Police are hoping new technology will help fight the regional ice epidemic. Picture: Nicole Garmston
Police are hoping new technology will help fight the regional ice epidemic. Picture: Nicole Garmston

Australia’s killer ice highways

SINCE the early 2000s, Australia's thousands of kilometres of deserted roads have been crawling with vehicles trafficking illicit drugs from town to town on what have become known as "ice highways".

Whether they start in a regional town intersecting the highways, in a town two hours from of Sydney, drug traffickers have been using Australia's remote roads for years - ruining thousands of lives in the process.

Traffickers travel the Hume, Sturt and Calder highways in Victoria, spreading the highly addictive drug through towns such as Mildura and Bendigo before driving cross-country to the west coast, infecting Adelaide on the way, where thousands more are hooked on the methamphetamine.

According to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, most of the country's ice is produced domestically in "clan labs" often by motorcycle gangs or criminal networks.

Related: The Bruce Highway feeds our seedy underbelly

In March, the latest National Wastewater Analysis Drug Monitoring Program revealed Adelaide was struggling the most with ice use, closely followed by regional parts of South Australia.

Cops across all states and territories work day and night to try to police 15,000km of highways, but new technology, pioneered in the US, is hoping to make the exhausting job easier.

United States Border Patrol assistant chief Patrick Stewart spoke at the Australian Security Summit earlier this year on how Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) could help the nation's law enforcement catch criminals.

In the past two years, the geospatial technology helped US border patrol agents seize more than 900 tonnes of cannabis. Now it's giving our own cops even greater situational awareness.

The technology works on machine learning and drags in everything from moon phases, location tracking, maps and even meteorology and seismology. It also collects data over time and eventually builds a model that helps police forecast where and when the trafficking might take place.

"Once we've discovered where it's coming from within our borders, we want to track its movement so we can rapidly get to it," Mr Stewart said.

"If, for example, we're chasing a group of smugglers, we would see footprints in the sand so we log those footprints and if they're travelling with drugs, we'd log the description of those drugs. All of that is stored on the server and then, based on historical information even the available light from the moon, the weather patterns, everything, we can say it's highly likely (the drugs) are headed to this stash-house or this landmark.

"We can then jump ahead of that trafficking and wait for them to come to us instead of chasing - so we're always a step ahead."

While Mr Stewart said Australia's police forces already had a number of robust systems in place, GIS was about Aussies no longer having to make the mistakes the US had already made.

GIS is also still dependent on other technology used to catch drug traffickers.

"We still rely on technology like X-ray to find a concealment methodology. Once we recognise or apprehend or seize drugs in a tyre or seats, etc, we log that information and then that has spatial relevance so we have cops that can say, within this area, on this bit of highway it's likely the drugs will be in a tyre or seat," Mr Stewart said.

NSW Police seized close to 10kg of illicit drugs in January from a truck travelling on the Hume Highway. Picture: NSW Police
NSW Police seized close to 10kg of illicit drugs in January from a truck travelling on the Hume Highway. Picture: NSW Police


The effect of ice, otherwise known as methylamphetamine, has been detrimental to dozens of regional Aussie towns, ruining families and contributing to crime rates.

Most of the nation's state and territory police forces refused to comment on methods used to catch drug traffickers claiming it would give law-breakers a leg-up.

But a number of past police operations and programs reveal the success officers have had in trying to stem Australia's ice epidemic.

In May, Queensland Police revealed it had busted a major drug trafficking ring in the southwest of the state after a 14-month investigation.

More than 60 officers from across the state raided 40 properties in Roma, shattering a far-reaching drug distribution ring and seizing a number of heavy vehicles used to ship supplies.

"It is well documented the devastating consequences drugs such as ice have on communities with the issue not restricted to just one area or region," Detective Superintendent Hart said at the time.

"While this is a tremendous result for all of the officers involved, we will continue to battle those engaging in criminal activity and the supply of drugs across the district."

Two hours south, St George is slowly rebuilding itself after similar sweeping drug raids.

In the past year, Queensland Police have arrested more than 300 people in relation to ice.

Further south, NSW and Victoria police created a joint program a decade ago in a first step to stem their own states' ice trafficking.

NSW highway patrol officers have undergone training to help them better target criminals transporting contraband on the state's roads, which is part of the CATCH (Crime and Traffic Connecting on Highways) Program.

"It has been running in NSW and Victoria since 2009 and has had an impact on drug supply and crime," Traffic and Highway Patrol Commander Assistant Commissioner Michael Corboy said.

"The training allows police to better detect and intercept vehicles and should send a strong, clear message to anyone wanting to transport drugs or other contraband on our roads.

"It will also form a critical part of our heavy vehicle enforcement strategy.

"The objective of CATCH training is to rid our roads of ice and other drugs. Those that use our highways to transport drugs can expect to be intercepted, searched and arrested."

While authorities continue to crack down on the ice epidemic, police hope freezing some of Australia's obvious ice towns will stem the country's addiction.

Australia's ice use has been on the rise since August 2017, according to the latest National Wastewater Analysis Drug Monitoring Program, and the nation is still the highest user of ice in the English-speaking world.

In the meantime, police will continue to chip away at Australia's seemingly endless supply of the drug.

In April 20117, Victoria Police and AFP officers found almost a tonne of ice concealed in boxes of floorboards in a Melbourne warehouse, worth almost $900 million.

At the time, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull didn't mince words, calling traffickers "merchants of death".

"Our response to ice is ruthless," Mr Turnbull said.

"We are working internationally and nationally to catch these merchants of death, these people who traffic in ice, to catch them and intercept their deadly cargoes.

"(Ice) destroys lives. It destroys families and communities."

Police busted a truck driver carrying $2.4 million in cash on this stretch of the Sturt Highway in April 2017. Picture: Nicole Garmston
Police busted a truck driver carrying $2.4 million in cash on this stretch of the Sturt Highway in April 2017. Picture: Nicole Garmston