CMC alerts public to evolving illicit drug threats ahead of the party season — 21.12.2012
The Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) is alerting the public to the threat of increased organised crime activity around rapidly evolving shifts in some of Queensland’s illicit drug markets and a heightened risk of public exposure to a range of harmful substances over the Christmas/New Year party season.
Signalling one of the most significant developments in the past three years, the warning arises from latest intelligence that tracks an expansion of new markets and increased availability of a widening array of harmful substances.
As detailed in today’s release of a CMC strategic intelligence report, Illicit drug markets in Queensland (PDF), catalysts behind this expansion are two-fold: persistent demand for ‘traditional’ drugs (amphetamine-type stimulants, cannabis, heroin and cocaine) and a parallel explosion of non-traditional substances, most notably drug analogues, that are often pedalled as ‘legal highs’.
Other non-traditional growth areas identified in the report stem from increasing illicit use and criminal diversion of pharmaceuticals and performance- and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDs).
Of greatest concern, Assistant Commissioner, Crime, Kathleen Florian, said that beneath it all lay the threat of ever-increasing organised crime activity.
‘The most pervasive form of organised crime activity in Queensland is the sale and distribution of illicit drugs,’ Ms Florian said, adding that organised crime groups were working together in ways unheard of a decade ago, identifying ‘niche markets’ and targeting vulnerable user groups or regions.
‘They rarely focus on one commodity and will seek alternative suppliers to meet demand, often mixing drugs with a range of highly toxic or untested substances, which means taking any of them can be like playing Russian Roulette.
‘The only guarantee is that when Queenslanders buy illicit drugs, they are not only lining the pockets of organised criminals and funding their luxury lifestyles, but directly funding further expansion of serious crime activity across the state.’
Ms Florian said organised crime activity was entrenched in the traditional markets, with methylamphetamine (speed and crystal meth) currently topping the public threat list.
While intelligence shows organised crime activity is currently limited in non-traditional markets, she cautioned that it was likely that organised crime groups would become more involved in this space, particularly in response to increasing demand for drug analogues and PIEDs.
Of note, Ms Florian said there was already evidence of semi-organised crime groups profiting from the sale of drug analogues in regional areas of Queensland where other illicit drugs are less available.
‘At the end of the day, the number one driver behind organised crime – and particularly drug-related activity – is profit,’ she said.
‘Organised crime groups will do anything to make money, so much so that rivalries have been put aside to form networks, bringing together not only the various organised crime groups within Queensland, but counterparts interstate and overseas.
‘These networks have the sole purpose of enhancing access to dangerous drugs to sell on the Australian market, and to facilitate local distribution of drugs.’
Ms Florian said there was also no question that illicit drug markets caused significant harm to Queensland communities: placing intolerable pressure on many families, spawning the commission of secondary crimes, taxing our health services, and contributing to long-term social and economic difficulties.
Of concern, she said latest intelligence also linked an emerging ‘drug culture’ to the expansion of illicit markets – a culture characterised by an increase in the social acceptance of drug taking in the form of tablets, with some users perceiving it to be a cheaper alternative to alcohol; and a surge in high-risk drug taking behaviours.
Ms Florian said high-risk drug taking behaviours were reflected in an increasing incidence of poly drug use (use of two or more drugs at the same time) and habits associated with the emergence of ‘high intensity drug users’ who typically experimented with as wide and varied an array of substances as possible in search of the perfect ‘high’.
She said the CMC’s report outlined how changes to Queensland’s ‘drug culture’ contributed to the emergence of non-traditional illicit markets, particularly related to drug analogues and the diversion of licit pharmaceuticals (in particular opioid analgesics and benzodiazepines).
Drug analogues first emerged in Queensland in 2007, with intelligence also linking a subsequent explosion in their number and variety to a drop in the availability of MDMA (ecstasy), dating back to 2009. The term captures substances designed to mimic or produce similar effects to a range of traditional drugs, with the most common substances in this market identified as synthetic stimulants and synthetic cannabis.
Ms Florian cautioned the public against complacency concerning the rise of drug analogues, which although often marketed as ‘legal highs’ may in fact be prohibited under the Drugs Misuse Act.
The state government is currently considering legislative amendments to extend the definition of a ‘dangerous drug’ to overcome the difficulties of proving that an analogue has substantially the same pharmacological effect as a scheduled dangerous drug.
‘One of the biggest concerns surrounding drug analogues is the false perception that they are safe and legal,’ Ms Florian said. She added that some users mistakenly viewed synthetic cannabis as a ‘natural product’ when in fact it was a chemical sprayed onto herbal material.
‘The truth is that there is little understanding of exactly what’s in these drugs and full extent of associated harms.’
The report also noted that the overseas-based organised crime syndicates involved in producing drug analogues were able to circumvent legislation by altering active ingredients in compounds very quickly to adapt to legislative changes in their target markets.
Ms Florian urged all Queenslanders to take stock of information contained in the CMC’s report, which features individual profiles of substances assessed as posing the greatest level of threat to communities and related organised crime involvement.
Overall, she said traditional illicit drugs continued to pose the greatest harm to Queenslanders. Some of the notable trends outlined in the report include:
- Methylamphetamine poses the greatest threat to Queenslanders because of its prevalence across the state, associated harms (physical and psychological), and strong presence of organised crime. Increasingly it is being pressed into tablet form, with poly drug use also particularly prevalent among users.
- The market for MDMA is showing signs of a resurgence following a decrease in 2009 due to a global shortage of precursors, with high demand continuing to attract organised crime. Diverse and highly variable substances are being detected in tablets marketed as ‘ecstasy’, including the highly toxic PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine), which has been linked to deaths. Intelligence points to an ongoing demand for new and emerging synthetic drugs and drug analogues that mimic the effects of MDMA.
- By quantity, cannabis is the state’s largest illicit drug market, with use in Queensland rising above the national average. Of concern, the starting age for use is reportedly getting younger. Cannabis is often the primary or ‘background’ drug used in conjunction with other illicit substances and prescription drugs in poly drug use. It remains a particularly significant drug in North Queensland and continues to be a concern within Indigenous communities in that region.
- Heroin remains an entrenched market with a strong presence of organised crime and most concentrated activity in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The market is unlikely to expand significantly because of its ageing user group, diminishing purity levels and a broadening range of alternative drugs available. The heroin market and the emerging opioid pharmaceutical market are closely linked, with the latter used as key substitutes by heroin users in Queensland’s regions where there is a lack of high-quality heroin.
- The cocaine market has experienced some growth and is attractive to organised crime but further growth of the market is restricted by the need to source and import the commodity.
The CMC has tracked Queensland’s illicit drug markets since 1999, with separate targeted intelligence reports prepared for law enforcement agencies and the public every three to four years.
For further information or to request an interview with Kathleen Florian, please contact CMC Media Adviser Shelley Thomas: 07 3360 6275 / 0407 373 803