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Australia's History with Heroin and Current Policy

Updated on November 4, 2017
The picturesque waterways found across Australia are one of the many ways that drugs are brought into Australia.
The picturesque waterways found across Australia are one of the many ways that drugs are brought into Australia. | Source

Australia has always had a rich and extensive history with drug use and smuggling. A huge percentage of the population of Australia consumes drugs in the form of legal narcotics such as alcohol and prescribed drugs in addition to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.

During the early years of the federation of Australia, many of the European countries raised concern over the rate at which quacks in Australia were able to foist 600 distinct medical products, many of which contained significant amounts of narcotics. A perfect example was one product that was very popular, the Original Dr Collins Browne’s Chlorodyne. This drug contained up to 6 grains of morphine combined with cannabis. Similar drugs thrived as a result of dubious campaigns and adverts that promised miracle cures every imaginable ailment. Many of these drugs were also found to contain heroin, even until as recently as 1953.

Australian Heroin Prohibition

Heroin was only prohibited in July 1953 by Australian laws. That year alone, no overdose was reported according to Australian records. These laws were fiercely fought and opposed by professional medical bodies in Australia. These medical bodies’ use of heroin had expanded since the early 30s. Most of their use of heroin was legal and legitimate within the legal confines of medical drug use. However, by 1953, Australia was consuming a little under 8% of the world’s supply of heroin. This represented 50 time the United States’ per capita and three time that of Britain. This was until the United States’ dominance of the United Nations that the continual and extensive use and consumption of the heroin by Australia was put in the spotlight, forcing politicians to enforce laws that barred the production, distribution, sale, use and importation of heroin.

At the verge of the climax of the Vietnam War, the expanding heroin market sought out new markets as the US troops travelled from South East Asia. Australia’s long and practically undefended border provided such an opportunity. This coupled with the fact that the country had an affluent and emerging youth culture that readily embraced the use of narcotics that entwined into a development of questionable authority and morality, made the country particularly vulnerable. These US soldiers, who were on R&R (rest and recuperation) introduced the local youth to the heroin that was smuggled from Indochina. The youth were ripe for a cultural resistance that had been brewing from years of enforced abstinence. This saw the resurgence of the heroin use in Australia.

This resurgence in heroin use put on the spotlight the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the prohibitive laws that had been put in place. This was clearly depicted in the 90s when heroin use was virtually a natural disaster and epidemic. It was so evident that for $25, anyone could get a reasonably pure hit of heroin that had reached the Australian shores. This was further seen in 2001, when records depicted 400 people had died from heroin overdose.

Drug trade spans the globe.  Used with permission. CC0 Creative Commons
Drug trade spans the globe. Used with permission. CC0 Creative Commons

Drugs Imported into Australia

A large amount of drugs are brought from the Middle East, particularly from Afghanistan. In 2011 Afghanistan produced roughly 600 tonnes of heroin. The drugs that eventually land in Australia are smuggled from Afghanistan through Pakistan so that they can reach the global market,

Drugs are most commonly smuggled into Australia through cargo ships, and through personal luggage at airports. The risk of transporting heroin to Australia is made worth while to drug smugglers, because while a kilo is worth two thousand US dollars in Afghanistan, in Australia the same kilo of heroin is worth roughly three-hundred and seventy-six thousand US dollars.

There have been some notable news stories documenting the entrance of drugs into Australia. Most notable the news stories about the freighter Pong Su, and the wheel-chair bound Thi Nina Le.

The 2003 Pong Su, a North Korean ocean freighter, was caught smuggling one-hundred and twenty-five kilograms of heroin on to a beach near Wye River. The ship came close to shore, and a small dingy carrying four non-North Korean crew members was sent to shore. The dingy capsized on it's way to shore, killing one member. However the other three members buried seventy-five kilos on the beach, and took fifty kilos with them to a hotel. The three other suspects were later captured, and the entire ship crew was also captured before the made it to international waters, and were held and tried for the smuggling operation.

Twenty-nine year old Thi Nina Le was arrested after allegedly smuggling eight kilos of heroin in the lining of her suitcase. She stated that hotel staff packed her luggage, and she did not notice the extra weight. The amount of heroin in her suitcases translates to a street value of over three million dollars.

The police caught these particular cases, however it is unknown how often operations such as these occur, and how many continue to happen successfully.

There are a number of drugs that are imported into Australia. However it is increasingly difficult to ascertain that exact amount of each of the drugs that is imported into the country. It is only relying on the custom border detection that we can determine the amount of drug importation into the country. Furthermore, there is no positive correlation between the total weight of detections and the number of detections. These two facets are influenced by various number of factors that at times cannot be factored into these figures.

The Australian Federal Police is the lead government enforcement agency that is responsible for the detections and prosecutions of all individuals who endeavour to import and/or export drugs into the federal state of Australia. This agency works hand in hand with the Australian Customs and Boarder Protection Service. The most common drugs detected and seized include;

  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine
  • MDMA (Ecstasy)

Australian Heroin Epidemic

Drug Policy Reform

The National Drug Strategy employed by the Australian government is aimed at minimizing the harm caused by these drugs to its citizens since its inceptions in 1985. This essentially means that the target of the policies and laws set in place by this body is to reduce the damage cause by drug use rather than reduce the use of the drugs overall. This approach had for a long time received wide spread support. However, this all changed in 1997 with the Howards Government. The Howard Government launched the national Illicit Drug Strategy (Touch on Drugs) which aimed to prohibit the importation, distribution, sale and use of drugs by applying law enforcement.

A panoramic view of Sydney, the largest city in Australia, and a hub for illegal heroin usage.
A panoramic view of Sydney, the largest city in Australia, and a hub for illegal heroin usage. | Source

Evolution of Australia's Drug Laws

Phase 1 (1788 to early 1900s)

This phase was between 1788 up until the major part of the late 1800s, stretching slightly into the early 1900s. This period was characterised by very few laws that inhibited or controlled the production, use or supply of drugs, this was mainly attributed to drug use being a simple matter of personal choice, thus little need for any stringent laws. Furthermore, the laws that existed aimed to minimize risks that were linked to the then known poisons.

Phase 2 (late 1800s to 1912)

This phase was characterized by laws that mainly targeted opium. These laws were meant to forbid the supply of smoke-grade opium and the very smoking of opium. The laws banned the importation and possession of opium for smoking without a valid reason. This was hugely assisted by the commonwealth.

Phase 3 (1912 to 1960s)

This stage was characterized by the development and institution of international conventions that prohibited drugs. During this period, there were 9 multilateral drug control agreements that were negotiated. The United Kingdom and the United States both played important roles in these treaties.

Phase 4 (1960s to present)

This phase is the aim of our study. This phase was characterised by changing dynamics that played a huge role in the development of the drug laws in the Australia. Three main notable facets changed the dynamics of drug laws in Australia at this time. Namely;

  • The prevalence of illicit drug use in the country soared considerably.
  • The demography of drug users changed to include the major portion of the young population.
  • The international drug regime was amalgamated and extended

Between 1993 and 1997 the National Drug Strategy was formulated still focused on harm minimization. This policy had two main strategic goals that all pointed towards minimization of the health and psychological impact of the use of drugs. This basic concepts founded the policy:

  • Harm mitigation
  • social justice
  • maintenance of controls over drug supply
  • an inter-sectoral tactic
  • international collaboration
  • evaluation

This policy solicited positive reviews in handling the impacts caused by drug use. However, the rate of drug use and drug importation continued to soar. This is evident in the statistical data present in the section above. This is evident between 1995 and 1998. Drug seizures at the Australian border reached an all-time high. This represented a 29% increase from the previous three years. Notably, was the fact that heroin use doubled over this period of time. In 1999 alone, opiate overdose deaths stood at an astounding 1,116. This period saw Australia ranked the highest drug addictive country in the world.

In November 1997, the Howard Government launched the National Illicit Drug Strategy “Touch on Drugs”. This policy aimed to address a rising and evident security and public health problem. The main principle of this policy was to stem the trade of drug trafficking into Australia and make the country a much more difficult target for drug traffickers. This policy had three strategic points that it would implement to address these problems.

Three Points of the National Illicit Drug Strategy

1. Supply reduction; this aimed at stemming the trade of drug trafficking, this was owing to the fact that Australia had become the ideal destination for drug traffickers. The policy intentionally increase funding in order to increase the interception of drugs at the Australian border and all major custom entry points. The extra funds that were available in the policy were made available to:

  • Increase Custom Service’s cargo capacity profiling system
  • Increase the Federal Police’s operational investigative staff
  • Enhance the capacity of the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis centre. This was to enable the body screen suspicious financial transaction.
  • Enhance the IT capabilities and communication of all law enforcement agencies involved in the detection and seizure of drug hauls.
  • Enhance research into drug-crime within the country. This also involved the increase of funding for the witness protection program and the handling of informants. All this was to be done through the National Heroin Signature Programme that would also identify drug trafficking patterns at the border and all other custom entry points into the country.

2. Demand and harm reduction; this aimed at prevention through education of the youth, their families, the community, health professionals and teachers. This involved the instituting of a zero drug tolerance in schools. Further tactics included:

  • Improvement of the community treatment services that were already existent and functional. This was achieved through the employment of a cost-sharing funding agreement.
  • This would be enhanced by the development and creation of new state of the art community treatment facilities.
  • The dissemination of information to parents, universities, schools, health care facilities, health professionals and the general community.
  • Drug users would be diverted from prisons into treatment programmes. This was aimed at breaking the pattern of drug use that continued even in prison. Furthermore, this would reduce the tendency to recede into criminal behaviour.

3. Research; the policy also aimed to support research on innovative reduction measures of damage caused by drug use. This was aimed at developing strategies that focused on the abstinence mode of treatment as opposed to recovery or emergency treatment.

The implementation of this policy in 1998 saw the increase in the numbers of seizures at the Australian border. Notably, was the increase in heroin seizures at the border.

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