Australia Tries to Cope as Drug Problem Grows : Narcotics: Officials talk of changing focus from eliminating abuse to controlling it.


The Rolls-Royce and Jaguar showrooms on William Street will open in a couple of hours. Before they do, a city worker sweeps up the used syringes and condoms from a night’s business of another kind.

Welcome to the edge of King’s Cross, a stretch of nightclubs, restaurants and strip joints where virtually anything is for sale.

“This is the sex and drug center for the whole country,” said Dr. Sigrid van Beek, director of the Kirketon Road Center, which offers help and medical care. “From midnight to 6 a.m., if you’re looking for prostitution or drugs, it’s easy to score around here.”

Prostitution is either legal or largely tolerated in Australia, depending on the state, so Sydney police concentrate on controlling the abuse of drugs and alcohol.


The narcotics problem is growing, but is far short of the magnitude in the United States. Crack cocaine and “ice,” for instance, have yet to arrive in significant quantities.

Seizures of cocaine at ports and airports rose from 42 pounds in the 1988-89 fiscal year to nearly 155 pounds in 1989-90, officials said.

Marijuana comes from Southeast Asia and other prime growing areas, and from domestic farming operations that sometimes include huge, irrigated tracts with security systems.

Heroin is smuggled from abroad in increasing quantities. The raw materials for amphetamines are smuggled in, but the drugs are made here.


Customs and the Australian federal police said in a joint statement that most amphetamines “are produced through backyard manufacture in clandestine laboratories.”

A survey in 1988, which provides the latest figures available, indicated there were 30,000 to 50,000 drug addicts and 60,000 occasional users among the 12 million Australians 14 and older. It said 1.2 million to 1.4 million acknowledged using marijuana in the previous year and 240,000 said they had used amphetamines.

Police suspect that in an attempt to get around strict inspection of people and goods arriving from known drug areas, dealers are using other South Pacific countries as way stations.

In February, U.S. officials seized a 6,600-pound shipment of marijuana from Thailand that had been shipped first to New Zealand, where it was concealed in a shipping container of carpets and woolens.


Tasmania, an island state off the south coast, is one of the few places in the world where opium poppies are grown legally. From the poppy resin, pharmaceutical companies produce morphine and codeine phosphate for export.

Security at the 17,000 acres of poppy fields was tightened recently after 500 grams of resin was found in Victoria state and traced to Tasmania.

Sedatives like Rohypnol and Serepax are popular with young people, and pharmacists have been accused of selling the drugs at reduced prices to attract customers. Mixing them with heroin has become a deadly practice.

“Of the 54 heroin deaths examined by the institute in the last year, 32 tested positive for benzos (sedatives like Rohypnol),” said Stephen Cordner of the Victoria state Institute of Forensic Pathology.


The combination recently killed four teen-age girls in a group of seven who grew up in Redfern, an aboriginal neighborhood in Sydney, and were confined together in the Reiby Detention Center for juveniles.

A fifth, 18-year-old Stephanie Jones, was hospitalized with broken legs and a broken arm after jumping from a police station window. Another was under guard at Reiby, classified as “out of control,” and her sister, the seventh in the group, was to be released into a drug-rehabilitation program.

“The deaths have made me heaps scared, but I want to get off drugs,” Stephanie said from her hospital bed. “I don’t want to die like that.”

Stephanie said she used heroin because she felt “left out.”


Some officials have begun to talk of keeping the drug problem under control rather than eliminating it.

Australian Democrats, a small political party, has recommended a government-run distribution service to take drugs away from organized crime.

Mike Elliott, a party representative in South Australia state, said in June that tough laws have not halted the drug trade and experience shows that it would continue growing. He said drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not a crime.

Elliot said a distribution service with tight controls would not lead to commercialization of drugs.


Van Beek’s Kirketon Road Center was established three years ago to fight the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users, and it gives out 15,000 needles a month. Needle-sharing by drug users is one of the main ways the deadly disease is spread.

“Luckily, we were very fast in setting up the needle-exchange program,” Van Beek told an interviewer.

“It’s too late in the United States, where 80%" of intravenous drug users are infected with the AIDS virus, she said, but “it’s only 3% to 5% here.”

Asked about concern that distributing needles might encourage drug use, she said: “Thank God we haven’t run into that attitude here. No study in the world shows that you encourage drug use by providing clean needles. Would you use . . . drugs just because a needle was available?”