25 Jul 2022
It’s in the wastewater: Testing the success of Australia’s enforcement strategy on illicit drugs
By John Coyne
The frequently used phrase ‘the war on drugs’ paints a picture of a colossal struggle between two distinct groupings.
"Law enforcement’s strategy to target illicit drugs is relatively simple. Arrest offenders and seize drugs. By doing so, law enforcement can decrease the availability of illicit drugs."
On one side, criminals seek to undermine the rule of law to make a profit by producing and distributing illicit substances, the consequences of which are personal and social harm. On the other side stands law enforcement which seeks to prevent this from happening through the application of retributive justice.
Law enforcement’s strategy to target illicit drugs is relatively simple. Arrest offenders and seize drugs. By doing so, law enforcement can decrease the availability of illicit drugs. Decreased availability should then see the consumer prices of illegal drugs rise.
This impact on the criminal economy is meant to deter consumers from buying drugs. It is also intended to lower illicit drug profits, deterring would-be criminals.
There’s an actual logic to this thinking, which is why law enforcement agencies often measure their performance based on seizures and arrests. Police globally have got very good at this. In Australia, for example, police are seizing more illicit drugs more often than before. And its jails are filling fast.
For most countries, it’s been challenging to ascertain whether this strategy actually works. Still, this way of thinking has prevailed in the absence of other evidence.
In 2016, one of Australia’s senior law enforcement officials of the time confided in me his belief that Australia’s National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program would revolutionise the way we think about illicit drug consumption in our communities.
"With this data, the ACIC has a much clearer understanding of the success, or otherwise, of Australia’s illicit drug supply reduction strategy."
At the time, he was more than a little worried that this program would reveal that Australia’s illegal drug supply reduction activities were not working.
Over the last five years, this Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) program has tested wastewater sites across Australia. It uses a scientifically-modelled methodology to establish an evidence-based quantitative understanding of Australia’s national illicit drug use patterns.
With this data, the ACIC has a much clearer understanding of the success, or otherwise, of Australia’s illicit drug supply reduction strategy.
Let’s consider, using this data, how a historically significant police operation has impacted illicit drug use in Australia; as ACIC’s 2022 Illicit Drug Data Report is not yet available, we will not consider the impacts on price.
In 2018, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) established Operation Ironside. Under the umbrella of Operation Ironside (pictured above), the AFP and its international partners developed a “world-leading capability to see encrypted communications used exclusively by organised crime”. The encrypted communications were decrypted from a platform covertly run by the FBI.
Since the operation began, it has led to the arrest of 224 offenders on 526 charges in every mainland Australian state; 3.7 tonnes of drugs, $44,934,457 in cash, and assets expected to run into the millions of dollars have been seized.
On 8 June 2021, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw announced: “Today, Australia is a much safer country because of the extraordinary outcome under Operation Ironside.” And he was right.
"The AFP and its international partners arrested a large number of serious organised criminals, many of which have extensive violent pasts. But has it impacted the availability or price of illicit drugs on Australia’s streets?"
The AFP and its international partners arrested a large number of serious organised criminals, many of which have extensive violent pasts. But has it impacted the availability or price of illicit drugs on Australia’s streets?
On the 30 of June 2022, the ACIC released its 16th National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program Report. The report compared consumption data from previous reports with results obtained from regional and capital city sites in December 2021 and capital cities in February 2022.
This data collection occurred almost six months after the resolution phase of Operation Ironside. The prevailing law enforcement theories suggest that we should have seen a decline in drug use as the operation should have reduced availability and prices increased. What it revealed was:
- during the reporting period, the illicit stimulant markets showed early signs of increased consumption but not yet to levels recorded previously by the program or before COVID-19
- between August and December 2021, methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and MDA consumption increased in both capital city and regional sites, while consumption of heroin and cannabis decreased.
Doomed to failure
In summary, these results suggest that one of Australia’s most significant law enforcement operations against the drug trade did not reduce drug supply or usage. Of course, there are many possible explanations – onshore stockpiles buffering losses being but one.
In drawing conclusions from this case study I am not suggesting that law enforcement isn’t a critical component of drug supply reduction. On the other hand, I would suggest that the data indicates that our prevailing law enforcement strategies may not be achieving supply reduction.
I would also suggest that any national illicit drug strategy that disproportionately prioritises muscular illicit drug enforcement strategies without considering demand reduction and harm minimisation appears doomed to failure.
Regardless, it is clear that wastewater monitoring of drug use provides law enforcement with a clear understanding of what works. So now is the time for us to use it.