Understanding how high-level synthetic stimulant traffickers in Australia adapt to changes in their drug supply

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Date Commenced:
Expected Date of Completion:
Project Supporters:

Australian Postgraduate Award
National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre PhD Benefit Scheme

Project Members: 
image - Matthew Oreilly
Mr Matthew O'Reilly
Short-Term Employee
image - Caitlin Hughes
Senior Lecturer
Ph 02 9385 0132
Project Main Description: 

Knowledge about drug suppliers, including traffickers, is slim. This stymies our capacity to understand, foresee and forewarn what Australian and international drug traffickers will do and what policy responses are likely to be most effective. This project, which formed the basis for Matthew O'Reilly's doctoral thesis, aimed to increase understanding about high-level drug trafficking and drug supply in Australia. 


In the illicit drug policy arena understanding the nature of supply, demand and harm is of self-evident importance. Yet, both on the international and domestic front knowledge about those that supply the drugs (particularly high-level supply) remains slim. In particular, very little is known about how traffickers respond when there are significant changes in the supply chain. For instance, if there is a significant reduction in Australia’s supply of MDMA, potential responses for MDMA traffickers might be to seek to sell another drug to their clients (e.g. methamphetamine), continue to sell MDMA at reduced purity/quality, seek to find new suppliers, exit the market (i.e. to cease being a trafficker altogether) or to enter other forms of crime. The dearth of knowledge in this area stymies current capacity to understand, foresee and forewarn what Australian and international drug traffickers will do in response to significant fluctuations in supply and what policy responses are likely to be most effective.


The overarching aim was to increase understanding about high-level drug trafficking and drug supply in Australia. The sub aims were:
Component 1. to document key changes in the extent and nature of Australian importation, manufacture and distribution of two illicit drugs: MDMA and methamphetamine
Component 2. to examine how high-level synthetic stimulant traffickers operate in the Australian drug market and specifically how they respond to changes in their drug supply (such as changes in availability, purity and drug form)
Component 3. to examine structural and functional changes in a high-level synthetic stimulant trafficking network over time after exposure to supply changes.

Design and Method: 

The project was divided into three components and utilised both quantitative and qualitative methods.

  • Component 1: Using a range of indicators, including unit-record seizure and purity data from Australian law enforcement agencies, and self-report data from people who use drugs, supply trends for MDMA (+ precursors) and methamphetamine (+precursors) were analysed between 2002 and 2014 to identify changes in the scale and nature of supply of these drugs to and within Australia.
  • Component 2: Publicly available sentencing transcripts from Australian court cases of serious MDMA and/or methamphetamine trafficking offences were analysed: i.e. cases where the offender was sentenced for trafficking a commercial or large commercial quantity (as defined by the states and territories). Only court hearings which took place between 2002 and 2016 were eligible for analysis. A content analysis of the transcripts was conducted to determine how MDMA and methamphetamine traffickers have responded to availability, purity, quality and form changes in the past.
  • Component 3:  A social network analysis was conducted on a high-level synthetic stimulant trafficking network which operated primarily in Melbourne between 1993 and 2007. Data were obtained from judges’ sentencing comments, a biography of the network’s main manager, and mainstream media. Five time periods were defined, and then structural and functional changes in the network that occurred after exposure to supply changes, were examined over time.

This project is now complete and the PhD thesis can be found here: https://www.unsworks.unsw.edu.au/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=unswork...

Key findings from this work were: 

  1. Traditional supply trends analysis of seizure data – i.e. the annual total weight and number of drug seizures – may lead to erroneous or incomplete insights. Alternative analyses of Australian law enforcement seizure data, including a re-analysis excluding outliers from the data series, examining changes in large scale seizures only, and analysis by weight bin (which is a method used by some international bodies e.g. the EMCDDA) were found to improve supply trend analysis. This suggests such methods should be incorporated into future analysis.
  2. Analysis of Australia’s MDMA market over the period 2002 until 2014 showed Australia’s supply of MDMA declined between 2002 and the late 2000s but did not reach its lowest point until 2010, one year after Europe. Supply in Australia appeared to partially resurge from 2011, but unlike Europe, Australian MDMA supply did not make a full recovery by 2014. Nevertheless, there are signs of a significant shift in the type of MDMA in the Australian market, with a notable increase in importation of non-tablet forms of MDMA. 
  3. The analysis of synthetic stimulant traffickers, who operated in Australia during the period 2002-2016, suggested that they were resilient to supply changes and rarely left the market as a result of supply changes. Some adaptations also posed public health risks. Of note, large-scale arrests and seizures sometimes led Australian-based traffickers to shift from trafficking one drug (e.g. MDMA) to trafficking other drug types (e.g. methamphetamine or cocaine), or caused traffickers to attempt to manufacture their own drugs in Australia. This work reinforces the importance of a collaborative approach between health and law enforcement.

This work has led to several conference/symposium presentations, including an oral presentation at the 2018 NDARC Symposium, titled: “Understanding how a high-level drug trafficking network adapts to changes in its drug supply”. The slides for this presentation can be downloaded here.

Matthew is now working on publishing some of the research.

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