February 2022

Q&A Shane Neilson: ‘With international travel these days, the world is one market’

As the Principal Advisor Drugs at the Australian Crime Commission and Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Shane Neilson draws on a career that’s seen him produce strategic intelligence assessments of organised crime and drug markets, participate in national investigations and contribute to wide-ranging policy responses to high-profile threats.

Your official title’s Principal Advisor Drugs at ACIC. How did you get to this point?

I’ve been in criminal intelligence in state and Commonwealth agencies for about 25 years – and in my current role under a couple of different names at ACIC for just over a decade.

It’s project management essentially, with a national drug focus; I’m required to have a detailed understanding of drug markets. It’s me with a core team, and we draw on broader ACIC resources as required to consolidate this understanding.

How does the ACIC’s focus on intelligence differ from more traditional approaches?

There’s a distinction in some agencies between sworn and non-sworn officers, officers who have direct operational roles, officers who have distinct intelligence roles. And then there’s blurring at the margin: in ACIC you have intelligence people who work with operational officers, so there’s a mix of tactical, operational and strategic intelligence.

At the moment my role is more strategic – in fact, it’s totally about strategy: looking at drug market trends and nationally at collection and assessment of data and feeding that out to a very wide range of external clients.

And “external clients” is law enforcement?

Essentially, ACIC is Australia’s criminal intelligence agency; it’s not a police force. It does engage selectively in joint operations with police agencies on an ongoing basis but it also exercises special powers, which includes appointed ACIC examiners to compel people to give evidence or produce documents for the purposes of special ACIC operations or special ACIC investigations.

Essentially, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission is Australia’s criminal intelligence agency; it’s not a police force.

We want to be part of an informed conversation on drug issues and organised crime more generally, and indeed to start an informed conversation.

‘We want to be part of an informed conversation on drug issues and organised crime more generally, and indeed to start an informed conversation.’

This is why, for example, the sort of public conversation with our clients that you and I are having today is something we look forward to within our agency. We want to be part of an informed conversation on drug issues and organised crime more generally, and indeed to start an informed conversation. These issues are far from black-and-white. There’s lots of grey; there are lots of opinions.

Within my part of ACIC we like to be a source of data and to put assessments of drug market trends out into the public domain and have our clients factor them into their thinking as part of their decision-making. As an agency, one of our key points of focus on drug matters is to make our findings public and generate informed conversations and genuine debate.

And ACIC produces an annual report on drugs that includes the numbers of arrests etc.

This is a part of the public conversation as well: our bespoke reports. One of these reports is the Illicit Drug Data Report, which contains seizure, arrest, forensic and other drug-related data. It’s a collation of data from a significant number of agencies that’s used to inform conversations and thinking.

Wastewater is another component of that. [For Shane’s comments on wastewater analysis, see the December 2021 issue of The Bulletin.]

Penington Institute is like a tadpole in terms of the scale of activity you do in intelligence-gathering and sharing but we have the same sort of fundamental driver: wanting to have a community that’s more informed on drug use issues. Why do you think a better-informed community, sharing intelligence with the broader community, makes a positive difference?

The debate is better when people are informed and have a common understanding of at least part of what’s known. Especially in this day and age, with social media and so on, you can read just about whatever you want according to your bias. But what we like to be, from a drug perspective, is a voice that explains what the situation is as we see it and shares as much data as we possibly can so people can draw from that in their decision-making and informing their opinions. If we do that well, we’re helping many, many other agencies in the public and private sector and law enforcement.

It’s a terrifying statistic that more people die from drug overdoses every year than die from road crash trauma. That’s scary, but it puts the problem into perspective.

Certainly, Penington Institute’s overdose report is a really good example of this as well. It’s a terrifying statistic that more people die from drug overdoses every year than die from road crash trauma. That’s scary, but it puts the problem into perspective.

Speaking of scary, why is the drug debate contentious? Why is it so partisan, with people often at opposite ends of the continuum?

Part of the issue is there’s an ideological dimension. There’s the whole debate about how people who consume illicit drugs should be dealt with. Should they be arrested? Should they be treated?

ACIC’s position is “all of the above, in appropriate circumstances – we support a holistic approach”.

Our fundamental proposition is reducing community harm. Traditionally law enforcement has come from a supply-reduction point of view and our agency’s a part of that; we do intelligence collection and operational activity with our partners against serious and organised crime.

We work with law enforcement partners to reduce the availability of drugs by pulling to shreds importation, production and distribution networks. This is so we can have a community that is less burdened by the impact they have.

But law enforcement is only one aspect of the effort needed. Just like there are many opinions on the drug debate, there are many answers to approaching issues brought about by drugs. We try to employ a holistic approach that focuses on supply, demand (prevention and rehabilitation) and harm reduction, with law enforcement, education and health agencies working together.

I don’t think there’s any debate in the community that members of serious and organised crime groups (importers, manufacturers and traffickers of drugs) need to be targeted and face significant punishment – that’s not the issue. It’s more at the consumer level that the heat comes in when debating drug issues.

When the cat-and-mouse game that goes on between law enforcement and drug traffickers results in a trafficking route being diverted, there’s always spillage into local communities and corruption of people there as an unintended but natural consequence of successful policing. And there’s actually an incentive to go for more potent, easier-to-conceal drugs and someone else filling the shoes by taking a different route.

It’s almost a philosophical argument. Civilised society is based on the concept of justice so I think almost everyone would agree that there needs to be a level of protection of society in terms of enforcement of the law and particularly the criminal law.

Law enforcement increasingly does focus on what we call “squeezing the balloon”, in that the implications of squeezing a balloon is that it’s going to pop out in another part of the community or society. To prevent this, interagency and whole-of-government approaches are the standard now. Investigations these days are joined up nationally and internationally so there’s a co-ordinated response. Most of the major illicit drugs in Australia are imported so what we’re dealing with here are immensely powerful and extremely cynical transnational organised crime groups. Some of these groups are like multi-national business corporations in terms of their thinking and sophistication.

When an organised crime group sees a problem, it moves. Would it do something different if the problem didn’t exist? Ultimately, with international travel and the adoption of technology by these criminals, the world is one market.

It’s also a practical question, because more potent drugs are easier to handle. If I wanted to be a drug trafficker, I’d go for methamphetamine over cannabis, or methamphetamine over heroin for that matter, because it’s quicker and easier to manufacture and easier to traffic from a return-on-investment perspective. So, what do you see in 10 years’ time?

History is a really good guide and the Illicit Drug Data Report gives us some idea. Ten years ago, for example, around 60 per cent of the weight of drugs seized in Australia was cannabis; now it’s less than 30 per cent.

The most-seized drug now is methylamphetamine – more than a quarter of the drugs seized by weight, whereas roughly 10 years ago it was about 10 per cent. Certainly Australia is an illicit stimulant nation so in 10 years stimulants like methylamphetamine will be still the dominant illicit drugs.

I don’t see heroin coming back in terms of being dominant in the Australian market.

Perhaps drugs such as MDMA and cocaine may increase but methylamphetamine has a dominant market share and demand is large, and of course it can be either imported in its final form or manufactured domestically so that means supply is significant.

In terms of purity, the drug is almost as potent now as it can be realistically, the way it’s manufactured.

If you’re a member of a transnational organised crime group, you probably can’t believe your luck if you’re supplying to Australia.

One of the things I would say is that Australian illicit drug users pay premium prices in world terms. If you’re a member of a transnational organised crime group, you probably can’t believe your luck if you’re supplying to Australia.

Essentially, at different levels of illicit drug dealing, there’s always control from above. A free market for legitimate products can be influenced by power from the people consuming the products. On the other hand, people who consume illicit drugs have no ability to influence price to any significant extent. Most of the price changes we saw during COVID were either an organised crime group trying to profiteer in the early days or a function of relative supply.

There’s profit to be made at all levels – that’s the trouble. When you take cocaine, for example, a subsistence farmer in Colombia makes almost nothing out of the coca leaf, then it’s perhaps $1000 more expensive when it gets to Central America. If it goes to the United States it’s a few thousand more. And then when it comes to Australia, in normal circumstances it’s somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000 a kilogram. There’s a huge mark-up when it gets to our border – that’s where the importing organised crime group makes its massive profit. After that it’s simply a matter of lower level organised crime groups here getting a share of their own from distribution.

Do you think there’s an opportunity when there’s a major interdiction to try to deal with people’s demand issues – to promote dependence treatment?

I wonder whether there’s an opportunity for education programs, for example – taking advantage of large seizures in a particular area and then just ramping up a program to discourage potential illicit drug users – and also health programs. It would take some organisation but that’s one possibility.

We need holistic solutions. We need to target the suppliers and we need treatment and we need diversion, and we need education programs for the people who use these substances so that they stop making the decision to consume.

The interesting difference to my mind with methamphetamine dealing is that the shift to mobile phones that happened 20 years ago is now being added to by social media. Unless you’re personally affected by it, the drug market has become harder to observe – it’s more or less disappeared – so it’s not generating the same level of news that the heroin flood generated in the ’90s. The methamphetamine media cycle seems to have petered out a few years ago but the problem hasn’t petered out.

With heroin, there was a very stark and visible line because people were injecting regularly and it had horrendous outcomes in many cases. Although some aspects of the harms caused by methylamphetamine are also observable, there is a component of the problem and the harms that is less overt.

At the moment the debate in relation to appropriate responses is all over the place. There’s broad agreement that the supply of illicit drugs is appropriately the focus of law enforcement. That’s our agency’s focus in terms of drug-related operational activity; targeting the importers, the manufacturers, the cultivators and the high-level suppliers. There is also our agency’s contribution to harm reduction, in addition to our intelligence collection and reporting and our contribution to national drug policy.

The commodity will differ over time, as will the methods used to supply the market, but because of the prices here, Australia is always going to be on the transnational organised crime landscape. Plus, geographically we’re part of Asia, and that’s where enormous quantities of drugs are being manufactured and trafficked.