Chapter 4

Key Issues

This chapter provides an overview of some of the issues that the committee discussed with the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) during the committee's hearing on 8 May 2020.

Drug research and findings

Committee members were interested in the ACIC's research and findings on illicit and licit drugs. This section of the report summarises the information presented by the ACIC at the hearing and supplements it with research of the ACIC for the 2018–19 period.
The ACIC produces two unclassified reports that focus on the use of illicit and licit drugs:
National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program reports; and
Illicit Drug Data Report.
During 2018–19, the ACIC published three National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program reports (wastewater report) and one Illicit Drug Report, 15th edition.
Because the committee's focus is on the 2018–19 annual report and matters within that reporting period, this part of the report only considers those National Wastewater Drug and Monitoring Program reports that are based on or otherwise refer to 2018–19 data—that is, the sixth, seventh and eighth reports, which use 2018–19 data, and the ninth report, as it summarises data from those earlier reports. It should be noted, however, that some of these reports were not released until after the 2018–19 reporting period, which is to be expected given it takes time to properly analyse and report on data from a particular period. Equally, reports that were released in the reporting period but based on data pre-dating the reporting period, such as the fifth report, are not considered here.
The findings of the Illicit Drug Reports have not been included as the 15th edition covers 2016–17 and the 16th edition covers 2017–18.
The National Wastewater Program has been in operation since May 2016. The purpose of the program is to measure drug use in selected Australian communities, and thereby inform policy and operational responses to drug use problems. Raw data is collected by the University of Queensland and the University of South Australia, which is then analysed by the ACIC strategic intelligence team.1
During the public hearing, the ACIC was asked to explain the policy reasons for not disclosing the catchment locations. Mr Michael Phelan, CEO of the ACIC, advised that, firstly, there is a contractual relationship between the ACIC, the catchment sites and the universities that the locations remain unidentified which is consistent with scientific studies. Secondly, he explained, state police are informed of the catchment locations on a confidential basis and this information can facilitate tactical operations. Finally, Mr Phelan commented 'there's no strategic or operational utility' in making the catchment locations public and people 'have no real ability to change those results'. 2
Across the sixth, seventh and eighth reports (three reports), the program analysed between 50 and 58 wastewater treatment plants across Australia for 13 substances and covered on average 54 per cent of Australia’s population each time.3 Table 4.1 shows the slight variation in population size, sample sites, drug types analysed and jurisdictional participation during 2018–19.
Table 4.1:  Comparison of wastewater reports 6–8 ​​
No. of sites analysed
Population covered by wastewater reports (%)
No. of participating jurisdictions (of eight)
No. of drug types analysed
New substance included
Source: ACIC, National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program, Reports 6–8.
The three reports that collected data during 2018–19 found that alcohol and nicotine were the most consumed drug and methylamphetamine the most consumed illicit drug on average in all states and territories in Australia.4 This finding is consistent across all nine wastewater analysis reports that have been published.5 At the hearing, the committee was particularly interested in the statistics on two of the most consumed drugs, methylamphetamine and illicit tobacco.6
The ninth report contains summary data that enables observation of the consumption in capital and regional areas for the period 2018–19, specifically from August 2018 until June 2019 for capital areas and until April 2019 for regional areas. There was a very slight decrease in nicotine use in capital areas, resembling a saw-tooth, whilst there was an increase in regional areas.7 Methylamphetamine consumption rose in both capital and regional locations overall.8
The ACIC’s reporting on total consumer expenditure on drugs is by calendar year and therefore the totals for 2018 and 2019 will be included. ‘Drugs’ includes methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and heroin. The estimated street value for total consumer expenditure on drugs was $9.4 billion in 2018 and $11.3 billion in 2019.9 At the public hearing, Mr Phelan provided a breakdown of that total and what amount is methylamphetamines.10 In 2018 the estimated street value of methylamphetamines was $7.38 billion and in 2019 $8.63 billion.11 In response to a question taken on notice, Mr Phelan further explained that ‘the ACIC does not have access to an estimated figure for the annual expenditure on illegal sale of tobacco,’ and instead directed the committee to the value of seizures.12
The annual report notes that as a result of ACIC intelligence, national and international partners seized $2.30951 billion in illicit drugs and drug precursors and $75.47 million of tobacco in 2018–19.13 The Illicit Tobacco Taskforce estimated ‘the value of seizures of illicit tobacco … to be over $710 million’.14 Mr Phelan stated that seizures of methylamphetamines made up approximately 60 per cent of the value of total illicit drug seizures.15
The annual report mentions other contributions the ACIC is making towards drugs reduction activities. The ACIC provided a submission to the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’, which ‘focussed on the methylamphetamine and MDMA markets and outlined the operational implications of any proposal to decriminalise or legalise amphetamine-type stimulants or other illicit drugs’.16 In July 2018, the Illicit Tobacco Taskforce was established. The ACIC supported three of its operations—uncovering crops in Northern Territory, Victoria and an importation—by providing intelligence support, tactical operations and assisting in the execution of a warrant.17
The seventh wastewater report, using data from December 2018, included an international comparison of stimulants use.18 The latest international samples available, being those collected in March 2018 for the Sewage Core Group Europe (SCORE), were used. The maximum population was 26 countries, noting data was not included for all countries for all drug types.19 In relation to that data, it might be noted that Australia had by far the most catchment locations; as noted in Table 4.1 above, Australia typically collects data from over 50 catchment locations, whereas most countries have single digit catchment locations.20 Australia ranked second behind the United States of America for methylamphetamine use.21 In addition, Australia ranked second behind the Netherlands for MDMA use and much lower for cocaine use (ranked 17 out of 23).22 Nicotine was not compared.
Looking ahead, the ACIC advised that there are two future developments for the program. First, the Illicit Drug Data report is to be overlayed on the wastewater data which will provide a dollar amount for drugs consumed.23 Second, 'in 2019, the ACIC received an additional $4.8 million [to continue the program over four years] … produc[ing] three reports per year, with annual costs of $1.2 million'.24

Committee comment

The committee commends the ACIC on its illicit and licit drug research. The committee is pleased that the wastewater program has received additional funding. The wastewater program provides vital insights into drug consumption across Australia and has directly helped operational and policy responses. The committee looks forward to monitoring the results and evolution of future drug analysis.


At the public hearing, it was discussed how coronavirus is affecting the ACIC.25 As the pandemic started subsequent to 2018–19 reporting period, it is not considered here. However, the committee will of course carefully monitor and consider how the pandemic affects the ACIC going forward, and fully expects the matter will be addressed when the committee conducts its examination of the ACIC's 2019–20 Annual Report.
Mr Craig Kelly MP

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