The change in the heroin trade in late 2000 and early 2001 was as sudden as it was unexpected. Pina Bampi no longer uses heroin, but she remembers the desperation on the streets of Footscray, an inner suburb of Melbourne, when supply of the drug simply dried up. "People were so panicked, so worried about getting sick (from withdrawal)," Bampi says. "It lasted for three or four months, but to us that was forever." Though heroin is more available now, the ripple effects of the drought continue to be felt, most noticeably in national overdose-death rates, which have plunged since 2000. In New South Wales alone, according to National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre data released this month, there was a 67% fall in opiate-related deaths between 1999 and 2002, while the number of users more than halved. Property crime and ambulance call-outs to overdoses are also down thanks to what the federal government says is the only sustained heroin shortage in the Western world.
Making the shortage last will depend on understanding its causes. An Australian National University-Australian Federal Police study to be released this week confirms that the success of police and Customs in stopping heroin at the borders was critical. Between 1992 and 1997, the a.f.p. intercepted 931 kg of heroin; over the next six years they seized 2,467 kg, including around 700 kg in 2000 alone. The historic shortage that followed, the report says, "provided the first opportunity in many decades to see whether supply and enforcement were in any way related." The link has been widely questioned: do busts make any difference on the street? Many illicit drug experts also argue that treatment is more effective than law enforcement efforts, and that attempts to push up the price by cutting supply may force addicts into more crime to fund their habit. But in what it claims is the first study of its kind, the ANU has found that law enforcement efforts "do, in fact, influence the supply of illicit drugs reaching the community and that increased funding for law enforcement will result in further decreases in supply." Until now, it says, support for the supply-reduction approach was "based mainly on expert opinion rather than empirical evidence." The study shows that drug law enforcement benefits both drug users and the community, "and can now claim scientific evidence on par with that accorded many medical treatments."