The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released the Illicit Drug Data report 2017-18 last week. In its sixteenth year, the report provides an overview of the domestic black market, and the efforts of law enforcement to combat drug trafficking transnational crime networks.

The report findings reveal that Australians continue to have a taste for amphetamine-type stimulants, which account for most seizures. Although, locals are also moving on to cocaine, with a record number of arrests carried out for that substance over the 12 month period.

During the financial year 2017-18, there was a record amount of 30.6 tonnes of illicit substances taken from 112,827 drug seizures. And the various police forces around the country made 148,363 drug-related arrests throughout the year.

This means that, on average, authorities made a drug seizure every five minutes, one kilogram of illicit drugs was snatched every seventeen and a half minutes, and someone was arrested in drug-related circumstances every four minutes.

But, if you take a step back from the record amounts, the skyrocketing arrests and the ridiculously high prices, what’s revealed is that despite global prohibition, illicit substances are flooding across Australian borders, consumption is on the rise, and law enforcement efforts are no deterrent.

The opposite effect

Key outcomes of the century-long system of transnational drug controls have been the growth of powerful criminal networks, an abundance of available illicit drugs, an ever-changing variety of substances, increased drug consumption, and the criminalisation of vast numbers of the population.

Of course, these outcomes are not what one would have expected when representatives from multiple nations began meeting in the early years of the 20th century to draft treaties that were, on the face of it, designed to control the consumption of drugs for health reasons.

And since the launch of the war on drugs in the early 1970s, these outcomes have only been exacerbated. The stepping up of law enforcement efforts to curb illegal drug production and trafficking has increased the risks involved, which in turn, has heightened the profits.

Illegality increases profitability

The NSW Crime Commission Annual Report 2015-16 outlines that “the illicit drug trade continues to be the main stream of income for organised crime groups operating in Australia”. And it predicted that due to the steep price of drugs in this country, trafficking from overseas was likely to increase.

The report further puts forth that it’s the international drug cartels that are calling the shots in Australia. The authors posit that organised crime decides what sort of volumes are going to be smuggled into the country, and local consumers take what they make available.

“Commendable law enforcement efforts around the country have resulted in larger seizures and more arrests, but they have had little, if any, effect on the quantities of prohibited drugs available for consumption in Australia,” the report authors admit.

Australian drug historian Dr John Jiggens explained to Sydney Criminal Lawyers back in May that “drug law enforcement acts as a multiplier for the drug market”. The doctor asserts that every dollar spent on drug law enforcement works out to ten dollars in the pockets of drug suppliers.

Dr Jiggens emphasised that the “war on meth” being waged by authorities over the last decade has led to a surge in its availability and profitability. The risks involved hike the price, which then leads international players to focus on the Australian market, because it’s where they get the best profits.

Arrests are no answer

The lack of any real impact being made via drug seizures is nowhere more understood than at the frontline of enforcement. Police officers are increasingly savvy to the fact that with every drug bust they make, more drugs appear from elsewhere to fill the momentary gap in the market.

The 2017 Australia21 report on illegal substances makes thirteen key recommendations regarding drug decriminalisation. And significantly, four of the participants making up the thinktank were former police commissioners and assistant commissioners.

Ex-Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer was the vice president of Australia21 at the time of the report release. And today, the former top cop is one of the most vocal advocates for decriminalising the personal possession and use of illegal drugs in this country.

Mr Palmer is well-known for acknowledging that the drug issue is not something that the nation can arrest its way out of. And he’s clear that the majority of harms arising from illicit substances are due to their prohibition.

Cannabis: a case in point

The ACT Legislative Assembly is set to vote on a bill next month that if successful will mean that the personal possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and its use will be legalised in the capital territory. And Labor MLA Michael Pettersson who introduced the legislation is fairly confident it will pass.

Recreational cannabis is now legal in eleven US states, and the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay. For medicinal purposes, it is these days legal in this country. And underlying these developments is the understanding that the adult use of this drug is relatively harmless.

However, the recent drug report shows that there were 72,381 cannabis arrests across Australia in 2017-18. And of these, 66,296 – or 92 percent – were consumer arrests. And when considering all drug arrests during that year, it turns out 44 percent were arrests of cannabis consumers.

So, this would point to a situation where the majority of the harms related to cannabis are most likely attributable to its illegality, as while its consumption is unlikely to cause any major long-term harm to an adult, being arrested for its possession is.

Legalise it all

Five young Australians died at music festivals in this state last summer. And despite rising calls to implement pill testing at these events, the Berejiklian government is sticking to its reactionary “just say no” to drugs approach.

As Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Dr Alex Wodak has pointed out, MDMA – the drug of choice for festivalgoers – is one of the “least risky drugs”. So, if this substance was legally produced – like alcohol – it’s likely deaths caused by it would be greatly reduced if not ceased.

And while the use of other illicit drugs might be riskier, the argument for legalising them is their production could be quality controlled, availability could be governed, treatment for problematic use could be broadened, and the harms associated with the criminal justice system removed.

Indeed, if Australia adopted a policy of legalising and regulating all illicit substances, the power that the transnational criminal networks wield would fade away, the floods of contraband coming over the borders would dry up, and the police would be free to focus on crimes with real victims.