Use, Harm and Policy Responses

Current Issues

Illicit Drugs in Australia: Use, Harm and Policy Responses

E-Brief: Online Only issued 17 May 2004

Kate Burton, 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 illicit drugs.

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:

New South Wales
South Australia
Western Australia
Northern Territory
Australian Capital Territory

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 drug.

The Australian Drug Foundation website has a comprehensive set of links to a wide range of specific illicit drugs.

The Australian Crime Commission produces annually the Australian Illicit Drug Report. It contains information about, amongst other things, widely-used drugs in Australia and their effects.

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 section on several illicit drugs, how they are used and their effects. See also the paper s Glossary.

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 Terminology and Information on Drugs. It contains useful information on the chemical properties and manufacturing process of various illicit drugs.


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 drug mis/use.

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.

The National 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 results.

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.

Drug Use 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 its 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 US.

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, The State 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 prevalence of drug use (this link is to the 2002-03 report). Other relevant Home Office publications include:


Canadian profile 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 Canadian alcohol and other drugs survey will be reported in 2004.

New Zealand

This link will take you to the New Zealand Health Information Service publication, New Zealand Drug Statistics 2001.


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 community.

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 report:

See NDARC s reports page for a full list of these and other studies.

A number of reports commissioned under the auspices of the National Drug Strategy address drug-related harms. See especially: Counting the cost: estimates of the social costs of drug abuse in Australia in 1998-9 reports on the social costs of drug abuse in Australia. It presents estimates of the costs of illicit drugs (as well as tobacco and alcohol) for financial year 1998-9; and The Health and Psychological Effects of Cannabis Use (2001). Other monographs can be found here.

In September 2003 the Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs tabled its Report on an Inquiry into Substance Abuse in Australian Communities. Various submissions also provide information on different aspects of drug-related harm.

A Parliamentary Library publication entitled Reforming the Old and Refining the New: A Critical Overview of Australian Approaches to Cannabis contains a useful section on the potential harms, costs and health benefits of cannabis.


Australian policy and legislative framework


Commonwealth laws criminalise the import and export of certain drugs (including narcotics and cannabis). State and Territory laws criminalise the possession, use and supply of illicit drugs.

Commonwealth legislation covering illicit drugs can be found through the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department (SCALEplus) while State and Territory legislation can be accessed via the SCALEplus website here.

However the links below, on the Australian Institute of Criminology s website, take you directly to the relevant legislation.


New South Wales



South Australia

Western Australia


Northern Territory

Australian Capital Territory

Other initiatives at Commonwealth and State and Territory level affect law and order issues related to drug use.

  • 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 conviction.
  • 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

The National Illicit Drug Strategy Tough on drugs was launched in November 1997 by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, as part of the National Drug 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 areas:

  1. Treatment of users of illicit drugs, including identification of best practice.
  2. Prevention of illicit drug use.
  3. Training and skills development for front line workers who come into contact with drug users or at risk groups.
  4. Monitoring and evaluation, including data collection.
  5. Research.

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 programs.

Commonwealth programs aimed at demand and harm reduction can be found by scrolling down this page.

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 Australia s 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 treatment.

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 (ATOS).

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 here.

The NSW 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 here.

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 prevention in minimising harms associated with drug use. It also published a paper called Best Practice in the Diversion of Alcohol and Other Drug Offenders in 1996.

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 1997.


The National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology and the World Health Organisation published in 2002 Prevention of 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.

Forward 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 the Australian 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).

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) website contains a wealth of information on illicit drugs, including on production and trafficking. Its 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 production.

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 transport.

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 information.


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 Nations.

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 Drug Strategy.

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 field.

Health Canada is the focal point for Canada s Drug Strategy.

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 drugs.

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 databases.

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.


The Drug 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.

The Virtual 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 and topics.

United Nations 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 internationally.

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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