drug usage are pretty steady around the cannabis aspects. It’s always been a problem, it’s always been something that’s been the majority of drugs seized in this country, but the other drugs that are starting to come in now, the analogues and the party type drugs, as people categorise them, are a significant concern to us because people tend to see them as less problematic than the harder drugs such as heroin.

QUESTION: Are people wasting their money on cocaine in Australia? It comes a long way and there’s rumours that it’s pretty terrible quality as opposed to what you might get in South America or North America?

TONY NEGUS: Look in my opinion I think they’re wasting their money on cocaine, period. But it is a dangerous drug. The bottom line is the high Australian dollar, the relative economy in Australia compared to the rest of the world makes us a lucrative target for organised criminals from South America, from the US and from other places around the world. So we will continue to be a target, and we’ve seen intelligence about Mexican cartels looking at Australia, particularly because of the wealth of our country and the way that they can sell their products here.

So the drugs that get here are dangerous. Quite simply they are very very dangerous and people need to be very aware of what they’re taking, they don’t know what they’re taking, and they do so with a great deal of risk.

QUESTION: You mentioned before the new substances that you’re encountering. Are you seeing quite often that there are these chemically different compounds, and how difficult is that for you to enforce under the law?

TONY NEGUS: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mentioned when I spoke earlier, that the work at the National Measurement Institute, the scientists that we work with in the forensics areas are helping us to identify these derivatives or slight variations on what are the traditional ATS type drugs. So that is difficulty. It’s difficult for front line officers and Customs as well, they have their proper tests in place to do that, but we’re working very hard to make sure they’re equipped with what they need to stop these drugs coming in.

QUESTION: What are some examples of those?

TONY NEGUS: I don’t know. John would you like to talk about some of the growth in the other sides of the report…

JOHN LAWLER: And look we might also defer to the National Measurement Institute who can talk about what’s actually occurring. This is a planned risk management strategy by organised criminals. It’s about them using chemical analysis and compounds to actually operate outside the legal framework. So they in actual fact create chemical compounds that are minusculey different from something that’s illegal. So the compound itself is legal, the effects are the same but it can be imported without official sanctions because of that chemical difference. And it’s very hard for the regulators and legislators to keep pace with people who are deliberately out there changing the chemical compounds to make the substances lawful.

And there over time there needs to be responses to that and the National Measurement Institute is at the forefront of identifying those changes and shifts in chemical analysis.

QUESTION: These are chemists really that are doing it, they’re not idiots?

JOHN LAWLER: These are – absolutely, they’re chemists. They’re chemists that are set up by the organised criminals for this explicit purpose. And we see them often referred to as legal highs, which is what the chemists are doing, and they’re doing it to flaunt and get around the law.

QUESTION: There’s a small list of what chemicals… the derivatives have been listed in the report. What’s the ratio of how quickly they’re produced versus how quickly you can list them as illegal?

JOHN LAWLER: Well the simple fact is they’re being produced more quickly than we can regulate them, and it’s only when they come to laboratories like the National Measurement Institute that through chemical analysis it’s actually understood what the powder or the pills might actually be, what they consist of and whether in fact they’re illegal under the law.

MICHAEL COLLINS: Most of these new drugs, the new drug analogues are actually produced, as you say, by chemists, and a lot of them are made through custom synthesis so people can actually go on the internet and order up a synthesis of a molecule which is slightly different to molecules that are currently legislated against, and have them imported into the country, or imported into a new country, and then when they arrive here they’re not what we could call the usual suspects such as heroin or cocaine or any of the amphetamine type substances. So they would be normally missed in a routine screen of those drugs, so we employ other techniques to identify those substances. And depending on exactly what that substance is we can deem it to be illegal based on the current Customs legislation, and that involves us then explaining that in court. If we have to go to court, we’d do that to explain how those molecules, newly created substances are illegal or otherwise.

QUESTION: And what are some of those chemicals that are being imported that are legal?

MICHAEL COLLINS: I guess the most common one that’s come into Australia in the last couple of years is a compound that is – goes by the name, the street name of Miaow Miaow. It’s a derivative of cathinone, so it’s formed [indistinct] with cathinone, and for a couple of years there was a big decrease in the amount of Ecstasy coming to Australia and it seemed to be accompanied by an increase in the amount of [indistinct].