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Demand for drugs soaring, inquiry hears

The Age, Australia, 6th June 2006

Australia is experiencing soaring demand for amphetamines and ecstasy, with domestic production and imports of the illegal drugs showing no signs of abating, an inquiry has been told.

The joint parliamentary inquiry into amphetamines and other synthetic drugs was also warned Australia would continue to lose the war on drugs while anti-drug policies kept targeting users instead of suppliers.

The inquiry, chaired by Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, heard from law-enforcement agencies, health authorities, researchers and drug users.

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) told the committee demand for amphetamines and drugs such as ecstasy was rising.

"Intelligence gathered by the ACC and its partner agencies indicates that the domestic demand for amphetamines and other synthetic drugs is increasing, with little likelihood that this trend will alter in the near future," its submission said.

"This environment is increasingly likely to involve domestic production and importation of existing chemical precursors, in addition to the production and importation of new chemical variants."

Law-enforcement agencies detected 358 clandestine amphetamine laboratories in Australia in 2004 compared with just 58 in 1996, the ACC submission said.

Ecstasy use had almost tripled in the past 13 years, with 3.4 per cent of Australians having used the drug in the previous year, while the corresponding use of amphetamines increased from two per cent to 3.2 per cent.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) submission said most amphetamine sold in Australia was manufactured domestically, but agencies were seeing increased imports of purer forms of the drug such as ice.

AFP agent Michael Phelan told the inquiry the AFP devoted its resources to catching drug suppliers, not users.

"The arrests and charging of users is extremely limited," he said.

"Well over 95 per cent (of AFP drug arrests), if not even greater, would be those that are either involved in the importation or the direct manufacture, and not the users."

Although the AFP had recently shifted its attention to counter-terrorism and security, 40 per cent of resources went to drug operations, he said.

Mr Phelan's comments followed criticism from left-wing research body the Australia Institute, which told the inquiry existing policies focused too heavily on policing and failed to recognise addiction as a health problem.

The institute's deputy director, Andrew Macintosh, said police were wasting resources raiding dance parties to prosecute teenagers carrying small amounts of drugs.

"The nucleus of drug strategy must be prevention and treatment programs rather than law enforcement," Mr Macintosh said.

"At the moment, around 80 per cent of government resources are spent on law enforcement (and) most of this is tied up in chasing down drug users rather than suppliers."

Radio station Triple J lodged submissions to the inquiry on behalf of dozens of drug users.

"Despite having some of the highest prices and stiffest penalties for MDMA (ecstasy), we lead the world in usage," said one user, Pat.

Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform president Brian McConnell said drug education programs in schools often gave kids "hype and exaggeration" but little factual information.

"If you say to a kid 'You smoke cannabis and you'll get psychotic or you'll get schizophrenia', the kid will know someone who is using cannabis and has never been psychotic or schizophrenic. And so it puts the lie to the education," he said.

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