How many cones? How many pills? How many lines of coke?

A s a researcher into the illicit drug trade, I am intrigued by the question of the size of Australia’s market in illicit drugs. Cannabis, it is said, is the biggest cash crop in Australia, but how can we know how many tonnes of cannabis Australians inhale each year?
What is the size of Australia’s market for illicit drugs?
How much is our illicit drug trade worth?
What is the potential for taxing and regulating this industry?
We can gain some idea of how big Australia’s illicit drug trade is from the many re-ports of drug seizures that regularly feature in our news broadcasts. In the seven month period between October 2012 and April 2013, the ABC alone ran about 500 stories related to drugs and drug seizures. Reading these stories gives an indication of the market’s size. For the sake of analysis, I categorised the biggest seizures as mon-ster (value greater than $250 million street value); massive (seizures in the $50 million to $250 million street value range); enormous ($10million to $50 million); and big ($1 million to $10 million).
In the past nine months there were two monster seizure above the $250 million range. On 30 July 2012, Customs and police found 558kg of illicit drugs valued at around $500 million street value in a shipment of terracotta pots bound for Sydney: 306 kilo-grams of crystal methamphetamine (ice) and 252 kilograms of heroin. This was our third largest seizure of heroin and the largest seizure of ice in Australian history at that time. This Australian record for ice did not last long. On 28 February, 2013, the Australian black market achieved a new personal best, 585 kilos of ice, worth an esti-mated $440 million dollars.
Commenting on this first monster seizure, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Deputy Commissioner Andrew Colvin talked up the success of the AFP, “This operation fol-lows the AFP’s most successful year in terms of drug seizures. In the 2011/12 finan-cial year, the AFP and its partner agencies seized almost 14 tonnes of illicit sub-stances bound for drug distribution networks across Australia.” With drug seizures approaching the two billion dollar mark, 2012/13 is shaping up to be another bumper year for the AFP. But is the big picture really one of continuing police success, as Deputy Commissioner Colvin spun the story, or one of a country swimming in illicit drugs?
Below these two monster busts were reports of five massive seizures valued in the $50 million to $250 million range:$77m cocaine ring smashed: AFP, Foreign nation-als arrested over $237m drug seizure, Trio charged over 50kg heroin drug bust, Joint policing operation nets 200kg cocaine in shipwreck, along with the related story , Body on Tonga drugs yacht identified. As well as these, there was another massive cocaine haul, 300 kilograms seized in Bundaberg in November 2012.
Dr John Jiggens is a writer who has published several books including Marijuana Australiana, The killer cop and the murder of Donald Mackay and Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp. His academic works on Australian drug markets include The Economics of Drug Prohibition in Australia, Estimating the Size of the Australian Heroin Market: A New Method, and Australian Heroin Seizures and the causes of the 2001 Australian Heroin Shortage.
How many cones? How many pills?
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Australia’s biggest anti-cannabis operation was the annual police helicopter raids on the NSW North Coast, a lengthy eradication program that began in the New England district in November and wrapped up in the Coffs Harbour district in April, having swept over the entire NSW north coast. According to Drug Squad Commander, Superinten-dent Nick Bingham, it yielded almost 14,000 can-nabis plants, valued at $25 million. With more than a hint of wishful thinking Bingham declared: “Our aim is to disrupt the supply chain, to go and find and pull as many plants as we can and get that can-nabis off the street and hopefully either drive prices up or keep prices stable and that will discourage people, we hope, (from using) cannabis.” As Bingham conceded, massive police operations are needed simply to keep the price of drugs at their present price. As cannabis activists have often joked, the Drug Squad are the Price Maintenance Squad for organised crime! But this is more than a joke: this is the essence of Prohibition. Prohibition acts as a multiplier for the black market. Every dollar we spend on drug law enforcement is worth $10 to the black market. Currently, Australia spends about $1.5 billion on drug law enforcement: this generates a black market worth approximately $15 billion dollars for organised and disorganised crime. It is the weight of police, courts and prisons pushing down that drives up the price of illicit drugs and makes them more valuable than gold.
Following the current record ice seizure in March 2013 about 350 heavily-armed police officers raided 30 properties across Sydney, the Illawarra and Port Stephens and 18 people were arrested. New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione declared. “Today you have seen evidence of the police at their very best. The one thing you can take away clearly is, in terms of organised crime, New South Wales police and the Crime Commission have you people firmly in our sights. We’re not going away.”
But neither are the drugs. Despite seizing close to two billion dollars worth of illicit drugs so far this year, all these massive police operations have had no significant impact on the availability of illicit drugs.
Four decades ago, when President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, free market econo-mist, Milton Friedman, declared that the failure of prohibition was inevitable because of corruption as officials succumbed to the lure of easy money: Said Friedman: “So long as large sums of money are involved—and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal—it is literally hopeless to expect to end the traffic or even to reduce seriously its scope.” Sto-ries like, Customs officers suspected in airport smuggling ring, Customs corruption extends to waterfront, SAS officer not fit to plead, Police Commissioner’s son breaches parole, Police officer facing drug charges, demonstrated the accuracy of his prediction. For those who enjoy irony there was, Police take heart in more reported drug offences, where Senior Sergeant Marty Haime from Geraldton police ex-plained a 30.6 per cent increase in drug offences in the Gascoyne area as positive because it was show-ing results that would yield a ‘generational change’ in ‘five to 10 years’. Said Sergeant Haime, “We’d like to think we’re changing behaviours as time goes by.” However, the big drug story of the past year was not about Australia. It was the success of the vote for legalising cannabis in the US states of Colorado and Washington. In 1976 The Australian inter-viewed a group of Sydney 16-year-olds about how they saw the future. To these 16-year olds, the le-galisation of drugs was inevitable. A schoolboy predicted, “The use of drugs will be so common it will be legalised. This will be a great advantage because it will no longer be a big business issue with dealers becoming millionaires overnight.” Another said, “I also think it should be legalised because the more you say ‘don’t do this it’s bad’ the more the person’s going to do it.” Watching the results of the legalisation vote in Washington and Colorado in November 2012, were these former teenagers (now in their fifties) about to see their prediction vindicated?

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One comment on “How many cones? How many pills? How many lines of coke?
  1. Mark H says:

    The sorry farce of prohibition trudges on.
    Unfortunately, despite the promising signs in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, I
    can’t ever see Australia letting go of its addiction to the drug war, the general population just seems ultra conservative on this issue and, surely has the most unenlightened attitude towards cannabis than any other developed nation on the planet.
    Who here happened to catch the report on cannabis legalisation which aired on “the project”?
    Anyone would think they were talking about legalising crack.
    Even one of the hosts, Dave Hughes(a former comedian!), seemed to be trembling with fear at the very thought.
    Furthermore, I routinely encounter people who consider weed more harmful than alcohol!
    I’m just surprised none of our politicians have yet proposed the death penalty for pot heads, it would certainly assure them a shitload of votes in this country.

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