Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producer: Stephen Rice
Everyone knows it - even the police admit they're fighting a losing battle against the illegal drug industry.
But the war just got even harder.
Right now, in Australia, you can get the potent effects of ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis straight over the counter and completely legally - thanks to the booming synthetic drug industry.
By mimicking their illicit counterparts with clever chemistry, the drug makers can stay one step ahead of the law.
And while our police and politicians play catch-up, the men behind these crafty alternatives have become a new breed of drug lord - untouchable, unstoppable and very, very rich.
LIZ HAYES: This is the war on drugs as we know it. Fought on city streets and in suburban homes all over the country. A daily battle against a billion-dollar industry that’s been raging for decades – and with no end in sight. How many properties have you struck so far?
POLICE OFFICER: This is our 81st warrant today and out of that, we’ve had about a 96 or 97% strike rate.
LIZ HAYES – But if we’re losing this war, there’s an even bigger battle looming – one that’s proving impossible to fight. Welcome to the lucrative new world of synthetic drugs – just as potent and the only way to get a legal high. I’ve got to say it’s a bit like going into a pharmacy in a strange way and the array that’s available is extraordinary.
MATT: It’s very similar to a pharmacy or a liquor store where you have all the different mood-enhancing products available, yeah.
LIZ HAYES: You’re comfortable about the money that you’ve made from the industry?
MATT: Yeah. I actually am comfortable. I’ve been working really hard for 10 years and attracted a lot of flack and I actually have done the right thing.
LIZ HAYES: And this is what a 21st century drug lord looks like. New Zealander, Matt Bowden has made a fortune creating synthetic versions of illegal drugs sold around the world, including in Australia. Enough for this wannabe rock star to celebrate his 40th birthday in flamboyant style with a $130,000 party.
MATT: It’s a very happy birthday, I can tell you. This is the coolest day of my life so far!
LIZ HAYES: Bowden is a one-time methamphetamine addict who started producing synthetic party pills 10 years ago after his cousin died of an ecstasy overdose. He says he just wants to make safer drugs.
MATT: We thought OK, let’s try to find an alternative to methamphetamine which is non-addictive, which is not likely to cause death and overdose, which is not likely to be neurotoxic and supply that as an alternative.
LIZ HAYES: How did you feel Kristy, as the wife of a man who went from making music to making synthetic drugs?
KRISTY: I’m really, really proud of my husband, yeah. I think that he should probably be up for a knighthood one day for the work that he’s done with drug policy.
LIZ HAYES: Kristy Bowden is a former stripper and Penthouse Pet who helped her husband set up his first party pill business.
KRISTY: I’ve used drugs in my past quite a lot. I think that a lot of people are in the same boat and I think it’s a real shame that society actually criminalises those people and puts such a stigma on them and says, “Oh no, you’re a drug-taker. You’re bad.” It’s like, “No, I’m actually just human.” You know?
LIZ HAYES: Where do you begin when you decide that a synthetic drug is the way to go? How do you start that operation?
KRISTY: We put a team together with a neuropharmacologist and a psychologist and a biochemist and technical team
LIZ HAYES: Together, the Bowdens created party pills designed to replicate ecstasy and found an instant market.
KRISTY: Over eight and a half years in New Zealand, 26 million pills were consumed by 400,000 consumers. That’s 20% of the adult population.
DRUG COUNTER GIRL: This will make people hallucinate or have an out-of-body experience.
LIZ HAYES: Buying drugs has never been this easy.
DRUG COUNTER GIRL: And that’s one that really needs a hot, hot flame, some sort of water filtration device and that will –
LIZ HAYES: Not called a bong?
DRUG COUNTER GIRL: Perhaps. We refer to them as “vases” in this shop.
LIZ HAYES: Sorry, yes. These synthetics mimic the effects of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine but because they’re made from completely different chemical compounds, they’re legal. What do we do with these? You can tell I don’t use them.
DRUG COUNTER GIRL: Tell that to the judge.
NICK: It’s very complex and it’s difficult to police. Absolutely. It’s almost impossible to police, really.
LIZ HAYES: Nick Bingham, chief of the NSW Drug Squad, is already dealing with this explosion of synthetic substances.
NICK: We have enough legal drugs on the market. We have tobacco, we have alcohol, we have the benzodiazepines. Why do we want to open up an avenue of all these other synthetic substances to make them legal as well?
LIZ HAYES: Massive police resources are already dedicated to the war on traditional drugs. Today, Mick Rochester and his team will net nearly $2 million worth of cannabis plants. As a police officer though, do you feel like the war is being lost?
MARK: We would like to think that we are starting to win the war on it and make a dent in the in the industry but at this stage, like I said, we haven’t come up with a week where we haven’t had a number of warrants to execute.
LIZ HAYES: Is that frustrating?
MARK: Certainly it’s frustrating but at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for.
LIZ HAYES: For decades, cannabis has been the drug of choice for hundreds of thousands of Australians. And going on the proceeds of this raid, it’s clear demand is still very high. For police, identifying cannabis is not a problem – if it looks like marihuana and smells like marihuana, chances are, it is marihuana. But when it comes to synthetic cannabis, well, that’s a whole new ball game. To identify it, you need to be a chemist – and even then, you’d be struggling. And there’s the problem. Australian lawmakers have already tried to ban synthetic drugs, but have been outwitted by clever chemists who only need to change one molecule to produce an entirely different – legal – substance. How many times can you tweak it?
MARK: Oh, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of different molecules which could be used to produce the same sort of effect as cannabis.
LIZ HAYES: That’s outrageous. That’s huge.
MARK: It is, yeah. Yeah.
LIZ HAYES: Matt Bowden has his own chemist on staff. He doesn’t want to be identified, but he’s prepared to show how entire new drugs can be created to get around the law. Take this compound called JWH018, which had previously been found in many products banned in Europe. A simple change to the chemical structure turns it JWH073 – an entirely different drug, but just as potent. Once a synthetic form of cannabis is banned, how long does it take for another to replace it?
MARK: Well, usually there’s another one in stock ready to go.
LIZ HAYES: Bowden has pioneered an entire industry that is testing the boundaries of our drug laws. In Australia, the market is booming. Well, this is called Thai High. What would be in that?
FIONA: Well, it will be made up with some herbal product like Damiana or something like that and then sprayed with one of the substances to create Thai High Hawaiian Haze. I note that it’s got quite a sweet smell.
LIZ HAYES: Fiona Patten, from the adult industry’s Eros Foundation, represents the retailers of many of these synthetic substances.
FIONA: The sales are being restricted to places like this where you cannot get in if you are under 18.
LIZ HAYES: Having said that, it’s flying off the shelf.
FIONA: Cannot get enough of it.
LIZ HAYES: The question is in the future, what will we find next on these shelves?
FIONA: That’s right. Are they going to ban this Thai High so another one is released, or are they going to maybe take a new approach and say, “right – let’s restrict it to these sorts of places, ensure that we actually know what’s in it and we can give people health information.” Or are we going to continue down the path of this becoming illegal and finding its way into a drug dealer’s bag round the corner?
LIZ HAYES: And something else taking its place.
FIONA: Something else taking its place.
LIZ HAYES: Can I show you some of the products that we purchased? How do you know if that’s legal?
NICK: Yeah, look – the short answer is you don’t know and we don’t know.
LIZ HAYES: This is what’s called Chronic, which is the synthetic cannabis. You would have to take those to a chemist wouldn’t you, to know what’s in it?
NICK: You would have to be reasonably satisfied though that they contained a drug before you even seize them and if you’re not satisfied, you wouldn’t take it off the person who possesses them. Chronic in particular is one of those synthetic cannabinoids that was outlawed in its original form in all states. It’s since been resynthesised.
LIZ HAYES: All of these new drugs are mood- and mind-altering. No one suggests they’re completely harmless but because so little research has been done, we don’t know just how dangerous they may be. Have you tried any of these?
FIONA: I have tried a version of it and it did what I expected it would do.
LIZ HAYES: And it did what cannabis would do?
FIONA: It tasted nothing like it, it smelt nothing like it, but the effect was very similar.
LIZ HAYES: But that certainly wasn’t the case for 19-year-old Ben.
BEN: My heart started pounding, like I could hear it in my ears. It slowly crept up on me out of nowhere, this pounding noise in my ears and I realised it was my heart and my chest started tightening up really tight and my natural reaction was, I thought I was having a heart attack.
NICK: Well, the advice we’re getting, it’s much more potent than cannabis. Anywhere between five and 100 times more potent than cannabis.
LIZ HAYES: So the synthetic is harder than the real stuff?
LIZ HAYES: Meanwhile, the king of the legal high, Matt Bowden, has moved on to producing his own rock opera where he’ll play his alter-ego, Starboy. And he’s comfortable with his dual roles of doting dad of two and modern-day drug baron. Would you be happy for your kids to take the synthetic drugs that you are or were involved in?
MATT: OK, the products which I produced I only recommended for existing drug addicts. If my daughters were addicted to methamphetamine, then I’d encourage them to use the legal high as a stepping-stone off and if they were smoking a lot of cannabis, then I’d encourage them to use something legal instead.
LIZ HAYES: Why are you not just a regular drug dealer?
MATT: I think if you look at – let’s look around the world and we say in, maybe in France there’s a man whose selling wine and maybe in Australia you’ve got your drive-through bottle stores and I’m just offering alternatives for people from a different culture. I’m not actually promoting drug use, I’m promoting safer policy and I’m very comfortable with that. Together, we can end the war on drugs. It’s dysfunctional, it’s not working.
LIZ HAYES: A lot of people would say that’s hypocritical because you’ve participated in making these drugs.
KRISTY: We’re against the war, we’re not particularly against the drugs.
LIZ HAYES: Whether you believe the Bowdens are helping or hindering, synthetic substances mean the war against drugs has a whole new frontier. The demand is there.
MATT: The demand is there. Human nature dictates that the demand will always be there for illicit substances.
LIZ HAYES: Total bans don’t seem to have worked. Have you found that?
MATT: Well, I’m still in business and as long as I’m in the business, I’ll certainly have plenty of work to do. So total bans don’t work, “but what’s the alternative?” is the question I ask.