Richmond is about as far as you can go before you leave Sydney's metropolitan area. It sits right in the middle of what the cops call the "meth belt." This semi-rural area provides wide-open spaces, to the point where meth laboratories largely go unnoticed.
It's also where the NSW police have their Crime Scene Investigation Training Facility. Here, police trainees can investigate simulated crime scenes. They even have their own mock ice lab. On Monday, NSW police took us on a tour through their fake Breaking Bad operation.
Detective Inspector Michael Cook, head of the NSW Police Drug Squad's Chemical Operations Team, talked us through the steps of a crystal methamphetamine cook. In stage one, a number of household items are utilized, ranging from cold and flu tablets to coffee filters. Crushed pills containing pseudo-ephedrine are mixed with solvents and fried in a pan, eventually leaving behind a white powder. This is the most volatile part of the process with Cook saying, "People forget what they're doing, they might light a cigarette and all of sudden, because of the amount of fumes in the air, it can go bang. "
As we moved onto the next stage, the scene began to resemble a high school science project, with glassware and tubing that can be bought on eBay. Called the reflux stage, this is where the white powder was mixed with other key ingredients —Cook was careful not to name any of them—which were then placed in a reaction vessel and heated on a mantel, until condensed. Distillation came afterward—much the same as distilling alcohol—with meth oil eventually being collected in a beaker. The oil was then pumped full of gas to solidify, placed in a baking dish with other ingredients, and heated again, leading to its crystallization.
The Detective Inspector explained that there's no particular type of cook. They see people from their early 20s, right through to their 70s. "Some of our more well-known cooks are guys in their 60s and 70s, who've been doing it for years." he said. "Cooks are one of the most recidivous offenders there are, because they get out and get straight back into it."
This fake meth lab is used for training interstate police, as each state has a very different ice market, with distinct production methods. Cook outlined that in NSW, it is mainly commercial operations using the hypophosphorous method, in Western Australia the highly dangerous "Nazi" method is employed, whereas in Queensland it's mainly small addict-based labs, producing for a group of friends.
Over recent years, the NSW Police have had a focus on amphetamines, including ice. According to the 2013 to 2014 Australian Crime Commission Illicit Drug Data Report, law enforcement agencies in NSW made over 11,668 amphetamine seizures during that period—a 33 percent increase on the previous year. The number of clan (clandestine) labs raided statewide was 98, with 78 of these being amphetamine producing.
Despite these gains, ice is still prevalent on the streets. Figures from the 2014 Illicit Drug Reporting System—a national survey of people who inject drugs—outline that 93 percent of NSW respondents stated that ice was either "easy" or "very easy" to obtain.
Recently, the NSW Police launched an advertising campaign encouraging the community to play a part in identifying and informing police about meth labs. NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, said 250 clan labs had been shut down since 2013, in part thanks to anonymous calls from the public.
According to Cook most of the information they use to detect labs comes from people calling the police or Crime Stoppers, or from contacts they have in the chemical industry. As Cook explained, "We are committed to doing everything we can to shut down these labs but we really need the community to help us."
There are 23 investigators in Cook's unit, who all undertake proactive investigations into clan labs. And the majority of their research involves large-scale commercial operations.
According to Cook, last Friday's raid in a residence in Canley Vale involved "virtually the whole house" as a clan lab. As always, the Tactical Operations Unit were the first to enter the house. "A team of seven or eight entered with their gear and guns to clear the house, then they'll come straight back out," Cook said. Then six of the Chemical Operations Team were sent in wearing protective gear to do an assessment. "It took close to 20 people on site for two days, so it was a very labor intensive process. There is no hurry because we just need to get it done safely."
In May, they detected 15 labs state-wide, which is the second highest number on record. This has brought this year's total to 43 so far, which puts police on track to close over 100 labs by the end of the year.
But despite recent successes, Cook said it was hard to say what impact the raids were having on the market. "We keep identifying larger and larger labs and we keep putting people before the courts. We can't really say what impact that's had on a larger scale," Cook told VICE, explaining that customs have also been making large seizures at the border. For 12 months between 2013 and 2014, there were 2,367 amphetamine border seizures. "So it's coming from both sides, people cooking it in their backyards to people importing it purely from overseas."
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