For the longest time, very few people did cocaine in Australia. The drug was available, but only as a low-quality novelty for the rich, and only in small amounts.
“It was very, very, very poor quality," says Paul Dillon, the founder and director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia and a prominent commentator on Australia’s drug culture. "It was always $200 a gram—you never got it cheaper, you never got it more expensive, and you certainly only got it for luxury occasions."
Those days are gone. Over the last decade, Australia’s cocaine market has exploded. We know this not only because border detections have increased fivefold, but also because wastewater testing tells us that more and more people are racking up on a regular basis. Wastewater data published by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission indicated that, in the 2016/2017 period, national consumption of cocaine equated to just over three tonnes. Two years later, the estimated weight was 4.6 tonnes. And 55 percent of that was in New South Wales.
Further research confirms that Sydney is the capital of Australian cocaine usage. According to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the number of cocaine possession incidents in Sydney has almost doubled from 1,122 in 2015, to a total of 2,088 in 2019—at which point it accounted for 84 percent of NSW's total incidents.
So how did cocaine manage to carve out such a place in Australian culture? And how did Sydney become the nation’s hungriest market? Unsurprisingly, it's a story that begins overseas, in the coca plantations of South America.
Coca leaves are most commonly grown and then processed into cocaine in the South American countries of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, before being trafficked out to global markets. Countries in the Asia Pacific region, including Australia, are the last stop on the shipping route. This goes some way to explaining why Australians pay, on average, the second highest price for cocaine on the planet. As this paper explains, in 2016 a kilogram of cocaine in the was worth US$54,000 in the US—while in Australia, that same amount was worth up to US$259 000.
Traditionally, South American cartels transported cocaine north through Mexico and into the US, via the land border. This route existed for decades until in the mid-2000s law enforcement was ramped up along the border line. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of guards along the US-Mexico border almost doubled—an increase that drove smugglers to move their operations from land to water.
In the four years between 2008 and 2012, the US authorities registered a 73 percent increase in drugs moving along the Pacific coast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition from land to water-based smuggling occurred at a time when more and more coke was showing up in Australia. In 2013 a luxury yacht docked in Vanuatu, on route for Australia, was seized with 750 kilograms of cocaine on board. In 2017, a yacht off the New South Wales coast was caught with over 1.4 tonnes of cocaine.
South American cartels apparently realised that shipping coke north to the US wasn’t all that much easier than just shipping it west across the Pacific to Australia, where people were willing to pay a considerably higher price per gram. And in Sydney, this was also around the time police started noticing an uptick in cocaine use.
Nick Bingham was the Drug Squad Commander from 2008 to 2014, and recalls a noticeable shift in Sydney’s supply of cocaine during that time.
“We saw that Sydney in particular just had this insatiable appetite for cocaine," he tells VICE. "And even as much as we did in terms of street level traffickers, mid-level traffickers, high-level traffickers, and importers, we saw that really didn’t have a great effect, and the demand for the drug continued.”
Nick goes on to explain that police response was to attempt to disrupt the supply chain on all levels, from cocaine users to low-level dealers, but nothing seemed to make a difference.
By 2015, it wasn’t just the supply of cocaine that had changed, but also the means of domestic distribution. Australians were traditionally used to meeting their drug dealers in car parks and public gardens—but in Sydney, a new and more efficient program of home delivery sprung up. Delivering cocaine to a buyer’s home via car slowly became the norm. And the scale of these new domestic operations was revealed when, in 2015, police executed an operation codenamed “Morti.”
One of the drivers arrested was a guy by the name of George Gerges, whose arrest went down in a fairly predictable fashion. On the 3rd of September, 2015, George was driving through the western suburb of Haberfield when he was signalled for a roadside breath test. It was a bust. As soon as George stopped, police swarmed his car.
“Later we found out the investigation took about four months. So they were quite invested in our lives,” George tells VICE over the phone. “You know, they knew where I had my morning coffee. They knew the name of my dog. They knew which cafe’s I’d prefer and where I did my morning cardio. They literally knew everything about us.”
George later discovered the police had "GPS tracking devices in our cars, and listening devices, and all the rest of that.
"So, at that point, when I found that out—surveillance isn’t cheap. They would’ve probably spent an excess of a million dollars doing that sting," he says. "At that point, you realise you’re going to jail.”
George pleaded guilty to supplying cocaine to 1,015 people in 2017—his first ever criminal offence. His main income, however, wasn’t even derived from dealing drugs. Instead, George sold strata. And this is important, because when you look at the hundreds of people arrested in these resource-heavy police operations, you see mostly amateurs: fitness influencers, real estate agents, tradespeople. One of George's co-accused, Jeremy Nightingale, was a father of five in his 40s who claimed the reason he began delivering cocaine was because his son was on life support.
Recent advances in technology, specifically encrypted phone apps and the proliferation of drug markets on the darknet, have allowed dealers to more successfully avoid police detection. But they've also lowered the bar for entry.
“You don’t need any cred that’s been established over years working with whatever group to do that. It’s all done online,” explains Dr. James Martin of Swinburne University, an expert in cryptomarkets and the online drug trade. “And so we’re getting younger and younger people, and people with no criminal records, who are starting to be charged with the importation of drugs.”
This evolving drug market and increased ease of access correlates with a rise in people entering the business not as drug dealers, but in more benign positions such as couriers or drivers.
Let’s say you buy a kilo of cocaine at $200,000. If each individual gram costs $300, that's a profit margin of $100,000—but it means you have to sell 1,000 individual grams. By yourself, that’s time-intensive. But with a burner phone and maybe five drivers, each circling a prospective area while carrying 200 grams each, you have an operation that can move that kilogram quickly.
On the driver's end, the appeal of delivering is in easy money that can pay off a drug debt, fuel a lifestyle, or even feed a family. And with encrypted apps and rotating burners, it's now possible to create a mirage of anonymity that provides a sense of safety. It’s for these reasons that cocaine delivery became the gold standard first Sydney, before slowly proliferating around the country. And this, in turn, has transformed cocaine from a special occasion drug, to something as mundane as ordering drinks.
For Lara*, a 27-year-old living in the suburb of Millers Point, ordering is easy. You just text a number and it gets delivered in the space of an hour. Her friends regularly use it, Lara says, and coke is basically at every party. As little as three years ago, buying cocaine required a whole week of organisation.
“It used to be like, not every weekend—it would be once a month, or once every two months,” she tells VICE over the phone. “It was this big exciting thing. But now it’s just always; it’s like drinking.”
Other people we spoke to on and off the record shared similar stories. Over the last few years, buying cocaine has become easy, taking anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to arrive anywhere in the city following a text message for “beers” or “front-row tickets.”
The massive uptick in demand feels odd, though. Other drugs are still available in Sydney, after all, and while cocaine may be a social and a socially-acceptable drug, its high price and perceived purity have remained steady over the last 15 years.
Chris* is a 29-year-old living by himself in Sydney’s inner west and working full-time as a builder. Since 2017, he’s bought cocaine semi-regularly, speculating that he’s bought a gram a fortnight over the last year.
Chris also uses home delivery. He got accepted to a message chain about 18-months-ago, after being vouched for by a friend who was already accepted. He now gets a weekly text written in the kind of language that evokes a closing down sale: “front-row tickets” are available for $300, two for $450. Get in quick before they sell out!
It’s the third delivery service Chris has been with. He knows of people individually selling coke and other operations, but he’s content with this one. It’s organised, and supply has never been an issue despite news of seizures.
Among the people VICE spoke to there were a number of theories as to why cocaine is so popular, both in Sydney and beyond. Some suggested it was an ego thing—people enjoying the aura of success and opulence that comes with the drugs—while others said it’s just socially-acceptable, particularly in Sydney where there aren’t many venues where it’s appropriate to be on MDMA or ketamine. Some said cocaine is perceived to be a safer drug, or that people buy it only because they don’t have hookups for anything else. For Chris though, cocaine is just easy to get.
“I don’t even like it that much,” he said. “It’s just easier because it shows up. It doesn’t even make sense to me.
“I know people who have delivery services for MDMA, but I’ve just never bothered. I haven’t put the effort into trying to get a connection.”
It is these factors, ubiquity and accessibility, that have been perhaps the most influential in Sydney's cocaine love affair. And social acceptance continues to rise. Now that it’s here, it's unlikely that everyone's favourite, extortionately-priced upper is going anywhere anytime soon.
Follow Sam on Twitter