‘Ice’ and other amphetamine-type stimulants: international and Australian trends

On 28 February, the Joint Organised Crime Group (comprising the Australian Federal Police (AFP), NSW Police, NSW Crime Commission, Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (Customs)) announced it had seized 585 kilograms of ice in Sydney, an Australian record for a single seizure of the drug. The second largest seizure also occurred recently, with 306 kilograms seized by the AFP and Customs in July 2012. This FlagPost puts these seizures in context by examining some recent international and Australian findings on ice and related illicit drugs.

What is ice?
Ice is a street name for the crystalline form of methamphetamine (other street names include ‘crystal’, ‘crystal meth’ and ‘shabu’). Methamphetamines are part of the broader class of substances referred to as amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), which also includes substances such as amphetamine (commonly called ‘speed’) and MDMA (commonly called ‘ecstasy’).

International trends
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC)
World Drug Report 2012, the strongest growth in illicit drug markets between 1998 and 2010 was in ATS, seizures of which almost tripled over that period (as displayed in the figure below). The UNODC recognises that some of the increase may be due to increased awareness among law enforcement agencies, but based on country reports of usage, concludes that the main driver is demand.

While global seizures of ATS remained stable overall in 2010 compared to 2009, seizures of methamphetamine increased by 44 per cent, and more than doubled compared to 2008, surpassing amphetamine seizures for the first time since 2006. These trends are illustrated in the figure below. 

Increased seizures of methamphetamine were mainly attributable to Mexico and East and South East Asia. Most of the methamphetamine seized in East and South East Asia was in tablet rather than crystalline form.

Australian usage trends
2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare contains the latest available data on illicit drug use in the general population. It distinguishes only between MDMA and other ATS. In 2010, 2.1 per cent of respondents aged 14 years or older had used non-MDMA forms of ATS recently (last 12 months), compared to 2.3 per cent in 2007 and a high of 3.7 per cent in 1998.

A more complex picture emerges from the findings of the
2011 and 2012 surveys of ‘people who inject drugs’ (PWID) (a key component of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre’s Illicit Drugs Reporting System), which distinguishes between different types of methamphetamine. Recent use (last six months) of ice significantly increased from 2010 to 2011, while other forms of methamphetamine remained stable. Recent use of methamphetamine overall remained stable from 2011 to 2012, but recent use of ice again increased significantly. While the PWID survey is not representative of the general population or other illicit drug users, it indicates emerging trends that may warrant further attention.

The most recent data from the
Drug Use Monitoring in Australia program administered by the Australian Institute of Criminology is consistent with the 2011 PWID survey findings. Twenty-one per cent of police detainees who underwent voluntary testing in the first three quarters of 2011 tested positive to methamphetamine, up from 16 per cent in 2010 and 13 per cent in 2009, following declines between 2004 and 2009. Users also reported that methamphetamine was higher in quality and easier to obtain, and that more people were selling the drug.

Seizure and border detection trends
The ACC’s
Illicit Drug Data Report 2010–11 distinguishes only between MDMA and other ATS for border detections, and for seizures and arrests only overall figures for ATS are provided. The number and weight of non-MDMA ATS detections at the border increased in 2010–11, up by 60 per cent and 58 per cent respectively over 2009–10. The number of detections was the highest in the last decade.

India, Hong Kong and China were the primary embarkation points for attempted importations in 2010–11 by number, with Canada, China and Hong Kong the most prominent by weight.

Overall ATS seizures increased in number (6.3 per cent) and weight (50.1 per cent) from 2009–10 to 2010–11, though both remained lower than 2006–07 to 2008–09, as evident in the figure below. While larger increases were recorded in other jurisdictions, NSW continued to account for the highest proportion of seizures by weight and number.

Organised crime threat
The ACC employs a market-based approach to assessing the risk posed by different organised crime markets and enabling activities where the risk is a product of potential harm and the threat of such harm occurring. On that basis, it has assessed the ATS market as
one of the three key organised crime risks to the Australian community (the others being money laundering and identity crime).


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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