The green shrubs growing in the mountains of central Afghanistan are causing major problems for those struggling to stop methamphetamine on the roads in Australia, experts say.
- Police found methamphetamine hidden in bottles of imported shampoo and cleaner
- Iranians in Australia are being tricked into accepting imports containing the drugs, police said
- The Australian Iranian community wants to work with the police to stop people getting scammed
The ephedra plant, known locally as oman, was previously only used for firewood.
But now the drug is being carried across the Afghan border to Iran where the drugmaker is extracting ephedrine, the main precursor chemical used in medicinal ice.
Since 2018, there has been a boom in ephedrine extraction operations in the region, leading to increased methamphetamine production, said London School of Economics researcher Alexander Soderholm.
“You have a huge oversupply of methamphetamine in Iran, which they are trying to transfer to consumers globally, says Soderholm.
“Australia is, of course, one of the most lucrative consumer markets for selling methamphetamine.
“The prices are very high, hundreds of times higher than street retail prices in Iran.”
While the closure of the COVID-19 border may have dampened human drug trafficking efforts, Soderholm and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) say crime groups have adapted to using air and sea transport to smuggle goods across borders.
In Australia, federal police say there has been a large increase in shipments of methamphetamine from Iran that have been intercepted in recent years.
In January, two men were indicted on suspicion of importing 250 kilograms of the drug, worth an estimated $ 187 million. AFP said the drugs were hidden in kitchen table deliveries.
Last year, packages of “bottled water” imported from Iran were seized in NSW and found to contain $ 80 million worth of liquid methamphetamine.
“Innocent” Iranians were subjected to import scams
AFP Commander Todd Hunter said investigators had uncovered another scam in which innocent members of Melbourne’s Iranian expatriate community were tricked into becoming unwitting drug couriers.
Commander Hunter said six victims had been “drawn into a scheme” in which they believed they imported products such as hand sanitizer, shampoo bottles, light fixtures and photo frames under legitimate business deals.
Commander Hunter said victims had been paid up to $ 30,000 to accept imports and kept them until members of a locally based crime syndicate had collected the items.
In one case in 2018, a 52-year-old man was recruited via Whatsapp by someone he believes to be a religious leader in Iran.
“There have been a number of car paint shipments that turned out to be genuine, without narcotics in them.
“Then, finally, one with methamphetamine in it [arrived], “Said the Hunter Commander.
After the man spoke to the police and handed over the tainted product, Commander Hunter said the victim got a knock on the door from members of a local drug gang.
Warning for expats
Kam Razmara, a committee member from the Australian Iranian Society of Victoria, said his group had not heard of the fraud until police issued a press release last week.
Mr Razmara and others fear the recent drug cases, in which relations to Iran have become publicized, will unfairly tarnish the Iranian community in Australia.
Mr Razmara said the organization had good relations with the Victoria Police and he hoped that in the future the AFP would contact so they could cooperate and educate members of the public.
“If they contact us and get engaged to us, we can work much more proactively with them,” said Razmara.
“We have a Facebook group with 6,000 odd members who communicate in Farsi, and of course if we are approached, we will publish it in Farsi and English.”
Melbourne lawyer Ensieh Bayat said members of the expatriate community are often victims of fraud because of their sense of obligation to help relatives or colleagues in their home countries.
“If you receive a package, you have to see what’s in it. Don’t accept it if you can’t guarantee what’s in it,” he said.
“If it’s part of the business, you should check if they’re a reputable business. Many of our clients have a hard time telling the difference.”
Make use of the weakest link
For the authorities, finding the head of a foreign drug syndicate remains a challenge.
Commander Hunter said AFP was working closely with partners in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to target drug trafficking from the Middle East, but it was a “very difficult question” to answer who sits at the top of the crime syndicate.
Mr Soderholm agrees. He said it was likely that corrupt state officials and legitimate businesses would assist criminal organizations to transport drugs from Afghanistan to Iran, and then to other regions.
“We will see a continuation of innovation,” he said.
“These groups will always exploit the most vulnerable or weakest link in the listed supply channels, but also in terms of the people in the community, who are vulnerable to exploitation.
“It is rare globally that the organizer or top level leader of this network is jailed.
“Most of the people jailed for drug-related crimes are drug users, and low-level drug dealers or dealers.”