Tuesday, 6 October 2009

SA Drug Raids aka Operation Dial - Was it a Success?

Drug Blitz Devastate Regional Cartels - UPDATED
In a previous article, Drug Blitz Devastate Regional Cartels, I mocked the success of regional drug raids around the Mt. Gambier area. One anonymous reader has kindly pointed out that “Operation Dial” had more success than I had acknowledged.
These are the drugs we have taken off the streets: 9kg of cannabis, 193 cannabis plants, 9g heroin, 11g cocaine, 12g amphetamine and 93 ecstasy tablets.
-Anonymous (Comment on The Australian Heroin Diaries)

A few links were also supplied to some media coverage. It appears that Operation Dial was a state wide operation and not just for the Mt. Gambier region. This waters down the criticism of using an excessive number of officers for the operation as the 250 police were used state wide. Also, the total amount of drugs, stolen goods and cash seized is much more than I reported on. It must appear that Operation Dial was more successful than I suggested. But was it really that successful?
It's not so much about the dollar value, it's the harm these drugs cause.
There is a clear link between drugs and crime.
-Detective Superintendent Scott Duval, officer in charge of the Drug Investigation Branch

There has been quite a few substantial drug busts lately totalling tens of millions of dollars. The Qantas cocaine ring, confiscating 20 million ecstasy tablets in WA, $5 million inner Melbourne drug bust, NT’s largest drug syndicate etc. The amount of drugs picked up by police has totalled several tonnes of coke, speed, heroin, ecstasy and cannabis. The dollar value is in the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions. So how does this compare to South Australia’s Operation Dial? Forgetting the pot, a grand total of 32 grams of cocaine, speed and heroin and 93 ecstasy pills. The 250 police officers, again starts to feel like overkill for such a small total of confiscated drugs. Some perspective might help. Every day Australians spend about $15 million dollars on illegal and illegally obtained drugs (excluding cannabis which is about $9 million dollars daily). Heroin users buy about 6,000-7000 grams daily and speed is about double that. Cannabis is used about 45 times the rate of heroin use. Although these figures are very, very rough, you get the idea. Removing 32 grams of hard drugs from a market that uses thousands of grams everyday is not going to cause a great deal of stress for the professional drug dealers.

The essential question is ... are these raids actually doing any good? Of course the police will answer yes. So too will the politicians, anti-drug warriors and the media albeit for different reasons. I would argue the opposite and say that when looked at pragmatically, the damage caused by these raids far outweighs the benefits.

What is really achieved by removing a small amount of illicit drugs from the market and what positive outcomes are there to catching the people involved? Those that rely on the dealers for highly addictive drugs like heroin will panic when their source is removed. They will need a fix within 12-24 hours of their last use and the options are not usually good. If they find another dealer, they risk being scammed which leaves them in a worse situation with their drug money gone. This exposes them to committing a possible crime or annoying family and friends once again for money. If they can’t find another heroin dealer, they may have to resort to buying methadone, prescription opiates or even barbiturates which just means another dealer has more business than usual. We can’t forget also what happens during the period between using. Addicts going through harrowing withdrawals, driving from place to place desperately trying to relieve the pain. This is all from one local heroin dealer going out of business for a week or two. No problems for the professional dealers or Mr. Bigs, no reduction in the total amount of drugs bought but more crime and desperation from users and user/dealers.

And then there’s the party drugs like ice, speed and ecstasy. On a Friday or Saturday night, there’s hundreds of young people in the local area preparing to take one of these drugs. They’re heard the dangers from the various anti-drug ads but have never experienced anything like what they’re told. As you would expect, hearing the same old message but never actually experiencing anything close to it, they simply ignore any warnings. They have been told that if they even take speed once they will end up with a face like Wilson Tuckey or be involved in a massive punch up with their parents. “These extreme situations never happen so the warnings about taking GBH are probably bullshit as well ... it can’t be that bad ... can it?”. Anyway, what choice do they have? There’s no speed or ecstasy this weekend because their dealer got caught. “Someone mentioned that there’s some methadone going around and as well as Special K (Ketamine). How much do you take? ... Isn’t methadone like meth?”.

What about cannabis? You were once allowed to grow 2 plants for personal use in SA but the Rann government fixed that up very quickly. Now, you are a criminal if you grow your own. Of course this led to an increase of pot dealers and a sum gain for the prison system. The SA parliament is thick with anti-drug rhetoric and has many moral crusaders. For a once progressive and liberal state, it is now bogged down with ideology and social conservatives that have pulled SA back into the dark ages. I doubt if there is any benefit from raiding small cannabis crops and I’m sure that most police are embarrassed to do so.

Believe or not, most dealers are users who sell drugs to fund their own addiction or dependency including gambling. The Mr. Bigs that we hear so much about are limited in numbers and are heavily outnumbered by smaller dealers. Even going up the chain, the middle men are usually users as well but have good contacts. Often they are more business savvy and are able to get their hands on larger amounts of cash to kick off their venture. Sometimes they are street level dealers as well but the smarter ones will remove themselves from this riskier market. The supply chain is delicate and any bust can cause grief down the line but rarely up the line. Small time user/dealers run a tight schedule where the money made from retail sales go straight to their next pickup. This is where they take what they need for the next day or so and they sell the rest. Then it’s just a cycle with little room for problems.

So how do the public envision these raids? Any drugs confiscated by police is easily replaced from higher up so it’s just more business for them. The real damage done is to the lower end of the market where money is tightest, risks are highest and people are most vulnerable. The police will proudly announce their catch and tell us all how they disrupted the flow of illegal drugs into the community. The media beef it up a bit, the politicians pat themselves on the back and the public cheer on. In reality, the only winners are the Mr. Bigs. The police have wasted their limited budget and resources on catching small fry which has no effect on the overall drug market. The user/dealers and users have their already complicated lives made even more stressful which often results in more crime or dealers cutting the product to recoup losses. The public are falsely led to believe that the drug problem is under control and we are being rid of sleazy drug dealers who hang around the schools and sell our kids dangerous drugs.

The total value of so called hard drugs (non cannabis) confiscated by police is about $11,000 and out of the $120,000 cash that was seized, $116,000 was from one bust on one address. Also, $100,000 worth of stolen goods were recovered from one raid. The police searched 137 homes with 56 suspects being reported for crimes, 66 ‘on the spot’ fines issued and 13 people were arrested. Two firearms were found. Maybe the stolen goods were a significant find but what about the actual drugs? Operation Dial confiscated less than 0.001% of the estimated drug market in SA. This is hardly earth moving stuff but with a bit of the old police marketing magic called “Drugs on the Table”, Operation Dial springs to life.

The “Drugs on the Table” strategy is a sour hangover from the 1970s following in the steps of the US who were keen to push the Nixon’s newly announced, "War on Drugs". It is meant to sound impressive with neat piles of confiscated drugs, money and weapons. Of course, most of busts actually come from low end dealers and users but it still gives the all important impression that the government and police are tough on drugs and there’s zero tolerance for this evil scourge in our society. This message gives the moral conservatives, mild heart palpitations and parents, a sense of security. Nearly 40 years on and not much has changed in police strategies. Surely a policy lasting 40 years must indicate that it is highly successful? Let’s see; drugs are now cheaper, stronger and more available than ever before. The cost to maintain prohibition in Australia is about $5 billion dollars annually. I don’t know the exact figures but let’s look at the US as an example. The DEA budget has risen from $65 million annually in the 1970’s to $19.2 Billion in 2007. The total cost to the US is a whopping $69 billion per year. The public never hear the negative side though and are instead presented with “drugs on the table” and quotes from the police or politicians telling us how happy they are with the results.
South Australia Police will continue with dedicated operations such as Operation Dial to target the detection and seizure of illicit drugs and those associated with drug related offences. The result from Operation Dial sends a very clear message about the way we view the illicit drug trade and our efforts to get these drugs off the streets.
-Detective Superintendent Scott Duval, officer in charge of the Drug Investigation Branch

Was Operation Dial a success? Compared to the havoc, suffering and possible deaths resulting from the raid, it’s a shallow victory at best. Most importantly, it really depends on what you call a success.

Related Articles:
SA Police Raid Hundreds Of Houses For Drugs, Weapons, Cash - Adelaide Advertiser
Drug Seizures And Arrests - SA Police Media Services
Drug Blitz Devastate Regional Cartels - The Australian Heroin Diaries


zoot said...

Excellent analysis Terry; thank you.

Terry Wright said...

Thanks Zoot.

David Bratzer said...

Hi, not sure if you've seen the new blog for LEAP yet. We are writing a lot about Australia these days because of Norm Stamper's tour:




Terry Wright said...

Thanks David.

I am a big supporter of LEAP. People like you deserve much praise for your commitment whilst risking alienation from your fellow officers and hierarchy.

Thank you from all of us.