Despite a solid effort to curb drug supply and use in Penrith, local police and drug squad specialists are fighting an uphill battle.
As the NSW Police Force throws more resources behind the battle against drugs, the true extent of drug supply networks is being reflected in an ever-climbing number of arrests and charges.
In the Penrith local government area, the number of charges for possession of cannabis has increased dramatically in the past five years, from 188 charges between July 2006 and June 2007 to 372 in the year to June 2011.
For party drugs like ecstasy there has been a seven-fold increase in the same five-year period, while incidence of amphetamine possession has doubled.
NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, told the Weekender that good police work was being done to stop drug manufacturers and suppliers in western Sydney – NSW is the only state to have a full time squad, Strike Force Raptor, dedicated to unravelling outlaw motorcycle gangs and their involvement in illegal drug supply.
“With 100 people full time this is a very significant investment, combine them with some of our other squads – the dog squad, gang squad, drug squad – we have some serious work that goes on,” he said.
Police are hoping to have made inroads to heroin supply after Strike Force Vercoe interrupted a major supply syndicate.
Last Thursday three local men – a 50-year-old from Penrith, a 41-year-old from St Marys and a 48-year-old from Kingswood – were arrested for heroin supply after detectives interrupted a drug transaction occurring in Blacktown.
Two other men were also arrested, and a number of search warrants conducted at residences across western Sydney yielded more than three kilograms of high-grade heroin worth $3 million.
“We believe this operation will put a dent in the availability of heroin in western Sydney,” said Nick Bingham from the Drug Squad.
Runners a dying breed
Ten years ago a “pseudo-runner” could approach several pharmacies spread across western Sydney and purchase boxes of pseudoephedrine-based medications to manufacture illegal drugs like speed.
Now, pharmacists in the Penrith and St Marys area believe pseudo-runners are a more desperate but dying breed thanks to a nationwide website that records pseudoephedrine purchases.
Martin Cominotto, of Martin’s Chemist at St Marys, remembers not so long ago that if you sold one packet of pseudoephedrine medication to the wrong person you would be targeted by pseudo-runners for weeks.
“If you sold a medication with pseudoephedrine in it, you would have three or four people within 15minutes in the store targeting different pharmacists, trying to get more,” Mr Cominotto said.
In April 2007, Project Stop was rolled out after being successfully trialled in Queensland.
Project Stop is a database where all pharmacists record sales of pseudoephedrine and document the buyer’s formal identification, where and when it was purchased.
Theo Theodorou from Priceline in Penrith said Project Stop has had a remarkable impact on the success rates of pseudo-runners.
“Even with fake identification, we can tell how many purchases have been made under a name and if there has been too many recently we can refuse sale and contact the police,” he said.
Too easy to score
It is far too easy for Penrith kids to get their hands on cannabis and alcohol, according to Nepean Youth Accommodation Services (NYAS) youth worker, Tracy Hannah.
Ms Hannah has worked with NYAS for three years and sees first hand the heartbreaking effects of drug abuse, which occurs on a daily basis.
“It is really disheartening that our kids can approach any adult on the street and score cannabis – that adults are opening up a culture of drugs and substance abuse to our young people,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it is a case of five degrees of separation – the teenagers all know each other and the network for supply is very tight but also very extensive – it is so easy for a teenager to fall into the drug culture.”
Ms Hannah said often there is more success in treating underage alcohol abuse than drug abuse because illegal substances like cannabis and ecstasy are often viewed by teenagers as ‘cool’.
“… when it comes to trying to treat them for drug abuse the attitude is ‘if it’s not a needle in the arm then it is okay or cool’,” she said.
A phenomenon which is also disconcerting is the practice of ‘chroming’ – a cheap and easy way to obtain a short-term high.
“What some teens will do is spray an aerosol of any type onto a towel or plastic bag and breathe it in,” she said.
NYAS is located at 81 Henry Street, Penrith, and partners with the Western Area Adolescent Team.