The Rise of Drug Precursor Offences in Australia
Ephedrine is a chemical found in popular cold remedies, but it is also used to manufacture methamphetamine. Last year, a police raid of 28 properties in Sydney suburbs led to twelve arrests and the seizure of 1.4 tonnes of ephedrine, a drug precursor to ‘Ice’ that had been disguised as sea salt. Ephedrine was also found hidden in wall tiles. The seizure was the largest on record.
News reports suggest that the police are increasingly aggressive about making arrests for possession of drug precursors. That might cause you to wonder whether you could be arrested for unwittingly possessing an illegal chemical. The answer depends on a number of factors.
What Are Drug Precursors?
The term drug precursor is used to identify chemical substances that are used as ingredients when manufacturing illicit drugs. For example, isosafrole is a precursor that is used to manufacture Ecstasy, while ephedrine is used to make methamphetamine
Many drug precursor laws in Australia have been motivated by the popularity of methamphetamine. Unlike many other illicit drugs, methamphetamine (or “Ice”) is often manufactured in home environments using unsophisticated equipment.
Is it Unlawful for Me to Possess a Drug Precursor in Australia?
Not always. Many drug precursors are common chemicals that can be purchased legally. Many other precursors, however, are regulated by law. Most laws governing drug precursors in Australia are established by states and territories.
Depending on the precursor and the state or territory, the law might:
- prohibit possession of the precursor;
- prohibit possession of a certain quantity of the precursor; or
- prohibit possession of the precursor for use in manufacturing a controlled substance.
A controlled substance is a regulated drug that typically cannot be possessed without a prescription (or that cannot be lawfully possessed under any circumstances). Certain controlled substances are defined as prohibited drugs in NSW.
What Is the Law in NSW?
The key law that regulates drug precursors in NSW is the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985. There are two important sections in that law:
- Section 24A makes it an offence to possess any precursor for the purpose of manufacturing a prohibited drug.
- Section 24B makes it an offence to possess more than a specified quantity of certain precursors, regardless of how the precursor will be used.
Regulations that were enacted in 2006 define the precursors and amounts that cannot be lawfully possessed without legal authority.
Commonwealth Importation Laws
There has been arising prevalence of precursors being imported into Australia.
The maximum penalty for the importation of large amounts of precursor (“commercial” quantities”) is 25 years imprisonment. As larger quantities, and more frequently imported, are imported into Australia for the purpose of manufacturing drugs, sentences handed down by our higher courts continue to rise in severity.
Why Do Most Precursor Offences Involve Methamphetamine?
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey reported that methamphetamine use in Australia declined from 3.2% in the general public in 2004 to 2.3% in 2007. Regulation of precursors became a popular strategy to control methamphetamine abuse just as the drug’s popularity seemed to be declining.
More recent reports, however, suggest that methamphetamine use in Australia might be on the upswing. A study by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, published last year in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that methamphetamine use has tripled in the past five years.
The study is based on the number of people who are seeking treatment. It is possible that methamphetamine use has remained steady or even declined, while an increase in drug rehabilitation programs has made it possible for more people to seek treatment. Drug use statistics are never as clear as media accounts make them seem.
In any event, there is no doubt that law enforcement agencies are aggressive in their pursuit of drug precursor arrests, particularly when the precursor is used to make methamphetamine. And there is no doubt that being prosecuted for precursor offences can have harsh consequences.
What Penalty Do I Face in NSW for a Drug Precursor Offence?
In NSW, possession of a prohibited precursor in violation of section 24A can carry a sentence of up to 10 years of imprisonment. Possession of a prohibited quantity of precursors in violation of section 24B can carry up to 5 years of imprisonment.
Law enforcement agencies continue to take precursor offences seriously. If you are accused of a drug precursor offence, you need to take the charge seriously.
A vigorous defence of criminal accusations involving drug precursors is vital. A strong defence starts by contacting a criminal defence lawyer who can offer effective solutions for individuals who are charged with a drug crime in NSW.