Coping with Australia’s lingering cocaine problem

If you need a poster boy for Australia’s illegal drug industry, look no further than former Olympic athlete Nathan Baggaley.

In April 2021, the Brisbane Supreme Court found the two-time Olympic silver medalist kayaker and his brother Dru guilty of smuggling cocaine into the country. The charges were based on their arrest back in 2018. Police had intercepted a boat they hired to receive goods from a foreign ship some 360 kilometres off the coast. (Dru Baggaley himself was aboard the boat together with skipper Anthony Draper.) The ship offloaded some 200 million dollars worth of cocaine.

The Baggaleys will now be sentenced at a later date. However, this isn’t the first time they’ve dabbled in crime. Both Nathan and Dru Baggaley have a history of dealing in illegal drugs. They have even served time for it. But with this latest offence, the brothers could face a lifetime in prison.

A far too common story

At first glance, Nathan Baggaley’s case seems extraordinary – a fall from grace of Olympic proportions, so to speak. But unfortunately, an alarming number of seemingly respectable Australians have gone down similar paths.

Just a few examples:

  • For instance, former Australian Olympic swimmer Scott Miller was arrested in Rozelle last February 2021. He was charged for allegedly supplying large amounts of methamphetamines (“ice”) to various towns in NSW.
  • Meanwhile, a 66-year old central Queensland mother was sentenced to four years in jail. She had aided her wealthy businessman son to flee the country. Her son had previously been arrested by authorities for operating a cocaine importation syndicate. He was out on bail when he attempted to escape. (He was later caught.)
  • In March 2021, Sydney police arrested five men for having ties to an international cocaine syndicate operating in the country. One of the men was a former property developer.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Back in November 2020, Vice World News reported that Sydney police have arrested hundreds of people for drug dealing over the last few years. Most of them were people with “normal” jobs. Police found tradespeople, real estate agents, and even fitness influencers among them.

Rising addictions

The fact is, for the past decade or so, more and more Australians have gotten mired in illicit drug use. More addictions mean a growing demand. That translates to more homegrown drug dealers. In other words, there are more criminals for police to battle with.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic has barely made a dent in Australians’ overall year 2020 consumption of the most popular illegal drugs. According to the latest National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program report, the annual consumption of cocaine, MDMA, and heroin over the past year are at the highest levels ever recorded.

In other words, any influence the pandemic would have in any study performed during the first half of 2020 would go unmeasured. There would be less of an effect on other studies later in the same year.

A spotlight on the cocaine trend

Of these substances, cocaine remains the second-most frequently used and traded illegal drug in the world (after cannabis). And it’s proven to be a particularly profitable product for “amateur” drug dealers (like Baggaley) to trade in, especially in the Australian market.

That’s because, over the past four years, cocaine has become popular. This is especially true among higher-paying users in Australia’s capital cities and urban centres. The country’s urbanites are willing to pay a premium for cocaine. Prices can often go above $300 per gram (compared to the average global price of $127 per gram).

Smugglers also find it easy to ship cocaine straight from South American and into Australia. It’s even easier than smuggling it into the United States. Moreover, they can charge a higher mark-up for the cost of importation.

And despite these higher prices, the cities’ demand for the drug continues to increase. According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, many people believe cocaine is the “safer” recreational drug. They associate it with glamour and financial success. It’s not surprising, then, that the latest National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program reported an 85.6% increase in cocaine consumption.

Cocaine usage is also highest in Sydney; it’s become Australia’s “cocaine capital.” The city has a growing appetite for the substance. It treats it as a party drug. It’s not unheard of for young professional Sydneysiders to take a sniff during after-work drinks.

The destructive power of cocaine

Cocaine is sold on the international black market in two forms. First, there’s the milder white powder which is smoked or snorted in. Next, there’s the more addictive free base form known as “crack cocaine.”

The trouble with cocaine is that it is more addictive than heroin. This leads to a higher frequency of abuse. Habitual users can experience dangerously high blood pressure. This can eventually lead to heart failure.

There’s even a substantial decline in working memory within the first 48 hours after use. Higher or more frequent doses cause grandiose delusional mania and aggressive paranoia.

The influence of cocaine doesn’t stop with cognitive impairment, either. Once the drug wears off, there are also the associated withdrawal symptoms. These include depression, irritability, emotional instability, and interrupted sleep. These symptoms can last for weeks.

Individuals that become addicted to cocaine pose a huge problem for families, businesses, and whole communities. Aside from self-destruction, cocaine addicts can profoundly disrupt or destroy their relationships with their loved ones and friends. Their addiction also draws in more criminal activity into their neighbourhoods. It harms public health and safety.

A growing challenge for workplace management

Given the growing social acceptance of cocaine in Australia today, there’s hardly any sector of the country that’s safe from its influence.

And it’s hard to discern who does or doesn’t require cocaine addiction rehab. You can’t tell simply by looking at their appearance. For instance, at one luxury rehabilitation clinic in Queensland called The Banyans, it’s not unusual to see well-dressed and respectable-looking patients. They check themselves in for cocaine addiction treatment.

“The average patient looks like someone that you work with in the office day-to-day,” remarks Ruth Limkin, The Banyans chief executive. “And you may have no idea they have developed a dependency.”

Ideally, we would like to eradicate Australia’s cocaine habit. However, at this stage, businesses will be wise to include drug testing into their workplace safety programs. Without it, there is no telling who is affected.

Proper testing for cocaine

In addition to that, detecting cocaine use can be difficult. According to Safework Health national chief toxicologist Dr Phil Tynan, not just any urine drug test will do.

“Cocaine itself, the parent drug, has only a short detection window in urine of between 1 to 5 hours,” Tynan warns. “Oral fluid is not an ideal sample for cocaine testing, either. The drug may only be detected up to 24 hours after use.”

Therefore, it’s best to employ the services of a reputable drug testing company. They can test for the presence of the cocaine metabolite BZE (Benzoylecgonine). This metabolite has a long window of detection between 2 to 4 days on average, after a standard 100mg dose.

Dr Tynan is somewhat bemused that many people aren’t aware of how scientifically robust the method is.

“One excuse often given by positive cocaine donors is that they recently had a medical or dental procedure involving procaine,” he says. “But despite the similarity in name, procaine and its derivatives do not get metabolized to cocaine. These cannot be confused for cocaine or its metabolites.”

Thus, it’s also better for companies to plan for periodic cocaine metabolite tests. It can better identify any problems among employees. It really is the only way for your business to cope with the prevalence of cocaine abuse. At the very least, you control its spread where still you can – and keep your workplace safe.


The Baggaley case and other arrests:

  1. Nathan Baggaley: Olympian tried to smuggle $150m of cocaine – BBC News. (2021, April 1). BBC News; BBC News.
  2. Siganto, T. (2021, April 1). Olympian Nathan Baggaley and brother found guilty of failed $200m cocaine smuggling plot – ABC News. ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation); ABC News.
  3. Rendall, J. (2021, February 22). Mother jailed over helping son flee Australia to avoid drug trafficking charges – ABC News. ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation); ABC News.
  4. Sydney News: Men arrested over cocaine syndicate Sydney. (2021, March 30). 9News – Latest News and Headlines from Australia and the World; 9News.
  5. Gyte, S. (2021, March 25). Nathan Baggaley: Former Olympic hero and brother face drug smuggling charges. 9News – Latest News and Headlines from Australia and the World; 9News.
  6. Partridge, E. (2021, February 16). Sydney News: Olympic swimmer Scott Miller charged with “directing” criminal drug syndicate. 9News – Latest News and Headlines from Australia and the World; 9News.
  7. Gibbs, N. (2021, March 22). Cocaine plot trial shown air surveillance | The Macleay Argus | Kempsey, NSW. The Macleay Argus;
  8. Visentin, L. (2015, December 18). Olympic kayaker Nathan Baggaley jailed for role in drug syndicate. Brisbane Times; Brisbane Times.
  9. Irby, R. (2009, June 5). The rise and fall of Baggaley. The Daily Telegraph; Nationwide News Pty Ltd.

Australia’s drug / cocaine problem:

  1. Nichols, S. (2020, November 6). How Sydney Became Australia’s Cocaine Capital. VICE – World News; Vice Media Group.
  2. White, V. (2019, February 25). Australia needs a new strategy to deal with illicit drug use | The Strategist. The Strategist; Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
  3. Coyne, J. (2019, May 1). Australia has a drug problem. Policy Forum – Asia & the Pacific Policy Society; Asia & the Pacific Policy Society.
  4. Twelfth wastewater report reveals Australians waste more than $8.9 billion a year on drugs. (2021, February 25). Mirage News; Mirage.News.
  5. National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program – Report 12. (2021, February). Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC); Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC).
  6. Hunter, F., & Ward, M. (2021, April 4). Sydney and cocaine: an illicit love affair for the ages. The Sydney Morning Herald; The Sydney Morning Herald.
  7. O’Brien, M. S., & Anthony, J. C. (2005). Risk of Becoming Cocaine Dependent: Epidemiological Estimates for the United States, 2000–2001. Neuropsychopharmacology5, 1006–1018.
  8. How Addiction Affects the Family – Addiction Center. (n.d.). Addiction Center; Recovery Worldwide, LLC. Retrieved May 28, 2021, from
  9. Economic consequences of drug abuse (Chapter 1). (2013). INCB Report ; International Narcotics Control Board.
  10. de la Torre, R., Ortuño, J., Luisa González, M., Farré, M., Camí, J., & Segura, J. (1995). Determination of cocaine and its metabolites in human urine by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry after simultaneous use of cocaine and ethanol. Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis3, 305–312.

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