Big seizures of illicit drugs do not lead to less crime or drug use, report shows

ice haul around 600kilos sydney australia image

Big haul: A portion of the 585 kilograms of the drug known as “ice” seized in Sydney last year.

Large-scale seizures of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines by police do not reduce the number of overdoses or arrests for possession and use of the drugs, according to the largest Australian study ever conducted into the area.

The study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) also found that the frequency and quantity of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines being seized by authorities had no effect on theft, robbery and assault figures.

However, the authors warn against concluding that this means the pursuit of large scale drug busts is a waste of time and money as the risks associated with being caught continue to keep prices high and a lid on the amount consumed.

“It shows it’s probably better to spread fear and loathing among drug traffickers than focusing on increasing the amount of drugs that are seized,” said BOCSAR director Don Weatherburn.

The study, to be published on Thursday, examined all significant seizures of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines in Australia between July 2001 and June 2011.

This data was tracked against emergency room admissions for drug overdose and arrests for drug use and possession over the same period.

The study also looked at the effects of a “high-level” NSW Crime Commission operation in 2010 that led to the seizure of a large amount of cocaine and the arrest of key players in the Sydney cocaine market.

The operation was chosen because the commission identified it as having the capacity to significantly affect the cocaine market.

The study found increases in the number of cocaine seizures were associated with increases in the number of arrests for cocaine use and possession and emergency room admissions. It noted that increases in the amounts of drugs seized appeared to be signals of increased rather than reduced supply.

For amphetamines, increases in the number of seizures coincided with more arrests for use and possession of the drugs.

The result for heroin was less clear. Data suggested more heroin seized led to fewer people arrested for use and possession, suggesting a reduction in availability.

But this clashed with data showing that increases in the number of heroin seizures coincided with more user arrests.

Three Crime Commission operations – Balmoral Athens, Tempest and Collage – netted 690 kilograms of cocaine and arrested 11 major suppliers over five months in 2010.

The operations “did bring an end to the upward trend in the rate of arrest for use and possession of cocaine” the researchers found. Emergency room admissions also temporarily fell.

“This suggests that very large seizures, perhaps when coupled with the arrest of key suppliers, may at least temporarily reduce consumption of illicit drugs,” Dr Weatherburn said.

Dr Weatherburn said the overall results should not be read as indicating large drug seizure operations were a waste of money.

“All we have done is rule out any short-term association between drug seizures and drug-related harm,” he said.

“The severe punishments associated with drug trafficking make these activities very risky. These risks keep illegal drug prices high and illegal drug consumption therefore lower than it would be in the absence of supply-side drug law enforcement.”

Henry Sapiecha

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