Why Drugs in Australia Are Terrible
May 7 2014
Since 2003, the Australian Crime Commission has released an annual report on illicit drug trends from the previous year. The latest one has just come out, and it gives a pretty comprehensive snapshot of the what, where, and how of everything to do with drugs between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013, in Australia.
For some people the report is cause for comfort—it reveals a record 101,749 drug-related arrests over the 12-month period. But there are also some revelations for people who like drugs. Namely, why are they so expensive? And why are they so awful? And what happened to drug-policy reform?
Drugs in Australia are expensive. The report doesn't actually acknowledge this, but the police do in the way that they price confiscations. You know when you hear about a $500 million drug haul and it seems a lot? Well, that's because you're not actually getting the "street price." What you're getting is the Australian value of that drug in its pure form.
This is an economic theory called hedonic regression, and it's used to strip out variables such as region or the stinginess of a particular dealer. As Natalie Webster of the Victorian Police described it, “a kilo of heroin from seller A might be valued at a dollar a kilo, because it's good quality. But a kilo from seller B is only valued at $0.10, because the quality isn't as good.”
In this example, it's the diamorphine (heroin's active ingredient) that's given a set price. The police then measure how many grams of diamorphine are in each kilo, arriving at two different prices for the same drug. This way, police estimates exist in a nationally consistent market—in real life, you pay local rates regardless of quality.
All over Australia, that means you pay a lot.
So why is this? And again—without specifically explaining—the ACC’s report provides a few clues. Everything but weed is predominantly imported. The report shows that Colombia produced 70.8 percent of Australia's coke, with Peru at 25 percent, and "mixed" sources making up the last 4.2 percent.
This was then smuggled overland to the United States or Canada, or shipped to Europe, often by way of West Africa. This means that any coke reaching Australia was exported at least twice. According to the data on individual busts, most of it comes from the Netherlands, with 682 packages intercepted. All this double handling, combined with the fact that Australia is a tiny market (around 3 percent of global sales, according to UN estimates) is why Australia's coke is fiendishly expensive and mostly made of baking soda.
To get an idea of how Australia's gear ranks internationally, compare it against several overseas purity reports. Predictably, it's behind. In 2011 (which is the sample date on the 2013 UN World Drug Report), American street cocaine had a purity of 52 percent, while Australian coke ranged in purity from 9.5 percent, in the Australian Capital Territory, to 30.2 percent, in Victoria, giving it a mean purity of 19.85 percent.
Ecstasy's purity is hard to gauge because it's such a chemical mix, but a 2005 report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction suggested that pills in the UK were 66.3 percent MDMA (the most common active ingredient). Danish pills were at 59 percent, and the Dutch were at a impressively high 77.5. Meanwhile, in data found by the Australian government's forensic facility, ChemCenter, ecstasy was 32.7 percent pure in the 2005–06 period. Since then, it's fallen every year to an abysmal 18.9 percent at last count, in 2011–12.
Again, it’s because Australia's far away. While a lot of ecstasy production is domestic, the bulk of it is made from imported chemical precursors such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which come from India and China. This is compounded by a complete lack of land borders—everything needs to come in by sea or by air, and that's why dealers can charge exorbitant prices for lousy stuff. It's likely that this monopoly also encouraged the growth of Silk Road, which is a trend the ACC also highlights.
When Silk Road started up in February 2011, the ACC report from that period found that 77 percent of cocaine detections were in the mail. That seems high, considering that Silk Road had only been operating five months—but sending drugs in the mail has always been popular, and stats from previous years were similar. The following year, the number jumped to 90.9 percent, which hadn’t been seen before.
In the latest report, 94.1 percent of all coke busts happen at the post office—and it’s not just coke. More people are mailing each other heroin—50.4 percent busts in the mail prior to Silk Road, and 69.9 percent now. As an Australian Post employee said back in 2011—with 5 billion postal items traveling through Australia every year, there’s not a lot they can do.
All in all, the ACC’s report is basically a progress report on the drug war. In the ten years between the first ACC report and the most recent, progress meant “a 66.4 per cent increase on the seizures reported in 2003–04.” And “the number of national illicit drug arrests increased 27.2 percent over the last decade, from 80,020 in 2003–04 to a record 101,749 in 2012–13.” This means that there are now fewer drugs and dealers on the street—or more, whichever way you want to cut it. But as long as Australia keeps trying. That's the main thing.
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