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Author Topic: Why we must change how we fight drugs - it's time to follow the money trail  (Read 9211 times)

Offline Chip (OP)

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Why we must change how we fight drugs - it's time to follow the money trail

If money speaks all languages then crooks are multi-lingual. Life to them is a real life game of Monopoly where you can still win even if you have to take a turn in jail.

Traditionally, police value the detective with the instinct and skill to be a crook catcher who can snare the syndicate boss and build the watertight case.

But increasingly police are seeing there is a need for a change, where the coin, not the crook is the main prize. A prime example is one fellow who hasn't pulled a wage in decades. Mentioned in dispatches during the Melbourne Underbelly War he has moved from violent street crook to "property developer".

For a bloke who once couldn't remember how many bullets he fired in a road rage attack he's become a late bloomer on matters mathematical.

Just recently, he sold a beachside property for a lazy $2.5 million, which was quite a bargain considering the money he poured into the joint.

We are talking five bedrooms, five bathrooms, four levels, a lift, steam and sauna rooms, a barbecue big enough to bake a bison and a top class cinema.

(The owner was apparently a gangster movie aficionado going by the framed picture of Scarface in the subterranean wine tasting room). Naturally there is a giant entertainment pavilion, lap pool and multi-person spa, plus separate quarters for a live-in maid.

The paperwork indicates the house was owned not by the dodgy developer but his ageing mother – who must remain incredibly sprightly judging by the monster weights in the gym room. (Not many grandmothers can bench press 100 kilos).

Rumour has it his next house will have a giant turntable in the garage to make the choice of luxury car just that little bit easier if you need to leave in a hurry.

Nik "The Bulgarian" Radev was another whose love of the high life was only matched by his contempt for honest work. The only time he got his hands dirty was when he wrapped them around the neck of someone he was trying to extort.

Given refugee status when he lobbed into Melbourne in 1980, he worked in fast food shops for 12 months before moving into the drug business.

For the next 20 years Nik paid no tax and yet was far from struggling. In the early 2000s he bought a $100,000 Mercedes and was the recipient of mystery bank deposits of $25,000.

In 2003, when murdered in Coburg he was wearing head to toe Versace and a $20,000 watch. When police checked his apartment they found receipts for $400 bottles of cognac and $50 cigars (earlier visitors snaffled the $200,000 he kept for emergencies).

Nik had paid $50,000 cash to a dentist for a delightful Liberace-style smile (this proved to be a poor investment as he was shot dead a short time later and dentists aren't big on refunds.)

So the point is this - the money available from drugs is almost endless and the community's appetite for illicit substances virtually inexhaustible.

The latest problem is ice - a highly addictive product that destroys lives, families and damages whole communities.

And so far the bulk of the effort has been to use methods that have failed before. We have thrown more police at the dealers, given law enforcement more power, toughened court penalties, tightened parole, charged more offenders, seized record amounts of drugs and built more prisons.

And guess what? The purity of ice has gone up and the price has remained stable, which means we are drowning in the stuff. It is the modern equivalent of World War I generals ordering ever larger attacks on machine gun-protected trenches and wondering why there is no breakthrough.

It is a lesson we apparently refuse to learn. Police cannot enforce so-called vice laws (sex, booze, drugs or the punt) when large numbers of people want the products.

Law enforcement has a role but is not the solution - or as former Chief Commissioner Ken Lay says, "We can't arrest our way out of our problems."

Sure, tackle the supply but you must also reduce the demand. Tackle only one end and you lose. Some boffins say ice's damage is wildly inflated by vested interests such as police, politicians and the media looking for cheap headlines but the evidence gathered by the National Ice Taskforce is damning.

The taskforce chaired by Ken Lay, with fellow members Professor Richard Murray, Dean of Medicine and Dentistry at James Cook University, and Dr Sally McCarthy, former President of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine, has travelled around Australia, talking to experts and, more importantly, victims. It is expected to complete its interim report by the end of next week.

It received 1300 submissions with nearly 90 per cent coming from individuals. This is no academic exercise as the taskforce heard case after case from desperate families looking for answers.

It has spoken to parents who mortgaged their homes to pay for their children's treatment while the dealers are still buying investment properties with their profits.

Consider this: According to figures accepted by the taskforce, 200,000 Australian's used methamphetamines 10 years ago with ice making up three per cent of the market.

Yet by 2013 while the number of meth users remained stable the number of ice users jumped to 50 per cent. The taskforce heard the number of hits increased when the user shifted from speed to the more addictive ice.

There were examples of young men who used speed once a weekend as a party drug, then returned to relatively normal family and working lives. But that number turned to five hits a fortnight when they moved to ice.

Lay says community costs include increased hospitalisation, mental illness, family violence and risks to emergency service workers.

He says dealers are actively pushing customers towards ice because it boosts return business. "It appears organised crime has established a pretty good business model."

The Australian Crime Commission "conservatively" estimates the annual costs of organised crime at $15 billion, or enough money to build an East West link project every year.

And there is the rub. The profits are so great there will always be those who will traffic drugs. No amount of tough talk from politicians, blitzes by police or brand new prisons will change that.

Three years ago Australian Police Commissioners met and privately came to exactly that conclusion. They know it is the money they should chase. It is the root of the problem and that is the key. You must dig out the roots and not just chop off the head that will inevitably regrow.

The Chiefs agreed the present hotchpotch of state and federal asset seizure laws don't work. In most cases you have to prove that each asset specifically came from criminal activity. And with state-based laws the crooks invest interstate to beat the system.

So in this $15 billion industry how much money do you think is frozen while crooks are waiting to appear in court? No more than a pathetic $2 million.

What the commissioners concluded was that there is a need for unexplained wealth laws where suspects would be compelled to justify assets. If they can, they keep them and if they can't they can go and live in a cardboard box.

Take drug boss Tony Mokbel: In 1995 he owned a Boronia pizza shop and had declared assets of $128,000. Six years later police estimated his wealth at $15 million.

If Tony made $10 a pizza, he would have had to sell 679 pizzas a day, or one pizza every two minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six years to build his nest egg. (At the time a family size Tony's Special of tomato, cheese, beef, bacon, onions and egg sold for $15.50. No wonder he had a heart attack).

Police across Australia have drawn up a list of hundreds of suspects (many of them millionaires) who, if such laws were passed,would be ordered to explain their wealth.

In Victoria, police estimate they could seize $200 million in the first year alone. Replicated around Australia this would pay for a national ice awareness advertising campaign, improved rehabilitation facilities and local early intervention strategies with plenty of change.

It would hurt the dealers while helping the users. It would disrupt supply and dampen demand and isn't that the idea? But - and it is a big one - the best method would be for the states to give the Commonwealth authority to introduce national laws.

And power has the same effect on governments as truffles on pigs. Both will only surrender them reluctantly after a great deal of squealing.

The crooks we are talking about work nationally and internationally. If we continue to look at this as a state issue nothing will change.

Since the commissioners first agreed on the need for national laws there have been 200,000 drug related hospital admissions, $45 billion in community costs and thousands of ice-connected violent crimes.

And behind closed doors the talking continues. Politicians love to announce taskforces and lock-them-up laws. This may win votes but the trouble is they don't work. It is time to take the money shot.

Or as Lay says, "It will be a tragedy if we are still talking about this in three years' time."

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