Gangs setting up bigger meth labs: report

Tracey Ferrier
More than 30 tonnes of drugs worth $5 billion were seized during raids in 2017/18, a report says

Sophisticated criminal syndicates are setting up large ice labs in Australia as they try to establish a local manufacturing industry, drug crime experts believe.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission has released its latest report on the nation's illicit drug trade, with authorities netting drugs worth $5 billion in 2017/18.

In all 30.6 tonnes of drugs - from ice and heroin to cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy - were seized, up more than three tonnes on the previous year.

But it's the rise in border seizures of precursor ingredients that can be used to make ice that has experts believing Australia's ice market is undergoing a major evolution.

In 2017/18, authorities charged with protecting Australia's border seized almost five tonnes of precursor ingredients - an all-time record and more than double the previous record from about a decade ago.

It's also a whopping 210 per cent increase on the previous year.

When you team those figures with a marked reduction in drug lab busts every year for the past six years, it suggests something new and big is happening inside Australia's ice trade.

Shane Neilson, who heads the commission's work on high risk and emerging drugs, believes organised crime groups that have always dominated the national ice trade might be moving from importing ready-to-use product, to making it on-shore in large-scale labs.

Back in 2011/12, almost 80 per cent of the drug labs busted by authorities were defined as small "addict-based" operations with low-level production capacity.

But the latest report shows that's dropped to just under 53 per cent.

"What we believe is going on is that there are large scale, clandestine labs across Australia ... they are making up the difference," he told AAP on Tuesday.

"The market it still dominated by imported ice, but there is a rise in the domestic manufacture of ice. We're really looking into this as a priority at the moment."

This report, and other reports in recent years, point to a similar trend for cannabis. Cannabis sparked more than 72,000 arrests in 2017/18, down about 5000 on the previous year.

Mr Neilson says the report shows law enforcement agencies are making a real difference and reducing the availability of illicit drugs.

But it's also a window into people's willingness to take them and deal in them, despite the health and legal risks.

"One seizure every five minutes, an arrest on a drug charge every four minutes, and one kilo of drugs seized every 17.5 minutes," he said.

"Law enforcement is making a tangible impact on the illicit drug market."