Media coverage of the battle against P has tended to focus on the role of Maori gangs in the P trade. Yet most of the intercepts of the pseudoephedrine precursor to P that were being touted by John Key at his press conference yesterday originated from China – which suggests that Chinese criminal gangs may be at the heart of our P problem. Key though, didn’t seem to know either way. When I asked him whether the intercept figures indicated Chinese criminal gangs were involved in our P trade he replied that he didn’t know, but that such an implication could reasonably be drawn. Nor did he know whether this was being reflected in the 15 arrests related to the intercepts he had just cited.
Given that the government’s Plan on Methamphetamine is being run out of Key’s office, this apparent ignorance of the structure of the trade we trying to combat seems astonishing – and can only fuel suspicion that the campaign against P is largely a PR exercise. What we were told yesterday was that Customs had intercepted 230kg of the P precursor pseudoephedrine during the period since October, compared to only 67kgs during the comparable period last year. The seizures, we were told ,were not in large amounts but – cumulatively – they could produce P with an estimated street value of $84 million.
The role of China in the world’s crystal meth (aka P) trade is well documented. Only a week ago, Chinese authorities carried out the biggest drug bust in the country’s history. The busts were extensive, were gang related, and shaded over from ephedrine for the purposes of P production, to its use in Chinese traditional herbal medecines. Eg :
“This is a huge illegal drug case that took six months to investigate, was spread out over 21 provinces and regions and included five gangs with over 85 people suspected to be involved,” the Legal Daily said.
The case came to light in April after drug authorities discovered large shipments of ephedrine, a drug commonly used in flu, cough and asthma medicine, in Yibin city in Sichuan province, the paper said. Ephedrine is a key ingredient in methamphetimines. Chinese drug authorities last year began tracking large purchases of ephedrine, which is also a common ingredient in many traditional Chinese herbal medicines, reports said.
Presumably, that same pattern is evident here, too. If the intercepts in China were in small amounts, were they seizures from Chinese travellers bringing in ephedrine for medicinal purposes, or for purposes of criminal gain? We have had at least one major case involving Chinese gangs involvement in the P trade – the so called Operation Manu case in 2007. This involved an Asian crime syndicate led from overseas, which was using local Chinese students as couriers.
The international dimension of our P trade has also been underlined recently by the arrest at Auckland airport of 4 Japanese importing a $4 million consignment of P – not the precursors, but the drug itself – in the lining of their suitcases. Subsequently, two Iranians were also arrested as part of this operation.
It could well be that publicity about the Chinese connection could endanger our tertiary education trade with China – which has already declined by 19% over 2007-08. Yet given its global prominence in producing the ingredients, we need to know a great deal more about the supply lines for the social menace from China, into New Zealand. What links if any, exist between the Chinese Triads importing the precursors and the local gangs making and distributing the final product? Can Customs distinguish between the seizures of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine destined for the P labs, from that seized from elderly Chinese using such ingredients as part of traditional herbal treatments?
Plainly, herbal medicines are not the prime area of concern. in 2007, China’s export traders were estimated to be extracting US$13 million worth of ephedrine from 30,000 tonnes of ephedra annually, 10 times the amount that is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The international dimension of the P trade – and the globalisation of the activities of local biker gangs – suggest that the success or otherwise of this campaign will have to be measured in years or decades, rather than in a couple of months worth of seizures.