'Record seizure’ headlines mark another false step in misguided war on drugs

Are the claims government authorities make about drug seizures accurate?

The announcement this week of the largest seizure of methamphetamine in Australian history has been accompanied by a familiar chorus of uncritical and often sensationalised media reporting.

The “street value” of the 903 kilograms of the seized drug was estimated at nearly A$900 million.

But are the claims government authorities make about drug seizures accurate? And what broader implications do large-scale seizures have for Australia’s drug-control policies?

This record haul, as with countless others preceding it, was a news spectacle. It culminated in a live, nationally broadcast press conference. Later came the wall-to-wall media coverage across TV, print, radio and digital platforms.

Justice Minister Michael Keenan, flanked by Federal Police officers (inexplicably armed and replete with tactical gear), declared the seizure’s impact “cannot be underestimated”. He said it represented “a very serious blow to organised crime around the country”. According to Keenan, the money from its sale “hasn’t gone into the pocket of organised criminals”.

These claims don’t stand up well to proper scrutiny.

How much was it really worth?

Let’s start with the purported street value of almost $900 million. Illicit drugs are priced differently depending upon which stage of the supply chain they are located. The difference in the price of illicit drugs at the point of production and the point of retail can vary by as much as 100:1.

Law-enforcement agencies often create misleading estimates based on more expensive retail values, rather than on prices higher up the chain of supply. This appears to be the case with this seizure. Authorities have referred to “street” value, rather than the lower prices at the trafficking/domestic wholesale level – where the drugs were intercepted.

However, even going by inflated retail prices, the purported value of this particular haul is massively overestimated.

According to research completed in 2016 by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the retail price of 0.1 gram of crystal methamphetamine (the most commonly purchased quantity at “street” level) in Victoria is $50. By these figures, the seizure’s street value comes in at just over $451 million.

While this is a significant sum, it is only half the amount that authorities claimed and which news media reprinted uncritically across Australia.

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