Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Essay - finding a new way to deal with the scourge of Ice

There is no doubt that Ice (crystal methamphetamine) has become a major problem. I was reading some stuff the other day that provided an insight at community level. Frankly, I was horrified. You can see why people are demanding action. It's not just that the drug itself has potentially severe side effects, it's the adverse effects of a sometimes violent distribution system that, among other things, uses children as couriers and imposes silence through fear.

This wasn't the first time that I had heard references to explosions in Ice use and its community effects, it's been running around the grapevine for a while. However, this was the first time that I had seen reporting from people I knew about a community of which I had some knowledge. I found myself wanting to take some action.

According to newspaper reports, the NSW Government will announce its response to the problem today as part of its re-election campaign. It appears to be very much your standard law and order approach so beloved by current Government systems, containing five elements:
  • halve the threshold required to charge dealers with possessing large commercial quantities of ice, from one kilogram to 500 grams, so more offenders face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment
  • a mandatory state-wide online recording system of all sales in NSW pharmacies to reduce access to pseudoephedrine – a vital precursor chemical ingredient in ice
  • triple the number of roadside drug tests, to over 97,000, by next year. 
  • grant greater powers to confiscate the assets of drug dealers and traffickers
  • invest $7 million in establishing three new Stimulant Treatment Program clinics within the Illawarra, Mid North Coast and western Sydney regions, with an additional $4 million earmarked for non-government programs. Along with two existing facilities at Newcastle and Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital, the clinics will collectively cater for up to a thousand drug users at a time. 
I make no pretense to any form of expertise in this area. However, I would have thought that this program was highly unlikely to work:
  • it is likely to end up with a lot more mules in jail without greatly affecting supply
  • the State already has substantial powers to confiscate assets of drug dealers. It is not clear that an extension would have significant impact
  • increased roadside drug tests may have a public safety aspect, people may be more careful about driving having taken drugs, but so far as the Ice problem is concerned the impact on use is likely to be zero
  • it may actually make family or community members more reluctant to come forward to seek help or provide information to police.
What would I do instead? Well, this is a case where it it is fine for me to lecture, but where I really struggle with alternative answers. For what it's worth, here are my suggestions:
  1. I think that we need to make a clear distinction in our minds between users and the distribution system. 
  2. So far as individuals, their families and communities are concerned, we need to find a way of providing help that can be delivered in the first instance without involving the police. I am well aware that  there are specific programs already in place, but the Ice explosion has been such that many of those affected have no idea where to seek help.The Government's expansion of treatment options is limited and does not address to information gap, nor is it especially helpful if you live outside the immediate coverage areas.
  3. I think that we need targeted information and health awareness advertising and programs. At the moment, you get generalised approaches such as the War on Drugs.This doesn't really cut through, especially given the multiplicity of health messages, If Ice is the scourge I see  it to be, then it needs a very specific campaign along AIDS lines. This would also address distribution issues by attacking demand.   
  4. Penalties along the distribution change should be more graduated and even reduced. Seriously, families, friends and communities will not cooperate if the effect is to send their loved ones to jail. To illustrate, would you give information to the police on any drug issue connected with Indonesia if the effect was death by firing squad? 
  5. We should attack the distribution chain. This is an area where I as a civil libertarian have absolutely no problem with being required to sign for a product containing pseudoephedrine. It does not affect my real liberties, but may make it more difficult for the bad guys. That I can support. I suspect that there are other measures that I would support too. 
  6. I support additional police resources, but only if those resources focus on intelligence, targeted action and, most of all, support for individuals and families who want to redress problems at individual and local levels. I also support more discretion for police.
Now if you look at what I am trying to achieve here via these proposals:
  1. I have focused on one drug
  2. I am trying to help communities, families and friends deal with an immediate problem that affects those that they care about
  3. I suggest measures to attack demand
  4. I then focus on the supply chain, looking for a nuanced approach that will encourage people to inform, place action responsibility at individual, family and community level,  give the police new resources and social responsibilities but limit this to their core role. 
Perhaps I'm naive. I stand to be corrected. But when I read those meeting minute, I thought how did we let this happen? When I look at the Liberal-National Party response, I think how is this going to make any difference at all? It won't. Meantime, the community that sits at the back of my mind will just have to suffer.


I am going to treat this post also as the Monday Forum post because I am interested in increasing my understanding of the problem.

This is a Radio National story from 10 March focused on Ice related problems in Mildura in Victoria.

I suppose that it was about eighteen months ago that I first started hearing stories of Ice problems in particular communities. Prior to that, it seemed to be just another recreational drug, cool to use kvd's phrase among particular groups and at dance or music events. From this base, it spread through fairly aggressive pushing into new markets especially in regional areas.

I do not know whether or not the stuff I was reading that I referred to earlier is accurate. It wasn't a police report or anything like that, simply the minutes of a meeting of particular community groups. The Ice problem came up as one issue, raised in the context of one community in particular, one with  considerable mining/trades presence. I mention this only because the RN program mentions tradies as a particular Ice using group. I have no idea whether or not this is true.

The salient features of the minutes were:
  • Ice use had exploded quite suddenly among a particular group at this particular place
  • The Ice was Chinese origin and was being pushed by Chinese linked gangs using children and teenagers to deliver
  • The trade was quite violent, leaving people afraid to talk. There had been a spike in deaths and in criminal activities such as burglaries in order to find cash to buy the drug.
  • Community groups were struggling to work out just how to respond. 
As I said, I cannot validate the stories. In this case, I am just reporting.

Postscript 2

In a comment, Sue pointed me to an new book,  "Chasing the Scream" by Johann Hari. While apparently flawed, the book looks interesting.

Postscript 3 - 25 March 2015

The Australian Crime Commission has now released a report The Australian Methylamphetamine Market, The National Picture that deals with the Ice epidemic. At this point, I haven't been able to find a link to the report its self.

Postscript 3 26 March 2013

A commenter kindly provided this link to the report. Just click on download this file. As an aside, Australian Policy Online is a good resource. Maybe I'm wrong, but I expected more substance in the report after all the reporting. 


Winton Bates said...

Jim, this is somewhat tangential, but I can't forget the response of a mother whose son became an ice user. When interviewed on radio, I think she said that in her experience all family and government help had been futile. In the end she had to cut her son adrift and accept that there was nothing she could do.

Anonymous said...

Winton is right, and also correct. If you think you can apply a 'reasonable' solution you are mistaken.

I think ice use (as opposed to manufacture) should be legalised, and then the market flooded with an anonymous cut which induces immediate vomitimg and diarrhea.

i.e. make it 'very not cool'.


Evan said...

I think your approach sounds entirely sensible.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning all.

Winton, I'm not sure that that is tangential. Sometimes that's all you can do for personal protection, but then the problem remains.

kvd, I suspect that the "cool" issue has been/is important. I will bring up a Radio National link in the main post. Those supporting harm minimisation often suggest legalisation. Often, I'm inclined to agree with them. I'm not sure that I could agree in this case and, in any event, it's not politically acceptable.

I would take the inverted commas off reasonable and add them instead to solution. It's possible to be reasonable, but a solution in terms of a total answer is unlikely.

My point is that I think that my approach would work better than that proposed in NSW because it is more targeted, less draconian, more flexible.

Evan, is there an Ice problem in Tasmania?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Interesting and worthwhile post.

A friend who loaned me a book called "Chasing the Scream" by Johann Hari, said it had transformed his thinking about "the war on drugs".


Anonymous said...

Jim this has been mentioned before, and not just in relation to illicit drugs, but I think it would be very worthwhile for this country to begin a move to an entirely cash-free economy.

So, if we are also having a discussion about data retention I think it more beneficial to replace our present cash with traceable, recordable, plastic transactions. Patterns of purchase would surely emerge; excessive unexplained income would become more transparent; and maybe even burglary and bank robbery would reduce if there was nothing to steal or with no way to sell it in an untraceable form?

I expect you will find this naive, but there is just so much potential to 'manipulate' when the 'reward' - the cash - is essentially untraceable.


Jim Belshaw said...

Have you read the book, yet Sue? I hadn't heard of it so looked it up. It seems very interesting. Would be interested in your reaction.

Hi kvd. If you look at the patterns of electronic crime, one would have to wonder at the effects that this change might have.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I can understand if you don't want to engage, but seriously - "patterns of electronic crime"? Explain that to your local ice community and wait for the blank stare :)

14 Feb '66 demonstrated that an orderly shift from one legal currency to another could be achieved.

These days with half your electronic wizard generation happily self-attaching 'lifestyle bands' which count the number of steps and heartbeats, I don't think it too far outside the bounds that their Nike band could also keep count of their money - where it went, where it came from.

And if my now nearly five year old Visa card can right now be simply waived near the machine at my bank and have all my financial details on display, I don't think what I'm thinking of can be so easily dismissed as you seem to suggest.


ps it's called "Visa paywave" and was obviously available nearly five years ago - not that I'd heard of it then.

Jim Belshaw said...

I wasn't being dismissive, kvd, although I do hate things that give Governments more control over my life. In fact, I'm moving back to cash!

We have plenty of evidence in the way that electronic payment systems can be manipulated or abused fro criminal purposes. Now in the very specific case I have in mind, the payment card would buy, say, potatoes from a dummy supplier. The pusher would not have to worry about cash, bad debts or laundering money in the present way.

The payment monitoring system would then have to pick up the transaction as happens now. They find the transaction pattern and raid the dummy business. If the destroy codes don't work, they find transfers to an apparently legitimate account that has somehow gone to the bottom of the harbour.

Alternatively, they fund purchases of say goods. The goods have been sold via private sale and are then resold. This can't be identified unless you can access the buyer's account or subsequent payment from that account.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I will accept your simple scenario if you will expand upon just where the purchaser of the mythical potato gains his plastic cash from for the purchase? And then at the other end, just how the combined funds gained from the sale of all these spuds 'disappears' untraceably?

Presently the answer to both is untraceable cash. Or perhaps I misunderstand you.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. Teasing this out a little.

If cash disappears completely, the purchaser of the potatoes will either have dropped out of the economic system (I would expect a barter economy to emerge - potatoes for other goods)or will have some form of plastic payment card.

The potato dealer swipes the card and has the money transferred to another account. Now the authorities aren't dumb. They will have some form of trace system in place. Normally, the disguised transaction will be hidden in the sheer volume of transactions.

They, the authorities, may pick the transaction up through through random checks or through an outbreak of potato dealing at a particular place. You manage this by creating a dummy account, one that looks real but is not. Each dummy account survives for a particular period.

Of course some will be caught. there is also a transaction cost, but from the viewpoint of the potato dealer, he or she just has to establish separation

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim, not that I'm suggesting Norfolk Island is the centre of the ice trade, but with the present mooted large scale changes there, it would be a perfect small scale test of a cashless society :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Not that you are suggesting this, kvd, but we might have to introduce Ice or some other illegal activity first!

Anonymous said...

you can find ACC report here :

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, anon. I think its up on the ACC web site as well. I was disappointed when I read it. I expected more substance.

Jim Belshaw said...

Oh, and I will bring the link up in the main post.

Dr Purva Pius said...
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