The ice problem in Australia is complex but can be summarised: By global standards, a significantly large proportion of Australians use ice, and they do so frequently. Despite law enforcement agencies’ record seizures, the price of ice for Australian users is statistically stable, and the drug’s availability is spreading from capital cities to bush towns. From street dealers to global organised crime syndicates, there are big profits to be made in Australia’s ice market. Australia’s families and communities are feeling the impacts of this problem daily.
In October 2015 John Coyne, Vern White and Cesar Alvarez produced a Special Report on Methamphetamine for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). ASPI was established, and is partially funded, by the Australian Government as an independent, non‑partisan policy institute. In contrast with more traditional responses to drug problems, this report argues that Australia needs a paradigm shift in its design and delivery of an ice strategy.
Australia’s federal, state and territory governments are in almost universal agreement that the nation’s communities have a crystal methamphetamine (ice) problem. That view is shared by emergency services professionals who are serving at the front line and witnessing the impact on communities from the inner cities to the bush. The impacts are significant and domino from the users to the wider community. The impact of ice use begins with issues such as psychosis, overdose, hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks and high levels of aggression on the user; physical attacks and exposure to blood borne diseases on the first responders; physical abuse and theft on the families and theft, assault and health costs on the community.
More than 1.3 million Australians aged between fourteen years and older have used methamphetamines in their lifetime and 400,000 are using ice on a regular basis. The Authors note that there are lessons to be learned from Australia’s heroin epidemic of the 1990s and Ottawa’s issues with crack cocaine addiction and trafficking a decade ago.
Heroin in Australia became a problem in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s Australia was faced with a significant increase in heroin deaths that made real the media claims that the nation was experiencing a heroin epidemic. During this time treatment for heroin addiction, arrests for possession and hepatitis C infections all increased. By 1997 the federal government initiated the Tough on Drugs strategy in response to the heroin epidemic. It was a harm minimisation response with a three-pillar strategy focused on supply, demand and harm reduction. This initiative resulted in seizure of over 14 tonnes of heroin and a substantial reduction in opioid overdoses.
The authors assert that success wasn’t achieved through waging war on drugs but through the integration of enforcement, education and treatment efforts from the streets to the parliament. The government accepted that the problem was complex and needed complex policy responses informed by multiple lenses and perspectives.
Now as we face methamphetamines as a significant issue, the government, state and territory governments and the non-government sector have worked together in developing responses. There is concern that whilst health, education and enforcement officials continue to cooperate, current policy initiatives are at best linked to one another as opposed to being integrated into a single strategy.
In 2007 the population of one million in Canada’s capital Ottawa, were concerned about the drug addiction, trafficking, high levels of petty crime and break ins. The Ottawa Police Service hired a new chief who was given clear directives to introduce innovative solutions in the battle against crack cocaine. The pressure from the community together with the will of the police service created an environment whereby the development of a long-term strategy to combat crime in general as well as drug trafficking and addiction was embraced. They developed a short, medium and long-term approach with multi faced initiatives. Success was measured through:
- Reduction in street level drug trafficking (supply reduction)
- Reduction in criminal activity -primarily petty crimes (impact of supply reduction)
- Reduction of the number of addicts who have easy access to drugs to show that supply reduction would drive some addicts to obtain necessary treatment (demand and supply reduction) and
- Increased access for addicts and dealers to alternative programs and addiction treatment (harm and demand reduction).
The police service decided that it would take a holistic approach to combating the problem of addiction. Officers wanted an approach that “deals harshly with the drug dealers and compassionately with drug addicts.”
Supply reduction was approached in a number of ways, one being the establishment of the Street Crime Unit (SCU) focusing on street level drug trafficking in an area with about 45000 people. Officers were chosen for their understanding, skills and knowledge in the area as well as ethical behaviour. They were resourced with video and photographic equipment to lessen court time. The success was significant. In over 2 years there were thousands of arrests, half a million dollars in drug seizures and 3 commercial and 20 crack houses were shut down.
Other endeavours included releasing drug traffickers on bail conditions that required they couldn’t live in areas where they had been dealing. The aim was to displace the offender and prevent crime by altering environmental situations, aiming to deter criminal behaviour whilst displacing it. They also worked with medical officers and hospitals to allow an opportunity for treatment for the traffickers.
It was identified that further treatment options were needed, especially given the waiting lists for residential treatment. The crime prevention technique for the city was announced in June 2007 as drug treatment centres for young people. The initiative substantially reduced crime given that each user was committing an average of four to eight crimes per day to feed their addiction. These centres reduced crime and offered early intervention to young people. The substantial focus on young people arose from the statistics that 85% of their adults with addictions started abusing drugs or alcohol before the age of 18 and a significant number of students grade 7-11 used illicit drugs of had a drug use problem.
The most successful programs of treatment were found to be those dedicated to young people who were still developing physically and socially. The police provided the spearhead funding for these initiatives. Today the project’s officers rarely go to court and most issues, including criminal matters are dealt with by agreement.
Innovative responses sometimes mean less ‘runs on the board’ in the short term but more tangible outcomes with a genuine impact for the duration. One example noted is that the Australian dob in a drug dealer initiative is unlikely to have had any tangible impact on the availability of ice. It most likely diverts police resources to the investigation, disruption and prosecution of low-level ice dealers. Whilst this hotline can be seen as a success in terms of arrests and drug and cash seizure, it can come at the cost of more holistic and innovative responses.
Factors that can be deduced from the Australia heroin experience and Ottawa’s crack cocaine that can lead to successful outcomes in drug strategies are noted as:
Integration: Drug strategies have a better chance of succeeding when each of their initiatives is integrated into a strategically focused harm reductions strategy. The supply and demand reduction measures of the strategy need to be aligned from tactical to strategic levels across all Australian jurisdictions.
Innovation: Education, health and law enforcement stakeholders should be free from the limitations of wholly quantitative performance measures. Specifically, the practice of using drug seizures as a police performance measure should be ended, to encourage police to use more innovative responses.
Disruption: Initiatives to tackle the ice problem should be focused on the disruption of the problem rather than the treatment of symptoms of the problem.