Ice in Australia: overseas crime gangs, not bikies, are the threat

Methylamphetamine, in particular crystal meth or ‘ice’, has been the subject of much scrutiny in Australia in recent times. AAP/David Crosling

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report into the methylamphetamine market in Australia makes for sombre reading. Released this week, it reveals that more drugs are coming into Australia and certain forms of drug usage are increasing. A variety of crime groups are playing a role in the drug trade.

Methylamphetamine, in particular crystal meth or “ice”, has been the subject of much scrutiny in recent times and concern is growing among Australian authorities. The Victorian parliament held an inquiry in 2013-14 into ice’s impact in the state and the government recently released an “Ice Action Plan” in response.

So, how does the ACC intelligence document help inform the debate around ice? What practical lessons can Australian society and law enforcement draw from it?

The current Australian market

According to the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), 7% of Australians aged 14 and above reported using amphetamine or methylamphetamine at least once in their lifetime and 2.1% reported recent use. This has remained consistent with 2010 figures.

What has changed, and significantly so, is the type of methylamphetamine Australians are using.

Users now prefer crystal methylamphetamine. This produces more powerful physical and psychological reactions than powder forms of the drug. Users of powder forms decreased from 51% to 29% while ice use more than doubled from 22% to 50% between 2010 and 2013. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre findings from 2014 support this conclusion.

Recent use of speed, base and crystal/ice by injecting drug users nationally, 2000-2014. 2014 National Drug Trends Conference

The increased addiction/dependence potential for ice as the purest form of the drug is also evident. A great proportion – 25% of regular ice users – are using at least weekly. This is a much higher rate than the 2.2% of regular powder users who use weekly.

Increased demand for the higher purity of ice results in Australian users in particular being prepared to pay premium prices for this form of the drug. Figures suggest that the Australian price per kilogram of crystal methylamphetamine is A$320,000, whereas in the United States it is A$100,000. In China, a country flagged by the ACC report as a key player in transnational organised drug crime, the cost is as low as A$7000 per kilogram.

The business of drugs

The business of illegal drugs shares some elements with the business of selling legal products. Common features include lots of working capital, a steady supply of raw materials, manufacturing facilities, reliable shipping and distribution and marketing networks. But it is knowing what criminal networks are operating at what level that is the key to an effective law enforcement response.

Terry Goldsworthy

ACC data indicates that detections of clandestine laboratories decreased by approximately 6% in 2012-13. The weight of precursor material being detected at the border has also decreased, despite the number of detections increasing.

Conversely, the weight and amount of amphetamine-type substance (ATS) detections at the Australian border, in particular detections of ice, continue to increase. This suggests that the outstanding threat is increasingly coming from abroad. Small-time Australian players are growing reliant on transnational crime groups.

Australian Crime Commission

The ACC’s Illicit Drug Data Report flags increased seizures, border detections and associated arrests for ATS (excluding MDMA) at record highs. This echoes the findings of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014 World Drug Report, which identified global trends of record-high seizures of methamphetamine as compared with other ATS.

The ACC report indicates that transnational organised crime involvement in high-volume precursor importation and trafficking remains at high levels. Its concern about illicit importations concealed by legitimate markets is clear, particularly from a law enforcement perspective.

Bikies are just part of the picture

Various governments in Australia have made much of the role of outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs) and their involvement in the methylamphetamine trade.

Tellingly, in this week’s report, they rate only two mentions. One is as a part of the wider criminal gang picture; the other as a case study for involvement in the drug trade in a small rural Victorian town.

Nowhere was the critical evidence of their dominance of this particular drug market put forward, despite what many law enforcement agencies have been claiming in recent years. The report outlines the following crime groups as being active in the meth market:

… members of Australian-based outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian organised crime groups as well as persons of Middle Eastern, Eastern European and West African backgrounds, and Vietnamese, Chinese, Canadian, US and Mexican serious and organised crime groups.

As has been previously shown, while OMCGs no doubt have some involvement in the drug trade, they are not the kingpins.

What are transnational organised crime groups?

Transnational organised crime (TOC) groups are the most concerning threat to Australia when talking about organised and serious crime. They are clearly involved in the methylamphtamine market. More than 60% of Australia’s highest-risk criminal targets, including transnational targets, are involved in the methylamphetamine market.

The UNODC looked at 40 TOC groups and identified a number of their typologies and characteristics.

Transnational organised crime group typologies. United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime

Of these TOC groups, 70% carried out criminal activity in three or more countries. Most were involved in multiple criminal enterprises. They were actively involved in corruption and routinely employed violence and engaged in money laundering.

Unfortunately, the ACC’s report has a broad base and lacks detailed or overly new evidence. One issue that does seem to bear consideration is the rising role of transnational crime groups. With so much focus on domestic gangs as the peak criminal threat, perhaps we have taken our eye off the ball of the real criminal threat outside Australia’s borders.