Highly publicised police raids are increasingly common and they are often reported as leading to significant reductions of drugs on the streets, keeping our communities safer and disrupting the supply of drugs into Australia. Drug raids can lead to arrests and harsh penalties. But they can be extremely expensive for taxpayers, and a recent report has shed doubt on how effective they really are when it comes to reducing drug-related arrests and overdoses over the long term.
Last month, police announced the second largest drug bust in Australian history in western Sydney, allegedly seizing an estimated 2.8 tonnes of illegal drugs found to have been imported in a shipping container. The drugs were estimated to be worth $1.5 billion, and allegedly included ecstasy and methamphetamine. The raids were the results of an international investigation spanning several months, and resulted in six men being charged. NSW Premier Mike Baird commented on the raid, saying that it had potentially saved lives, as the drugs would now not be distributed on the streets, especially during the summer party scene. Another recent drugs raid in Queensland saw an estimated $400,000 worth of drugs allegedly seized in a single operation.
But what effect will these highly publicised raids really have on the overall rate of drug harm and use within the community? Police may talk about keeping drugs off the street, and push the benefits of large-scale drugs raids, but research from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) rsuggests that there is no link between big drugs hauls and a reduction in drugs harm in the community.
What the report reveals
The report from BOCSAR looked at the effects of police drugs raids on arrest rates and overdose rates from drugs over a 10-year period. It found that there was no link between police raids and a reduction in the number of overdoses and arrests for drugs offences over the decade leading up to 2011.
Although the police have often claimed that raids mean there are fewer drugs on the street, this would appear not to be the case. The results of the study actually suggest that the link between the number of drugs on the streets and police raids works the other way, with raids being an indication that there were more drugs available in the community, instead of disrupting the supply.
The study also noted that the strongest link between raids and drug harm actually showed that overdoses and arrests went up, not down after big seizures. Dr Don Weatherburn, director of BOCSAR, noted that police were finding more drugs in raids recently because a higher number of drugs were coming into the country, not because they were taking a large portion of drugs out of circulation.
The study looked at the months following large seizures and found that with a few exceptions, the number of drugs available remained the same and there was no reduction in the use of amphetamines, heroin or cocaine. The exceptions were three cocaine raids undertaken in 2010 that resulted in the seizure of almost 700 kg of cocaine. There was a temporary reduction in cocaine overdoses and arrests for possession and use after the raids, but the rate subsequently rose back to normal over time.
Are drug raids a waste of time?
Dr Weatherburn noted that he didn’t believe drug raids were a waste of time, stating that although they didn’t have the effect they were often assumed to have, the threat of raids and high penalties was enough to deter many dealers from getting involved in drug-crime unless they were going make a significant profit out of it. This, he believes, keeps the street price of drugs higher and makes it harder for people in the community to access drugs. He said that it would be more disruptive to the overall presence of drugs in the community if five drugs traffickers were arrested with one kilo of drugs each, than one trafficker with five kilos.
Big drug raids may get a large amount of publicity, but are they really helping the community? It would seem that when it comes to reducing the level of harm caused by drugs, large-scale raids may not be the answer and they could even potentially lead to other problems.