Seaborne Cargoes Boost Australia's Illicit Ketamine Trade to New Record

Operation Woodgate ketamine seizure
Courtesy AFP

Published Mar 3, 2024 4:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

Authorities in Australia have seized a record amount of illicit ketamine over the course of the past year, raising concerns that organized crime groups are putting new emphasis on this sedative drug. Wastewater trace testing confirms that Australians are using the substance at higher levels than ever before. 

In 2023, border officials seized nearly 900 kilos of ketamine, the majority imported by sea. This is nearly double the imports seized the year before. 

84 kilos of ketamine were found hidden inside two brand-new commercial delivery vans on a Sydney-bound ship last summer. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) received a tip-off about the vans several months in advance, and they met the vessel in Melbourne to examine the cargo. They found 79 bags of ketamine concealed inside the vans, and they seized the drugs and replaced them with dummy packets before the ship headed onwards to Sydney. They intercepted the recipients of the drug packets outside of Sydney and arrested three men on charges of importing a commercial quantity of controlled drugs. 

In July, AFP agents seized the largest shipment of ketamine in Australia's history - 80 kilos of the drug concealed in 360 buckets of cement in a seaborne shipment. The drugs came from Spain, and the Spanish authorities tipped off AFP agents about the suspicious shipment. Agents retrieved another 80 kilos that had been buried and hidden at a nearby address, plus another 14 kilos in a storage facility. Three men were arrested in connection with the record-setting bust. 

“Ketamine is a dangerous and illicit sedative. Its dissociative effects block sensory brain signals and can cause memory loss, feelings of being detached from one’s body and prevent their ability to perceive danger,” AFP Detective-Superintendent Anthony Hall said. “Unfortunately, in Australia, an average of 40 people are admitted to hospitals every week as a result of experiencing the harm caused by drug use.”

The seaborne shipments were the largest and best-publicized, but small quantities also trickle in via passenger travel. Australian Border Force (ABF) agents routinely seize ketamine from passenger luggage and arrest suspects for importing the substance.