Illicit drugs

Serious and organised criminals are principally motivated by money and power, and the illicit drug market continues to be their main source of profit. Organised crime groups continue to maintain a strong presence in the importation, cultivation, production and distribution of illicit drugs.

Amphetamine-type stimulants

  • The amphetamine-type stimulants market is a large illicit drug market in Australia, with high levels of organised crime involvement in the importation, manufacture and distribution of amphetamine-type stimulants throughout Australia.
  • Amphetamine-type stimulants are a group of psycho-stimulant substances, including amphetamine, methylamphetamine and phenethylamines. Amphetamine-type stimulants increase dopamine levels in the brain, producing intense euphoria.
  • The three main types of amphetamine-type stimulants are:
    • Amphetamine—most commonly found in powder and tablet form.
    • Methylamphetamine—the most common forms are tablet, crystal, base (also referred to as paste) and powder (also referred to as speed). Crystal methylamphetamine—often referred to as ‘ice’—is highly purified and crystalline in appearance.
    • Phenethylamines—the most common form is MDMA—commonly referred to as ‘ecstasy’. The most common form of MDMA is tablet, but MDMA can also be sold as capsules, powders or crystals.


  • The Australian cannabis market is large and entrenched, with organised criminal groups and individuals maintaining a strong presence in the market.
  • Cannabis can be grouped into two categories:
    • Hemp—fibrous and low in psychoactive components, with roots, stalks and stems providing raw materials for clothing, paper and skin care products.
    • Marijuana—high in psychoactive components and is an illicit drug.
  • The potency of cannabis varies depending on the plant variety, method of cultivation, preparation and storage. Due to the range of effects cannabis can produce, it can be categorised as a stimulant, depressant or hallucinogen.

Clandestine laboratories and precursors

  • Clandestine (clan) laboratories covertly manufacture illicit drugs and/or their precursors and can range from crude, makeshift operations using simple processes, to highly sophisticated operations using technically advanced equipment and facilities.
  • Organised crime groups maintain a strong presence in the importation, cultivation, production, and distribution of illicit drugs, and generate significant funds through the manufacture and trafficking of illicit drugs and their precursors.
  • Precursors are the starting material for illicit drug manufacture, modified to produce a specific illicit drug. For example, pseudoephedrine—found in cold and flu medication—can be extracted and converted into methylamphetamine.
  • Amphetamine-type stimulants are the dominant drug manufactured in clandestine laboratories.


  • Organised crime groups profit from the cultivation, trafficking, distribution and supply of cocaine.
  • Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant and naturally occurring chemical compound found in the leaves of the coca plant.
  • The two most common forms of cocaine are:
    • Hydrochloride salt—most commonly found in powdered form.
    • Cocaine base—commonly referred to as ‘crack’, it is usually found in rock crystal form.

Drug analogues and novel substances

  • Drug analogues and novel substances originally entered the illicit drug market as substitutes for illicit drugs such as methylamphetamine and MDMA. More recently they have also been marketed as substitutes for cocaine, LSD and cannabis.
  • Analogue substances are variants of a parent compound which is a prohibited or scheduled drug. Novel substances mimic the pharmacological effects of prohibited drugs while attempting to avoid existing drug control measures.
  • The most widely known drug analogues and novel substances are synthetic cannabinoids and substances which are chemically similar to and/or mimic the effects of various amphetamine-type stimulants.
  • Drug analogues and novel substances are often marketed as ‘legal highs’, however this term does not reflect the true legal status of these substances under Australian legislation.


  • Heroin belongs to the opioid class of drugs and is synthesized from morphine—a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of opium poppy plants. The three primary regions of opium poppy cultivation include:
    • South-West Asia (primarily Afghanistan)
    • South-East Asia
    • the Americas (primarily Mexico).
  • The two most common forms of heroin found in Australia are powder and rock.

Illicit pharmaceuticals

  • Due to the ease with which illicit pharmaceuticals can be acquired, the involvement of organised criminal groups and individuals is limited. However, there are organised networks of individuals involved in the acquisition and on-selling of pharmaceuticals, particularly opioids.

The principal classes of prescription drugs misused are:

  • Opioid analgesics—pain relievers that act on the central nervous system. Drugs in this category include codeine, fentanyl, morphine and oxycodone.
  • Benzodiazepines—minor tranquilisers that are prescribed by doctors to help with anxiety and sleeplessness. Commonly known trade names include Valium®, Serapax®, Zanax® and Mogadon®.