It is legal to import but illegal to use – the drug flooding our streets .Read here…

Tonight hundreds of people in Melbourne’s nightclubs will each spend about $15 to buy a little soy sauce fish satchel containing a clear liquid with the intention of getting high. Some of them will wake (if they are lucky) in hospital casualty wards with no idea how they got there.

The odds are that in another bar a woman will sip from a drink spiked with the same clear liquid (usually blended with cordial to mask the bitter aftertaste). If she is lucky her friends will rescue her before she ends up in a stranger’s bed.

The users in the nightclub think they are buying GHB, known as Liquid E or Liquid Fantasy. In fact they are being fed the solvent 1,4 Butanediol used in car repairs and the manufacture of Lycra so loved by middle-age cyclists and so hated by the rest of us.

When swallowed, “Bute” or “One- Four” is turned into GHB by the liver but there is a toxic trick. It takes three times longer to kick in, meaning the user – often disappointed there is no immediate effect – swallows one or two more doses, resulting in a potentially catastrophic overdose. And the depressant impact of the drug on heart and breathing is exaggerated when taken with alcohol, making it doubly dangerous in the party scene.

About the same time, somewhere in Melbourne a man behind a computer screen will press send as he orders from a legitimate Chinese manufacturer hundreds of litres of a solvent used in the production of heavy-duty plastics.

The clubber in hospital, the date-rape target, the man at the computer and the Chinese manufacturer will never meet but they are linked by the solvent that has become the latest noxious wave swamping the illicit drug market.

For the drug dealer it makes perfect sense. Every link between the initial source and the ultimate sale creates a risk of discovery by police.

To make real GHB requires the expertise to source precursor chemicals, the contacts to find a drug cook, the space to produce and the network to sell. And when you make illicit drugs there is always the risk the production will go bad and you can lose the lot.

And why should they care if their ultimate market is naive drug users too trusting to think the little satchels they are about to swig are filled with something you wouldn’t use to clear blocked drains.

The profits are staggering, the health risks alarming and the official response (so far) disturbing, for drug dealers are exploiting a legislative loophole that simply must be closed.

In recent times we have read about multiple drug overdoses at city nightclubs and large dance parties put down to a “bad batch” of GHB. Don’t believe it for a moment. It is actually Bute but as the solvent mimics GHB once ingested, the toxicology tests do not show the initial substance swallowed.

A more accurate test is to look at police seizures to show what is on the street. In the past three years police have seized just 10 millilitres of GHB. At the same time they have seized 14 tonnes of Bute – or more than a million times more Bute than GHB. Effectively, there is no GHB in Victoria but a flood of Bute marketed as Liquid E.

And, as the case with most illicit substances, the profits are insane. You can buy 200 litres of Bute for about $2000 and then sell a litre bottle to drug dealers for about $1000. They then sell it in three-millilitre soy sauce containers for $7 to $15 at a huge mark up.

Anomaly in laws

So how does the loophole work?

While it is illegal to possess Bute for human consumption under state law, it is not illegal to import it for industrial purposes under Commonwealth law. Which means any knucklehead with a keyboard can set themselves up as a drug distributor by going online and ordering from one of dozens of Chinese manufacturers.

It also means that while you can be charged for having a soy sauce container of the stuff in King Street, you can drive a truckload down the Tullamarine Freeway without as much as a speeding ticket.

There was the case of a career drug trafficker caught with several illicit products including 40 litres of Bute. While there is no doubt it was destined for the party scene, he argued in court it was intended for legitimate industrial purposes. Because his previous convictions could not be admitted, the jury swallowed the story just as clubbers swallowed his drugs.

Then there is the modest-level drug dealer working out of Narre Warren. Busted with a small amount of what he thought was GHB, he was surprised when police tests showed it was Bute.

He did some research and soon emailed a test order to a Chinese manufacturer and sure enough it turned up as promised. And so he sent a second order for 200 litres that arrived without delay.

So our low-level ice dealer registered himself as a cleaning company, leased a warehouse and began to import tonnes of the stuff despite having no clients, no equipment and no idea about the cleaning business.

When he was arrested (after selling an undercover policeman three litres for $3000 and bragging he was selling “heaps of the stuff”) he had $200,000 sitting in a bank account. And he was just a dope. Imagine the profits for any dealer with a brain bigger than a cuttlefish?

In Europe and Britain, Bute-like solvent of choice is GBL (known as coma in a bottle) but in Australia that can be imported only on licence and is strictly controlled. And yet Bute is allowed in with fewer border checks than Croatian goat cheese.

Market ‘huge’

And so law enforcement has come up with an informal deal. When Australian Border Force officers come across a big and unexplained importation of Bute they contact Victorian Drug Taskforce detectives who wander out to destroy it. They are finding it virtually daily – and that is when they are aren’t specifically looking for it because it is not a prohibited import.

As one drug detective said, “We are awash in the stuff. Pull over an ice dealer and he will also be carrying Bute. The market is huge.”

Nightclub operators have considered recruiting volunteer first aid workers inside the venues, and some have established recovery rooms for the incapacitated.

So what can we do? First the federal government must make Bute a substance that can be imported only on licence for legitimate industrial purposes. (Although some argue there are  alternative products that don’t mimic GHB and would be used in a nightclub to only repair barstools.)

As Assistant Commissioner (Crime) Steve Fontana says, “It should not be this easy to import a substance that is this dangerous. We need to stop it before it gets into the country.”

Secondly, the state government can make selling more than two litres the offence of trafficking a large commercial quantity with the maximum penalty of life.

There is a great deal of twaddle spoken about drugs, with alarmists suggesting anyone who has ever popped a pill will turn into a raving werewolf trying to bite the tyres of any passing vehicle.

But consider the facts. Ambulance crews attend about 10,000 illicit drug-related incidents a year in Victoria – most of them suspected overdoses. Police are required at nearly 3000, with about 6000 taken to hospital. About 4000 are found collapsed or distressed in a public space, and 15,000 people end up at a hospital after taking illicit drugs.

If 40 people were admitted to hospital tomorrow with food poisoning, it would be front-page news and would result in some form of inquiry involving stern-faced officials in lab coats. But when the same number turn up every day due to drugs, it no longer invokes even a shrug of the shoulders.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Wastewater Drug Monitoring program is showing heavier use of drugs than previous survey-related research, with a city-country divide (meth in the bush and coke in big smoke). It would seem you can take the piss in a survey whereas they take it in a sewage sample.

There are more than 100,000 drug seizures in Australia every year and the market continues to grow, which shows enforcement alone will never work.

***And the next big thing, the experts predict, will be Carfentanil – a Chinese product 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Used to sedate fully grown elephants, it’s little wonder it is leaving stupid human users stone dead – with a spate of fatal overdoses reported in Canada and the US.

But things can change. We have altered habits on littering, tobacco, drink-driving, racial abuse and even walking in the sun. So why can’t we persuade people that drinking industrial solvent is not the best idea in the world?

If Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten want to leave a legacy rather than just a graffiti mark on the wall of history, they need to make a 20-year federal commitment to pour money into rehabilitation and education.

We can change. There is a way but is there the will?

Henry Sapiecha

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