Stephen Lunn | The Australian | 24 September 2011
A KILOGRAM of cocaine bought wholesale in Colombia will set a drug dealer back $US2438 ($2446). In Mexico it will cost $US12,000; across the border in the US, $US32,000.
In Australia a kilo of cocaine wholesales for $US191,000. As Australian Crime Commission boss John Lawler says, the return on investment for illegally importing cocaine is extraordinary, particularly given a new class of user is emerging here.
"We're seeing a marked change in the market for cocaine from those typical of its use in the 80s and 90s, the well-educated middle class to lower socioeconomic status users who are more likely to be injecting cocaine," Lawler says.
He believes Mexican and Colombian crime gangs, which to date haven't pushed too deeply into Australia because of the lack of a local network, will be looking to cash in on the higher prices given the increase in demand in recent years.
"There is increasing collaboration between organised criminals involved in large-scale drug supply, Chinese with Mexican with outlaw motorcycle gangs," he says. "There is no concern about ethnic purity in these drug gangs; it's all about making the most money in the shortest possible time.
"Here in Australia there are already signs of increased Mexican infiltration, and if they get more of a foothold here, then watch out."
Earlier this month a shipment of ride-on lawnmowers from Brazil was used as cover in an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle 271kg of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $200 million, into Australia.
A growing domestic cocaine market is just one of several trends that have emerged since the turn of the century, trends that will help authorities develop strategies for drug prevention in coming years. Some of the trends tell a positive story, experts say, with use of the legal drugs in particular, cigarettes and alcohol, in serious decline.
"The thing that stands out as the most significant change in recent times is tobacco and the relentless and consistent drive downward in its use," says Robert Ali, director of Community Based Treatment Interventions, Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia. "There has been a huge change in attitude to smoking, driven by . . . better health messages, price, packaging, its acceptability socially."
Ali says there has been a similar downward trend with alcohol, with large reductions in average daily usage in the past 10 years. But unfortunately that doesn't tell the whole story.
"At the same time as this overall reduction there's been a big rise in young people's public consumption of alchohol," Ali says. "There's a different sense of social acceptance of being completely wasted in public and that goes for both genders. So this area of the binge-drinking culture is something we'll have to continue to focus on."
Also on the decline is cannabis use, particularly among young people, and heroin, says Gino Vumbaca, executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs. But he says drug use overall is changing, rather than declining, as other substances replace those out of favour.
"Drug use is definitely cyclical. Years ago there was all that heroin chic, and then methamphetamines became popular. But now, as cannabis declines, and heroin and to some extent methamphetamines, we have an increase in ecstasy and other pharmaceuticals," Vumbaca says.
Ali says there has been a recent turning away from ecstasy and a rise in use of cannabis knock-offs.
"You have to remember that cannabis is still the most commonly used illegal drug, but over the last 10 years it has been in decline," Ali says. "The twist, however, is as this decline occurred, artificial cannabinoids have been blowing out, things like Kronic [which is legal in some states].
"Their health impacts are completely unknown, but we do know that after taking them people have been admitted to hospital with severe psychosis, which is likely to have resulted from what they were manufactured from."
Ali says ecstasy's day may have come and gone, with frequent users needing far heavier doses, up to four or even six tablets, to achieve the same results, and infrequent drug users being deterred by reports of cheap knock-offs.
"I think ecstasy had a very clean image and high credibility as a safe drug, but that's been eroded over time as it develops a reputation of being impure, with less and less MDMA content. People have been saying: 'I'm seeing harms.' "
Another key development in drug use during the past 10 years has been the rise in the illicit use of prescription pharmaceuticals.
Lawler says people are often getting their hands on this varied range of drugs not just through the internet but also through dodgy doctors and pharmacists. He says recent drug-use surveys "show up quite significant use of morphine", for example.
"My information is that US authorities are starting to focus on pill parties where illicit pharmaceuticals are used like Smarties from a bowl. It's extremely dangerous but it's a phenomenon we see in risk-taking behaviour."
Vumbaca says illegal use of prescription drugs is "the new frontier", offering to users the "cult of celebrity" with high-profile cases such as that of Heath Ledger.
"It's certainly an issue for GPs and other doctors about the security of their prescriptions," he says. "And of course you can purchase pharmaceuticals online from other countries. People still have this strange sense of belief that it's safe because pharmaceutical companies don't make unsafe things."
Ali points to an ANCD survey on illicit drug use last year that found 4.2 per cent of Australians aged 14 and older had intentionally misused prescription medication in the past year, up from 3.7 in 2007.
"It has been recognised as a growing problem and the federal government is developing a national strategy," he says. "We need to do things around better controlling the supply of prescription drugs. To get a national database would be a step forward."
Lawler says the two most disturbing issues to look to in coming years are the likely burgeoning numbers of "clan labs", clandestine laboratories in which to cook illegal drugs, and the growth of synthetic drugs. "The number of clan labs detected by authorities is up 55 per cent from 2008-09 and 245 per cent since the start of the decade," he says. "Not all are commercial enterprises, but some are very substantial. They can have impacts in a range of ways beyond law enforcement, going to the social fabric, for instance injuries to children living in houses where they are contained."
Lawler says organised crime gangs are using sophisticated chemists to change the compounds of illicit substances to circumvent the law. He is talking about variations on ecstasy such as the complex chemical drug meow meow (mephedrone) and other concoctions that are grey areas under the law.
Ali says every society in history has found intoxicants, leaving authorities with the obligation to reduce harm as best they can. He believes the future of illegal drugs in Australia -- which he says is a "middle-order nation for drug use" -- will be a continuing shift from plant-based to chemical-based substances.
"It won't surprise me if there's a greater diversity of chemical-based drugs into the future. They are portable and that's an attractive way to manufacture," he says.
Given the brain is continuing to develop into the mid-20s, Ali says it's crucial for policy-makers to focus on deterrence. "Anything we can do to delay the first time a kid uses a legal drug -- alcohol and tobacco -- shows a flow-on effect of decreasing first-time use of illegal drugs and the likelihood of harms from using drugs."