Australians' meth, cocaine use leading to growing drug-related problems across Pacific, says report
Drug trafficking and production is on the rise in the Pacific Islands and Australia's addiction to methamphetamine and cocaine is driving the problem, a Lowy Institute report has found.
The use of illicit drugs has been steadily increasing in Australia and New Zealand, even as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains, according to the report released on Thursday.
Australia's illegal drug trade is estimated to be worth $11.3 billion per year.
The maritime corridor that is used for legitimate trade between Australian, Asian and American markets is also a key transit hub for organised crime syndicates and drug cartels, in what is called the Pacific "drug highway", according to the report.
This "highway", it said, was servicing a growing demand for illicit drugs in the Pacific Islands.
"In the past decade, the local [Pacific] drug market has grown, with facilitators being paid in drugs for services, then selling them onwards," the report said.
"This has contributed to rising addiction amongst locals and the emergence of a local drug network."
In some cases, Indigenous and local groups were working with international cartels to develop home-grown production facilities.
"External organised crime actors have played a central role in establishing, fuelling and maintaining the drug market in the Pacific and driving the growth of local drug production and consumption," the report said.
"Australia and New Zealand's prolific and high-profile organised crime networks — including outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs) — have expanded their activities offshore and into the Pacific.
"There has been a notable increase in OMCG members travelling to the Pacific since 2016, most commonly to the Cook Islands and Fiji."
Police in PNG say outdated laws have left them unable to lay drug charges against the Australian manager of a Port Moresby hotel where an alleged clandestine meth lab and illegal firearms were discovered.
Tonga — which was previously a transit point for drugs being trafficked to Australia and New Zealand — was seeing a particularly dramatic rise in the use of illegal drugs and associated issues, the report noted.
"Officials reported that the increase in drug offences indicated the growing presence of methamphetamine in the kingdom and [that] correlated with an increase in drug-related crime such as robberies and house break-ins," the report said.
Fiji has also seen drug-related policing cases increase substantially, from 148 in 2008 to 1,400 in 2018, the report noted.
In Papua New Guinea, there are no laws that prohibit the production, sale or use of methamphetamines, making it a key location to transit drugs to Australia.
The report's author, Jose Sousa-Santos, said the street value for methamphetamine and cocaine in Australia and New Zealand was among the highest in the world.
He said this was because Australia and New Zealand were small, geographically isolated markets, which pushed up the price.
"These markets, for being so lucrative, become of interest to transnational criminal organisations, trafficking drugs to the Pacific," he said.
"They require facilitators in the Pacific to assist in their operations and in moving the drugs through the region, and the way that this is done is by having these criminal syndicates be supported by a local drug market.
"Transnational drug crime is a protracted problem, but not one that is of the Pacific's own making — rather the region is a casualty of the criminal greed of organised crime and the drug appetite of Australia and New Zealand."
The report also found that cross-border efforts to police drug trafficking had been undermined by a disconnect between regional and national law enforcement, and disparity in capacity across agencies, which had eroded trust and intelligence-sharing between them.
"In a region plagued by 'unmet development challenges', transnational crime and illicit drugs are a cross-cutting threat to development, security and governance in the Pacific," the report said.
Meanwhile, "narco-corruption" in the Pacific "compromised institutions and individuals across key agencies, such as customs, police and immigration, and undermined the rule of law".
The report also found that the deportation policies of Australia, New Zealand and the United States were "exacerbating crime and addiction within Pacific nations" by returning convicted criminals back to their country of origin without rehabilitation.
"Many times, these deportees have spent most of their lives outside of their countries of origin and have grown up in Australia, New Zealand or the US," Mr Sousa-Santos said.
"When they are returned, they're returned with no cultural understanding, language skills of those countries … support networks to receive them or prospects of work.
"So, many of them tend to reach back to their criminal contacts in Australia, New Zealand and the US and create a supposed shadow economy and power structures in which they can fit in."
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2019 told Australia not to "deport your problems", saying the Australian government had to stop sending convicted criminals who had spent most of their lives in Australia back to New Zealand.
The New Zealand and Australian prime ministers publicly clash over the deportation of Kiwi criminals.
Mr Sousa-Santos said this could be addressed by providing holistic support to integrate individuals being deported, including "drug rehabilitation, some type of vocational training, language and cultural training before going back".
He said it was important "that we support initiatives back into the country to which they are being deported to ensure that they are able to integrate back into society".
Footing the bill for these kinds of initiatives, he said, would save the economies where the drugs were headed "tenfold" in the long run.
The ABC has reached out to Australian Border Force for comment.
Australia and New Zealand, in collaboration with their Pacific partners, had increased initiatives to combat drug production and transnational crimes but, the report warned, a "one-size fits all" approach would not work for the region.
"The response by Pacific states and traditional partners must be rapid, proactive and adaptive," the report noted.
A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said that, while the market for drugs in Australia was strong, the ability of law enforcement agencies to work together against organised crime had never been stronger.
"Stopping crime at the source is a key strategy for the AFP and partnerships with Pacific policing organisations are resulting in a more-hostile environment for criminal activity," an AFP spokesperson said.
"The Pacific Transnational Crime Network (PTCN) is an AFP-supported and Pacific-led transnational criminal intelligence network for Pacific law enforcement agencies, whose aim is to increase the capacity for Pacific Island law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate and disrupt transnational crime in the region.
"The offshore disruption of criminal groups and infiltrating organised crime is a key part of our role and part of the solution."
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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