Illicit Drugs in Australia: Use, Harm and Policy Responses
E-Brief: Online Only issued 17 May 2004
Analysis and Policy
Social Policy Section
Illicit drugs attract a high level of political and social
interest in Australia. While this means there is an abundance of
information on the subject in print and online it also makes it
difficult to find reliable information quickly on particular
aspects of the illicit drug issue. This e-brief is intended as a
navigational tool for accessing reliable and, for the most part,
objective and up-to-date data and analysis on the subject of
The e-brief is divided into the following sections:
What are illicit drugs? A guide to websites that define
and describe specific illicit drugs and their effects, as reported
by users and from medical and psychological perspectives.
Patterns of use. Links to sites that attempt to quantify
patterns of illicit drug use, in Australia and overseas.
Drug-related costs and harms. Links to research which
attempts to quantify the costs borne by governments and the
communityas a result of illicit drug use, as well as to studies of
morbidity and mortality associated with illicit drug use.
Australian legislative and policy framework. A guide to
relevant Commonwealth legislation and statements on the
Commonwealth s illicit drug strategy.
Evaluations of policy approaches and drug programs. Links
to Australian and overseas critiques of different policy approaches
to illicit drugs, and to evaluations of programs designed to reduce
or remove illicit drug use or the harms associated with it.
Global drug production and trafficking. Sites that
provide information about where illicit drugs are produced,
trafficking routes and methods and destination countries.
The international drug control framework.. Links to
international bodies that address illicit drugs, the international
conventions and background material on the development of
international drug control.
Drug policies of other countries. Links to the national
drug strategy pages of several countries.
Other links. Provides links to other Australian and
overseas documents and sources of information on illicit drugs.
What are illicit drugs?
Laws concerning the possession, supply and manufacture of
illicit drugs are largely the remit of States and Territories. But
the Commonwealth also has an important legal role as a consequence
of its powers over imports and exports and by virtue of
international treaty obligations. As a consequence illicit drugs
are defined slightly differently in each jurisdiction.
The Commonwealth Narcotic
Drugs Act 1967 implements, in Australia, the Single
Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961. The Narcotic Drugs Act defines
'drug' by reference to the Convention, which is reproduced in the
First Schedule to the Act.
State and Territory legislation also lists the drugs and
substances prohibited in each jurisdiction. Click on the state or
territory to find links to the relevant acts:
The remainder of this section contains links to information
about specific illicit drugs what they are what they do. Each link
was selected because it provides accurate and reliable information
on one or more of the following:
chemical properties of specific drugs
the social context in which specific drugs
are often taken and the effects described by users
the potential harms associated with each
The Australian Drug
Foundation website has a comprehensive set of links to a wide
range of specific
The Australian Crime Commission produces annually the
Illicit Drug Report. It contains information about,
amongst other things, widely-used drugs in Australia and their
Fact Sheets by the University of New South Wales National Drug
and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC). NDARC is funded by the
Commonwealth Government as part of the National Drug Strategy.
A Parliamentary Library publication, Illicit Drugs, their
Use and the Law in Australia, contains a useful
on several illicit drugs, how they are used and their effects. See
also the paper s
ABC Online contains a series of pages on heroin. This
page explains the chemistry behind heroin s effects and what
users xperience after taking the drug.
The UN s Scientific Section has published a monograph called
and Information on Drugs. It contains useful information
on the chemical properties and manufacturing process of various
Patterns of use
A number of agencies conduct regular surveys of drug use in
Australia. Some are geared exclusively to illicit drug consumption
while others present illicit drug use data in the context of
overall drug use (most often, tobacco, nicotine and alcohol). The
latter studies are useful for gaining a perspective on the scale of
illicit drug use in relation to use and abuse of licit substances.
The significance of these kinds of comparisons is evident in the
section below, Drug-related harms , which contains links to studies
which compare the economic and social costs of licit and illicit
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) conducts
and publishes the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. It
explores the opinions and perceptions of Australians aged 14 years
and over on a variety of drug-related issues, including personal
approval of drug use, the impact of drugs on the general community
and on mortality, and their perceptions of health risk from alcohol
and tobacco consumption. The latest is the National
Drug Strategy Household Survey 2001.
The AIHW also publishes
Statistics on Drug Use in Australia (this link is to the
2002 publication). It includes data on patterns of drug use
(including trends and attitudes to use), international comparisons,
drugs and health, special population groups, crime and law
enforcement, polydrug use and drug avoidance and moderation.
Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) is conducted each year in
every state and territory by participating research institutions
throughout the country. The survey is co-ordinated and the results
published by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC).
A document which explains the development and achievements of the
IDRS is available through the NDARC website
here. A summary of findings of the 2002 IDRS are
here while those of previous years can be accessed via NDARC s
monographs page. NDARC s quarterly Bulletins
provide a detailed discussion of different aspects of the IDRS
NDARC s Technical Reports series also includes data on
drug use by State and Territory (these are towards the bottom
of the web page).
The Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia website
contains links to statistics on
alcohol and other drug use in Australia.
Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) is a project which seeks to
measure drug use among those people who have been recently
apprehended by police. Data from DUMA is used to examine issues
such as the relationship between drugs and property and violent
crime, monitor patterns of drug use across time, and help assess
the need for drug treatment amongst the offender population. The
DUMA program is a partnership between the Australian Institute of
Criminology (AIC), State Police Services and local researchers.
The United Nations publishes an annual survey of trends in
illicit drug production and use called Global
Illicit Drug Trends. The latest is 2003. See also
Ecstasy and Amphetamines Global Survey 2003.
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) publishes an
annual report which
includes trends in drug use around the world.
The US Department of Health and Human Service publishes an
annual National Survey on
Drug Use and Health (the latest is 2002).
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse publishes the results of
annual surveys on Trends in
Drug Use and Related Factors amongst young people in the
The National Drug Intelligence Centre in the US publishes an
annual National Drug
Threat Assessment (the latest is 2004). The document examines
consumption trends for major drugs in the US.
The European Centre for
Monitoring Drugs and Drug Addiction publishes an Annual Report,
of the Drugs Problem in the European Union and Norway, which
contains information about drug use trends in those countries. It
also contains links to
national reports for the individual countries.
The Home Office in the UK publishes findings from the
British Crime Survey which includes statistics on the
drug use (this link is to the 2002-03 report). Other relevant
Home Office publications include:
1999 provides the latest published statistical tables and
analyses for consumption patterns, mortality and morbidity trends,
economic impact, crime, and the law related to the use of alcohol,
tobacco and other drugs in Canada. Findings from an updated
alcohol and other drugs survey will be reported in 2004.
link will take you to the New Zealand Health Information
Service publication, New Zealand Drug Statistics
Drug-related costs and harms
It is not possible to quantify the exact cost of illicit drug
use to the Australian community. Some components can be measured
directly, such as government expenditure through the National
Illicit Drug Strategy, but many of the social costs borne by the
community, such as the extra cost of welfare, health and law and
order services, can only be estimated. In addition, a number of
costs associated with illicit drug use are not quantifiable, such
as pain and suffering resulting from a reduced quality of life.
Nevertheless a number of studies attempt to quantify some of the
costs of drug use, including social costs. Many also examine how
these costs compare with the costs of licit drug use in the
In contrast to assessing the costs of drug use, drug-related
harms are slightly easier to quantify at least in terms of physical
harms such as overdose deaths and drug-related hospital separations
and this is reflected in the range of data and studies regularly
published on the subject.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) publishes
a number of reports that deal with different aspects of illicit
drug-related harms. See:
In 2003 the Victorian Premier s Drug Prevention Council
published Estimating the
Cost of Heroin use in Victoria.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) also
publishes a range of studies on drug-related harms. Clicking on the
following titles will take you to the executive summary for each
The possession of small quantities of
cannabis and cultivation of defined numbers of plants has been
decriminalised in a number of Australian jurisdictions: South
Australia, Western Australia, the Northern territory and the ACT.
In these jurisdictions, expiation/infringement notices can be
issued by the police when a person is found in possession of a
small amount of cannabis or growing a defined number of plants.
Payment of the expiation or infringement notice fine means that the
person avoids going to court and the possibility of a criminal
Diversionary programs operate under the
Illicit Drug Diversion Initiative
, which is part of the
Australian Government's national approach to early intervention and
prevention of illicit drug use. Under the national framework to
tackle illicit drug use agreed by all Australian States and
Territories, police and courts have the formal power to divert drug
users to education, assessment or treatment. The primary objective
of the Drug Diversion program is to increase incentives for drug
users to identify and treat their illicit drug use early. See the
Australian Institute o f Criminology s publication, Australian
Approaches to Drug-Crime Diversion
(2004), for a
description of the five main types of diversionary programs
operating in Australian jurisdictions.
Drug Courts are specialist courts that deal
with offenders who are dependent on drugs. They have been trialled
in the United Kingdom, Canada and several Australian jurisdictions,
though the Drug
Court of New South Wales
(NSW) is the first Drug Court to be
trialled and evaluated in Australia. As a result of the evaluations
it was decided to continue the pilot program.
Commonwealth policy framework
National Illicit Drug Strategy Tough on drugs was launched in
November 1997 by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, as part of the
Strategy (NDS) which has been in existence in one form or
another since 1985 (it was re-named in 1993 having been known as
the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse). The Strategy is based on
a harm minimisation approach which refers to policies and programs
aimed at reducing drug-related harm. This approach recognises the
need to seek a balance between supply reduction, demand reduction
and harm reduction strategies.
Supply reduction measures aim at intercepting illicit drugs at
borders and within Australia, and are implemented by the
Commonwealth law enforcement agencies. The Australian Federal
Police maintains a webpage with information about its drug
operations as well as drug awareness generally.
Demand reduction measures cover the following five priority
Treatment of users of illicit drugs,
including identification of best practice.
Prevention of illicit drug use.
Training and skills development for front
line workers who come into contact with drug users or at risk
Monitoring and evaluation, including data
Harm reduction includes a range of targeted strategies designed
to reduce drug-related harm for particular individuals and
communities. It aims to reduce the harmful consequences of drugs
when consumption cannot be further reduced. Examples of harm
reduction activities are methadone treatment and needle syringe
Commonwealth programs aimed at demand and harm reduction can be
found by scrolling down this
Australia s drug control and demand reduction also has an
international dimension. The global, regional and bilateral aspects
of this are discussed in the Department of Foreign Affairs
International Drug Strategy.
A description of Australia s policy
response to illicit drugs from 1985 to the present can be found
on the Australian Institute of Criminology website. Another good
account of the development of Australian illicit drug laws is in a
Parliamentary Library publication titled Illicit
Drugs, their Use and the Law in Australia.
Alternatives approaches and evaluations
Australian evaluations of approaches
to dealing with illicit drugs including prevention and treatment
options historically have focused more on opioids than on other
illicit drugs. The reasons include the strong demand for treatment
for opioid dependency, the fact that opioid dependence is a risk
factor for premature death from overdose and infectious disease,
public spending on this type of treatment, and continuing debate
about the legitimacy, effectiveness and safety of maintenance
Over the last few years, though, there has been recognition of
the need for more evaluations, particularly at the national level,
of prevention programs, treatment options and enforcement
alternatives for a range of illicit drugs.
In 2001 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)
published a commissioned report called The Role of
Families in the Development, Identification, Prevention and
Treatment of Illicit Drug Problems, which looks at risk
and protective factors for youth drug abuse. Another commissioned
report, review of the Current
State of Research on Illicit Drugs in Australia, was published
by the NHMRC in 1998.
The Druginfo Clearinghouse website, an Australian Drug
Foundation initiative, has links to Prevention
Research Evaluation Reports, which include evaluations of a
range of drug prevention programs.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre co-ordinated the
Australian Treatment Outcomes Study, the first large-scale
longitudinal study of treatment outcomes for heroin dependence
conducted in Australia. In 2003 it published
Three month outcomes for the treatment of heroin dependence:
Findings from the Australian Treatment Outcome Study
The Sydney Medically
Supervised Injecting Centre published its Final
report on the evaluation of the Medically Supervised Injecting
Centre in 2003.
The Commonwealth-funded Community
Partnerships Initiative aims to encourage quality
practice in community action to prevent illicit drug use, address
it where it occurs and to build on existing activity occurring
across Australia. See the
Final Report of the Evaluation of the Community Partnerships
Initiative, released in 2002.
A 2002 report
Return on investment in Needle and Syringe Programs is an
evaluation of economic effectiveness (or financial return on
investment) of needle and syringe programs (NSPs) in Australia. The
study updates and expands an earlier study which investigated the
effectiveness and cost effectiveness of needle and syringe programs
in relation to HIV/AIDS.
A good description of various heroin treatment options can be
found on the ABC Online website
here. A related page discusses law
and order options for dealing with heroin dependency, including
the use of drug courts.
In 2002 the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research released
its evaluation of the NSW drug court trial. The full report is
Drug Court aims to help drug-dependent offenders overcome both
their drug dependence and criminal offending. A series of
evaluations the latest published in 2002 are available online
In 2001 the Australian National
Council on Drugs published
Evidence Supporting Treatment: the effectiveness of interventions
for illicit drug use. It summarises research information
drawn from major reviews of the effectiveness of clinical
interventions for illicit drugs.
In 1998, funding was provided to undertake the
National Evaluation of Pharmacotherapies for Opioid Dependence
(NEPOD) project a comparative evaluation of the outcomes of a range
of trials of opioid detoxification and maintenance treatments
conducted by various States and Territories. The NEPOD project was
completed in 2001.
The Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, Australia s
peak body for the alcohol and other drugs sector, has published
fact sheets on treatment
options for alcohol and other drug problems and the role of
minimising harms associated with drug use. It also published a
paper called Best
Practice in the Diversion of Alcohol and Other Drug Offenders
In 1999 the Parliamentary Library published research by Paul
Mackey into alternative
treatments for heroin addiction. The paper s focus is on the
status of Australian trials at the time the paper was published,
and so does not necessarily include outcomes. But it is a useful
guide to the range of
treatments available for heroin addiction which had been trialled
in Australian states and territories up to 1999.
An evaluation of the National Drug Strategy National
Drug Strategy: Mapping the Future was conducted in
The National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of
Technology and the World Health Organisation published in 2002
Psychoactive Substance Use: A Selected review of What Works in the
Area of Prevention.
The International Harm Reduction Association is primarily an
education and advocacy organisation which aims to encourage the
adoption of evidence based and cost effective prevention and
treatment strategies. Its
website has links to discussion papers on harm reduction,
including the relationship of harm reduction to law enforcement and
approaches to treatment using a harm reduction approach.
Thinking on Drugs was commissioned to bring together the
evidence base on drug control measures at the global and national
levels for delegates ahead of an April 2003 review of United
Nations progress in combating the global drug problem.
The evidence-based reviews covered three main areas:
Global production and trafficking
The Australian Crime Commission produces an annual report called
Illicit Drug Report. It includes information about the
origins of particular drugs and the ways they enter Australia, as
well as statistical data on arrests and drug seizures, drug purity
and drug prices.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has published
Global and Australian heroin markets (2003).
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) website contains a
wealth of information on illicit drugs, including on production and
Global Illicit Drug Trends series consists of annual
reports and the latest, 2003, can be accessed here. UNODC
also provides information on its
Illicit Crop Monitoring Program, which monitors opium and coca
The Central Intelligence Agency s web-based World
Factbook provides information on the illicit drug production,
transit and destination status of individual countries.
The National Drug Intelligence Centre in the US publishes an
annual National Drug
Threat Assessment (the latest is 2004). The document examines
for major drugs their demand, availability, production and
The Interpol website also
discusses developments in illicit drug production and trafficking.
Click on the links to pages on cannabis,
cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs for drug-specific
The International drug control framework
Over the last 80 years, a worldwide system for control of drugs
of abuse has developed gradually through the adoption of a series
of international treaties. The important multilateral conventions
currently in force, and to which Australia is a party, are:
For a thorough overview of their background and the negotiations
about the conventions, see
The History and Development of the Leading International Drug
Control Conventions, a paper prepared for the Canadian Special
Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also
compiled a library of
international drug control-related resolutions and decisions
adopted by the UN General Assembly, its Economic and Social Council
and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
The International Narcotics Control Board
(INCB) is the independent and
quasi-judicial control organ for the implementation of the United
Nations drug conventions, established in 1968 by the Single
Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. It had predecessors under the
former drug conventions since the time of the League of
There has been some discussion in recent years of whether the
international drug control system, as expressed through the UN
conventions, is keeping pace with developments in drug control in
individual countries particularly moves away from zero tolerance
towards harm minimisation approaches. The Transnational
Institute hosts a Drugs and democracy website which has useful
links to internet resources on issues surrounding global drug
control see especially the Links by scrolling down the index on the
left side of the page.
Drug policies of other countries
The National Drug Policy website for New Zealand is here.
The US Office of National Drug Control Policy website contains
The President s National Drug Control Strategy (2004).
The UK Home Office oversees that country s National
The European Legal Database
on Drugs contains links to the drug policies of specific EU
countries, as well as policy
briefings on the latest developments and trends in the drug
Health Canada is the focal point for Canada s Drug
The Australian Institute of Criminology provides a brief
description of and links to references relating to the drug policies
of several other countries.
Other relevant links
The Australian National Council on Drugs website has links to a number of
organisations and sites that deal with drug-related issues.
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research produces reports
on a range of
drug and law enforcement issues.
The Australian Drug
Foundation is an independent non-profit organisation which aims
to prevent and reduce problems associated with alcohol and other
drugs. It supports the Druginfo Clearinghouse, whose website
features links to online alcohol and
drug libraries and databases in Australia and overseas.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is the national
agency for health and welfare statistics and information.
This link is to its list of publications on alcohol and other
The Australian Institute of Criminology website has a
comprehensive section on alcohol and illicit drugs
in Australia. It contains research conducted by the Institute
as well as links and references to other published material.
The National Drug
Research Institute, based at Curtin University in Western
Australia, contains publications and links to other drugs
The health pages at ABC Online features a site on heroin,
which includes links to a range of heroin-relates issues including
law enforcement, the heroin trade and discussion about prohibition
versus harm minimisation.
An information document on the Current State of Research on
Illicit Drugs in Australia (1999) is available on the National
Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) website here.
The National Drug Strategy commissions and publishes monographs
on a range of drug-related issues.
Policy Research Centre, within RAND Corporation, promotes a
strong research base to the development of drug policy. Its website
contains up-to-date research on a range of drug issues, much of
which is online but includes comprehensive references to articles
in peer-reviewed journals.
Clearinghouse on Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs provides
policy and practice information published on sites across the web.
It was created and is maintained by partner organisations in
Europe, the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa.
World Health Organization s Drug
and Narcotic Control page has links to descriptions of
activities, reports, news and events, as well as contacts and
cooperating partners in the various WHO programmes and offices
working on this topic. Also shown are links to related web sites
International Drug Control Programme
European Monitoring Centre for
Drugs and Drug Addiction provides information on different
aspects of illicit drugs in Europe.
DrugScope in the UK
is an independent centre that aims to inform policy development and
reduce drug-related risk.
The Drug War
Chronicle is an on-line drug policy newsletter focused on the
consequences of prohibition. It is a useful source for keeping
track of drug-related developments in the US and
The Senlis Council
was established in 2002 to provide a forum for high-level policy
discussion of global drug policy. Its website contains up to date
information and analysis of changes to drug laws around the world
as well as other drug-related issues.
For copyright reasons some linked
items are only available to Members of Parliament.
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