|A cold day for some in Melbourne|
You have probably heard about the massive drug bust that netted a major heroin distribution syndicate in Melbourne this week. Although, the Australian Crime Commission and the Victorian Police Force are obviously ecstatic about their victory, what does it actually mean in the real world, away from the congratulatory media and smirking politicians?
I can't say the drought is over. What I can say is that heroin remains a problem for the Australian community. And that's certainly focused Australian law enforcement and the ACC in particular on targeting heroin because it creates such harm for the community
--Richard Grant - The Australian Crime Commission Manager Of Target Development And Intervention
It would be hard to find any argument from the public against the police removing millions of dollars worth of heroin from the streets and any attempt would most likely be met with sheer disbelief or even some anger. How do you explain any downside from this bust to an ignorant public who have been pumped with anti-drug propaganda for 40 years?
Busting drug dealers is a good thing. Catching the Mr. Bigs is even better. And removing kilograms of heroin from the streets is simply a no-brainer. But what if all this was not as simple as it looks? What if, busting drug dealers is not automatically a benefit to society? What if, breaking up huge heroin syndicates actually causes more problems and harm than if the busts never happened?
To find out why, we must establish a few facts first:
- Heroin is basically non-toxic and can be taken for decades with very little physical harm. Remember that heroin is the brand name for diacetylmorphine, a derivative of morphine that is used everyday in hospitals and for pain treatment. Diacetylmorphine, under the brand name Heroin, was originally made by Bayer as a cough suppressant and to treat colds, flu, pain and teething problems for children. It is still used in several countries for pain management or addiction treatment as well as recreationally with an estimated usage of over 20 million people aged 15–64.
- Heroin is highly addictive and withdrawal is as nasty as it comes. When in withdrawal, addicts will do things they would never normally do. There are no boundaries in place for how far someone will go to relieve the pain of withdrawal and affects everyone regardless of their job, religion, wealth or position in society.
- Most heroin related deaths are from overdoses when a certain batch is stronger than what a user is accustomed to.
- Almost no crime is committed by someone high on heroin. It’s the opposite - addicts commit crime to buy their drugs when they’re not high.
- Most heroin dealers are user/dealers who buy a larger package, keep some for themselves and sell the rest. They never make excess profits.
- User/dealers usually choose to sell heroin to other addicts because it doesn’t hurt anyone else unlike the option of committing crimes like robberies, theft or hold-ups.
- Many heroin addicts are fully employed and pay for their drugs legitimately. Any interruption in their budget, may lead them to resort to crime.
- Addicts often stick with one dealer who they trust. The dealers also much prefer to deal with people they know. A good relationship with a dealer can sometimes lead to a credit arrangement for emergency situations removing the need to obtain extra cash by committing crime, pawning off goods or trying to borrow money. Going to an unknown dealer may result in being ripped off which creates panic and a need to obtain more money.
- When a dealer is out of heroin or in jail, his customers still need heroin everyday. Simply removing the heroin or dealer does not stop an addict needing to score.
Let’s run through the scenario of what happens after this latest bust.
Suddenly, there are dozens of user/dealers without supply. That means there are hundreds of addicts without supply. We are lead to believe that “a significant amount of harm that we've removed from the community” equates to hundreds of drug users being better off and society is somehow safer. In reality, the opposite happens. Addicts have to score and will not stop until they do. If their source is removed, their options are to find another dealer, buy diverted pharmaceuticals or get street methadone.
Having to find a street dealer at short notice opens up the risk of being cheated or caught by police. When this happens, an addict has not only blown their hard-to-come-by cash but they are still without a fix for the day. By this time, withdrawals are taking their toll and desperation is setting in. Walking into a chemist with knife and asking for a handful of Oxys is becoming an option. Jumping someone at the local methadone dispensary for their takeaway doses is also on their mind. Paying extra for another addicts heroin may be a solution except they are already short of cash from being ripped off. Either way, crime is becoming almost inevitable.
Another problem with having to find a new dealer at short notice is that the provided heroin might be much stronger than what the user is accustomed to. This usually causes an overdose and often death. Unlike the popular belief, upsetting the routine for an addict never turns out well without a treatment plan in place.
The underlying message is, less drugs on the street means less harm. This is merely a sales pitch from the government and police. Random drug busts, even major raids like operation “Sethra”, without a fall out plan is not only short sighted but dangerous. Addicts don’t magically become enlightened and seek treatment when faced with a sudden cut off of supply. They just become more desperate. And if there’s one thing that hasn’t sunk in, it’s the fact that desperate addicts going through withdrawal will go to extreme measures to stop the pain. It is almost beyond comprehension that we act surprised or want to toughen up drug laws when an addict commits a crime to feed their habit. After all, it is the cause for over 50% of all crime in Australia. Not acting on this knowledge but instead, trying to the scam public support by rolling out the popular "Tough on Drugs" rhetoric is reprehensible and indicates how irresponsible and self serving our law makers really are.
Contrary to what we have been told, not everyone is going to be affected by this big bust. I asked a heroin dealer I know if this bust will affect him. He simply shrugged and said with a poker face, “I just get it from someone else”. Knowing several sources obviously has it’s advantages. And here lies another problem. This other source has much lower quality heroin so the dealers customers will have to buy extra to satisfy their cravings or get used to less potency. Eventually the dealer will find a better supplier but his customers will now be at risk of overdosing on the stronger heroin. Luckily, the dealer I know warns his customers if the strength suddenly increases but I am certain not all dealers offer this service.
What is lost in all the excitement from busting up a multi-million dollar heroin syndicate is that so much money is to be made that another dozen or so suppliers are ready to step in. It will probably only take a week or so before it’s business as usual and not many people will notice any change in Melbourne’s heroin market. Those who will notice though are the families of users who have overdosed, resulting victims of crime and the welfare agencies who too often, have to clean up the whole mess.
Was it worth it? $40 million in assets, gold and cash is certainly worth a phone call to mum. The proceeds from this bust will fund various police agencies for a long time, which can only be a good thing. I wonder though if 10 months of investigation with 250 police from the Australian Crime Commission, the Victoria Police Drug Task Force, the police crime department and regional response units hasn’t shifted scarce and valuable resources away from investigations into truly harmful crimes like child pornography, human trafficking or violent gangs. If operation “Sethra” was about reeling in ill gotten gains from criminals then it has been a huge success. But if it was about reducing harm or keeping the community safe, then sadly, it was just another failure in the misguided and dangerous, “war on drugs”.
Drugs, Money, Gold And Houses Seized In Melbourne
ELEANOR HALL: Officers from the Australian Crime Commission and the Victorian Police Force made pre-dawn raids this morning which they say busted a major drugs syndicate.
The officers seized tens of millions of dollars worth of property and arrested more than a dozen people who they say were importing heroin from South East Asia and selling it on the streets of Melbourne.
The raid occurred as evidence shows that more heroin has been making its way to Australian shores.
In Melbourne, Simon Lauder reports.
SIMON LAUDER: The raids were launched in the early hours of this morning but police say they've been watching and waiting for 10 months. Detective Inspector John Potter is from the Victoria Police Drug Task Force.
JOHN POTTER: Fourteen search warrants in Melbourne's north and inner west and as a result of that have arrested some 13 people at this stage.
SIMON LAUDER: Police say they seized millions of dollars worth of drugs, mainly heroin, and $2.5 million in cash.
They've also seized around $20 million worth of residential and commercial real estate, allegedly the proceeds of crime.
Most of those arrested so far are women. It'll be alleged they worked for a syndicate which was importing and selling commercial quantities of drugs. It's believed the syndicate has been working in Melbourne for a long time and Detective Inspector Potter says the heroin may have come from South-East Asia.
JOHN POTTER: We're talking about a number of countries. It's no secret that a lot of heroin comes from Asia.
SIMON LAUDER: The Australian Crime Commission manager of target development and intervention Richard Grant says the best way to stop organised crime is to target the assets.
RICHARD GRANT: So in addition to that we've got, seized about $2.5 million cash, a kilo of gold and probably about $4 million worth of heroin which represents about 57,000 hits of heroin. So that's a significant amount of harm that we've removed from the community.
SIMON LAUDER: And what activities was this syndicate involved in? Where was it getting its heroin and what was it doing with it?
RICHARD GRANT: Well don't want to say where it's getting it from. What I might say though is that they were a significant trafficker of heroin, probably in the sort of middle to upper level bracket. And the fact that we have restrained over $20 million worth of assets today is indicative of just how sophisticated this syndicate has been.
SIMON LAUDER: And was it just heroin or did you seize some other drugs as well?
RICHARD GRANT: There was some other drugs seized.
And as you can appreciate this is an ongoing investigation and it's also the raids or the warrants are still being executed as we speak so we're still waiting for further advice.
SIMON LAUDER: Can you say anything about the methods for importing the heroin?
RICHARD GRANT: Probably not at this stage. As I said it's still an ongoing investigation.
These are plugged into syndicates elsewhere and getting their heroin from those groups. They were trafficking to large sections of the community - no particularly sort of demographic that you could say that they've been trafficking to.
But the fact that they've been quite a resilient organised crime group - it wasn't that long ago, a couple of months ago that we seized five blocks of heroin which is about $3 million of heroin and about $645,000 cash and this group didn't miss a heartbeat.
SIMON LAUDER: Do you believe this syndicate was the main source of street heroin in Melbourne?
RICHARD GRANT: I can't say that this group is a major supplier in Melbourne. What I can say though, it is a significant contributor to the heroin on the streets of Melbourne.
SIMON LAUDER: And were they operating nationally as well?
RICHARD GRANT: Primarily in Victoria.
SIMON LAUDER: Since 2005 I notice that the amount of heroin seized at Australian borders has been on the rise and domestic seizures have also gone up quite a lot lately quite dramatically. What does this tell us about the availability of heroin in Australia?
RICHARD GRANT: Heroin remains a significant problem for Australia. The Commonwealth Government has got a three-stage plan for dealing with illicit drugs that talks about supply, demand and harm reduction.
The action that we've taken today will have a significant effect but heroin will remain a problem while there is a demand for heroin.
SIMON LAUDER: About a decade ago or less there was what we called a heroin drought in Australia. Do you have reason to believe now that that is well and truly over?
RICHARD GRANT: I can't say the drought is over. What I can say is that heroin remains a problem for the Australian community. And that's certainly focused Australian law enforcement and the ACC in particular on targeting heroin because it creates such harm for the community.
SIMON LAUDER: Victoria's Office of Public Prosecutions says the case represents the largest single proceeds of crime restraint ever made in Victorian criminal history.
ELEANOR HALL: Simon Lauder reporting.