The discovery of a clandestine drug lab in Hume and the seizure of 2.5 tonnes of chemicals used to make ecstasy has been hailed as "extremely significant" by police, but criminologists warn the operation will have a limited long-term impact on the drug market.
A tip-off from WorkSafe ACT led police to the Sheppard Street drug lab on Tuesday afternoon, where they uncovered chemicals and equipment capable of producing "many, many millions of dollars' [worth]" of ecstasy.
According to statistics from the Australian Crime Commission, it was the first drug lab found in the ACT in two years and only the third since 2008.
Later on Tuesday night, 35-year-old Lyneham resident Stanley Hou was arrested by members of Taskforce Nemesis, a group dedicated to investigating outlaw motorcyclists and organised crime.
While ACT police would not comment on whether the bust might impact on the availability and cost of ecstasy on ACT streets, a spokeswoman described the discovery as "extremely significant" given the value of the materials.
"The quantity of MDMA which could be produced by this amount of chemical could have a street value of many millions of dollars," the ACT Policing spokeswoman said
Roderic Broadhurst, chief investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security at the Australian National University, said the Hume drug lab was most likely associated with some sort of organised crime group given the scale and quantities involved.
"These drugs were most likely destined for the east coast market rather than solely here in Canberra," Professor Broadhurst said. "The big market for these types of drugs is always going to be in Sydney and Melbourne but it also depends on the intentions of those involved."
Professor Broadhurst said it was not uncommon for organised drug operations to ship drugs as far west as Perth although that would depend on the motivation of leaders and whether they were running a wholesale operation.
Dr Tim Legrand, a lecturer at the National Security College at the ANU, said the operation underlined the "growing sophistication in investigating illicit drug laboratories, which are notoriously difficult to locate".
Dr Legrand said while the police seizure may push up MDMA prices for a short time it was unlikely to radically disrupt supply, which stems largely from overseas.
"According to the [Australian Crime Commission], the vast majority of MDMA in Australia is sourced from overseas," he said. "The illicit drug market abhors a vacuum."
Only seven MDMA drug laboratories were discovered in Australia in 2012-13, compared with 544 which produced amphetamine-type substances (excluding MDMA).
Detections of MDMA on the Australian border soared in the 2012-13 financial year, rising by about 329 per cent compared with the previous year, the majority of which were in parcels coming from overseas.
According to the Australian Crime Commission, seizures for amphetamine-type substances rose in the ACT over the past two years, while 2012/13 had the largest amount of the substance seized in at least 10 years.
Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said the seizure would have little if any impact on the Australian drug market regardless of any market value.
"I wish law enforcement every success in their futile endeavours," he said. "The drug market is a market economy and the two major forces are price and demand. Of course there are other factors like availability and purity, but when there is a strong demand and no legal source then someone else will provide."
Dr Wodak said the ultimate success of the operation would depend on what happens to the price, purity and accessibility of drugs in coming months.