The war and law on Australia's drugs

Australians are more ready than ever to risk it all for a high. To understand our nation’s growing drug habit, and know how to combat it, we need a bit more science.

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Australia has a worldwide reputation for sunny beaches, barbecues, and dangerous wildlife. We’ve made our mark with ground-breaking inventions and have produced countless sporting champions. There are, of course, aspects in every nation’s history that it’s not proud of, but the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report brought into the spotlight one which had so far remained quiet. When it comes to the consumption of illicit drugs, Australia is among the top offenders; in the latest 2016 report we remained at the forefront, claiming among the highest rates of methamphetamine and recreational drug use in the world. With these astonishing figures, the way to combat our growing drug habit requires science, education, and a healthy dose of bravery.

Back in 2013, over 2000 young Australians were surveyed about their personal drug history by the Australian National Council on Drugs. Of those surveyed, 95% had consumed alcohol in their lifetime, 72% had consumed cannabis, 72% ecstasy, and 41% hallucinogens. 90% of these same young Australians agreed that treatment should be available to all drug users according to their needs, and showed a general overall opposition to today’s drug laws. In March this year, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released a National Wastewater Drug Monitoring report covering approximately 58% of the population. The report found that methamphetamine use was at a historical high.

Evidently, drug use is overwhelmingly common in Australia, especially among our youth, but the manufacture, sale, possession, and consumption of illegal drugs is still, well, illegal. So if Australians are so ready to risk the heavy penalties, where did these laws come from, and what do we do about them from here?

When and why did illicit drugs become illicit?

In Australia, the declaration of strict prohibition policies against certain drugs was largely a result of following in the footsteps of our older siblings, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act in the US required all purveyors of narcotic drugs to label them with the accurate ingredients and ‘serving suggestions’ – such as recommended doses and what not to mix them with – similar to food product labels we see today. In 1925 the US supported the regulation of cannabis as a drug, but in 1937 they introduced a tax that was in effect a total ban. It is largely agreed that this was a thinly veiled attempt to control Mexican immigrants to the US after the Mexican War. Public perception, the ‘gateway’ drug theory, and the crafty work of a post-prohibition enforcement officer with the head of a major newspaper company, created sufficient racist hysteria against marijuana – even though cannabis, as the US knew it, had happily been used medicinally for years prior.

In the early 20th century, a change in public perception disrupted the path of cannabis regulation.   deviat_d/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the early 20th century, a change in public perception disrupted the path of cannabis regulation. deviat_d/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


But marijuana was not a standalone case, and simply followed the same dark path that opiates and cocaine did years earlier. Heroin was outlawed in 1875 after Chinese men were accused of assaulting white women in opium dens, and fear spread by Southern white Americans surrounding the drug young black men smoked after the Civil War meant cocaine was deemed illegal in the early 1900s. The UK was a little behind the US, and significantly more forgiving, only installing drug regulation policies in 1928.

In 1961 the UN held its first Convention on Narcotic Drugs, shortly followed by the US government putting a stop to any scientific evaluation of the medical benefits of these drugs. Around this time, international pressures rather than domestic problems in the UK led them to criminalise cannabis possession in the Dangerous Drugs Act, and criminalise all amphetamines in the Regulation of Misuse Act. Australia, under harsh scrutiny for our exorbitantly high figures relating to heroin use, followed suit in the complete prohibition of all illicit drugs. By June of 1971, Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs.

The problem in Australia today, according to Associate Professor at the National Drug Research Institute Nicole Lee, is that the term ‘illicit’ depends on which state’s jurisdiction you happen to be under. “For example, South Australia essentially has a mandatory depenalisation system where if you get caught with small amount of any [illicit] drug, the police will divert you to assessment for treatment or education. But if you don't go to that or you commit another drug related offence, then you may come back and criminal charges might be laid as well,” she explained. “So the system’s a little bit complex.”

In fact, most states except New South Wales have depenalised or decriminalised cannabis and other drugs, and have diversion options for those caught with possession. “So the complexity in the system is that there’s different legislation, it’s all state-based, and it doesn’t always correspond with other state-based legislation,” Lee said.

Where does Australia stand?

The National Drug Strategy, established in 1985, originally existed to focus on four major points surrounding illicit and non-illicit drug use: Education and training, treatment and rehabilitation, research and information, and control and enforcement. As of 2004 the four-pillared strategy was narrowed down to a three-pillared strategy, encompassing the broader ideals of harm minimisation, supply, and demand.

Most of the controversy surrounding our drug policies is caused by the misconception that these focus points are new, when in fact none of these pillars present new ideas. Harm minimisation promotes the idea of creating safer, reduced-risk environments for the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs, as well as readily available treatment and rehabilitation facilities.

In 1987, the National Drug Strategy approved the introduction of the Needle and Syringe Program, the core aims of which are to reduce HIV and Hepatitis C in Australia. After initial opposition from the public at installing safe injection facilities, the program significantly reduced the amount of people contracting these diseases in the 20 years since it launched by providing injecting drug users with safe, sterile environments and disposal methods. The program is a direct product of the harm minimisation goal.

One aspect of the current harm minimisation debate lies in whether drug checking, more commonly termed pill testing, should be made available at music festivals. President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Dr Alex Wodak, is at the forefront of the campaign to provide pill testing facilities, and he is supported by doctors, senior police figures, harm minimisation groups, and a number of other members of parliament – along with 82% of young Australians. The idea of pill testing is already well established in some parts of the world. Countries such as the Netherlands, Austria and Portugal have all made pill testing and educational facilities available at music festivals, with successful results in harm reduction.

Support for pill testing at music festivals is growing in Australia.   Eva Rinaldi/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Support for pill testing at music festivals is growing in Australia. Eva Rinaldi/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


But the implications for pill testing don’t just stop at festivals and, conveniently enough, break into another pillar of the National Drug strategy – that of supply restriction. “Interestingly,” said Lee, “[pill testing] appears to regulate what’s in the drug, so it improves the quality of the drug because people know the market is ... more regulated. Even though it’s still illegal, the dealers won’t get repeat business if they’re known to be selling drugs that are not safe.”

Following the wave of festivals over the Australian summer, several drug-related incidents have circulated the public eye, from deaths following ‘bad batches’ of MDMA sold at nightclubs, to overdoses and deaths at festivals. In response to the MDMA-related deaths, VICE media took to the streets to conduct an MDMA census, testing pills in cities across the country. The survey showed that of the substances tested, MDMA was certainly not the most common result. While the survey was far from complete or scientific, it is the most thorough one conducted since 2005, highlighting a significant gap in our knowledge of what drugs are out there, how Australians are consuming them, and the lack of research being done to make them safer.

Of course, testing is not a blanket solution to the dangers of taking drugs, and many in law enforcement are concerned that endorsing pill testing may be translated as endorsing drug use. A Victoria Police spokesperson, Chantelle Miller, stated that the issue is not exactly black and white, and “raises a number of legal and health issues that require consideration, as the supply of illicit substances remains illegal and the consumption of these substances is potentially harmful.” They also explained that the data for the effectiveness of pill testing within Australia is currently limited, and while it may be able to identify the presence of a class of drug, it may not be a clear identification of purity, toxicity, or other present components.

Where is the science?

Limited data is one of the largest obstacles when it comes to drug policy reform. Arguably, the most predominant issue with current drug strategies is the lack of science – evidence-based, expert approved, trialled and tested science. It’s no secret that recorded medicinal use of cannabis dates back to Ancient China, or that heroin was used in many surgical procedures up until the 1950s. In recent years, researchers have been returning to the work of 1960s scientists and enquiring as to the health benefits of particular illicit drugs such as ketamine, LSD, and MDMA. However, the research is incredibly hard to initiate. So why is science so hard to come by in an issue so deeply ingrained in the interests of public health?

The fact is that the science is not strong enough. The very nature of scientific research is that it changes, year by year or even month by month – new and improved results are found and ideas are tested time and time again, all with the aim to produce a more accurate solution to a very impending problem. When that problem bears consequences for an entire nation, the science has to be pretty darn solid. According to Lee, one of the most prevalent problems is that the “evidence is not always black and white. On the one hand it looks as though if we do it this way we’ll get this outcome, but no one can be sure. It’s a little less certain than, for example, being able to count the number of arrests. Public health benefits are not as clear as the number of people arrested. It takes a little bit of gumption to take that leap.”

And a little bit of gumption can take a very long time. The medicinal history of cannabis, pre-prohibition, took almost 50 years to revisit after the blanket ban on narcotics in the US. Even here in Australia, we have only recently legalised it for medicinal use – and only in Victoria, with Queensland and NSW still debating their own bill. However, the danger involved does not always correspond with whether a drug is illegal or not.

“Tobacco is the biggest [danger] in Australia,” said Lee, “and alcohol is second most harmful – and they’re both legal. Whereas something like ecstasy in its pure form, researchers are pretty much in agreement that it is a drug of relatively low toxicity – and in fact there’s trial for using it in therapeutic settings.”

Tobacco is legal in Australia despite being a great danger to public health.   Maureen/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Tobacco is legal in Australia despite being a great danger to public health. Maureen/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


In Australia, there is some research going into the use of ecstasy and other illicit drugs in these therapeutic settings, but this research is generally hard to come by. “It’s a bit of a circular argument,” said Lee. “It’s hard to do the research if the drugs are illegal, but it’s hard to make a decision about whether they should be legal or not if you can’t do your research.” While she assures us that she doesn’t believe it is a deliberate attempt to censor research, the fact that this is a difficult situation to negotiate is undeniable.

Unfortunately, this makes it a case for politics rather than science. And for an issue that is of concern on a global health scale, this can prove detrimental to many. Many argue that it is the prohibitive nature of our drug policies that causes the harm they are created to prevent. I spoke to a regular festival-goer, who wished to remain anonymous, who explained that “the problem is, people see police dogs at festivals and just eat all their drugs at once in a panic. That, or they just don’t know what they’re taking and how dangerous it could be.” They went on to say that restricting the availability of education about the potential lethality of certain drug combinations causes unnecessary dangers in the festival community. “People are going to do drugs anyway, obviously, but the lack of education means they make stupid decisions and are unaware of the consequences, and that’s where the danger is.”

Where to from here?

If the science isn’t enough, or is too difficult to get a hold of, to encourage change in potentially harmful drug policies, then what needs to happen may be even more difficult: changing public perception. Once among the most progressive of nations when it came to harm-reducing, forward-thinking strategies, Australia appears to have ground to a halt. One could argue that this stall is a result of our largely conservative government. But, when it comes to progressive drug policies, it seems as though law enforcement is going head to head with public opinion and the voice of young Australians – and funding is being left on the sidelines.

According to Lee, “one of the biggest problems with illicit drugs is that part of the consequence of them being illicit is that people who use them do tend to become stigmatised. They’re engaged in an illegal activity, and they kind of become bad in a sense.” Stereotyping is potentially the most damaging aspect of our current prohibition laws. Stereotyping the ‘junkie’ limits a desire to help, and could be why, out of the $1.7bn Australia spends as part of the National Drug Strategy, harm minimisation receives a mere 2% of funding. Law enforcement receives 68%.

The Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s proposed Harm Minimisation Fund may go a small way into removing damaging stigmatism directed at drug users. The fund itself is small, potentially too small to make any significant change, but the general idea is that if one can provide treatment and rehabilitation to drug users, reduce harm via education and allowing users to be as informed as possible, and invest in researching the potential benefits of all drugs, general public opinion may just be influenced. The science, if there’s enough of it, may be able to create safer, more evidence-informed policies for Australia, and a safer environment for those requiring treatment.

Science may not be all we need for reform, though, and law enforcement numbers may be enough to prove their inefficiency. The most recent move towards changing legislation has come from a roundtable discussion conducted by Australia21 with senior figures in law enforcement and drug research. The report indicates a strong need for reform across the country, highlighting the rise in drug related deaths and crime despite increased efforts of law enforcement, and calling for a nation-wide decriminalisation for personal possession of all illicit drugs, as well as the instalment of safe injecting facilities in all cities across the country. The short and to-the-point attitude of the report has already garnered support from senior politicians, and sparked a call for policy reform in the Greens Party.

Policy reform is something young Australians have been expressing a desire for since the 2013 ANCD report, in which the lack of unbiased, reliable drug education was felt strongly. The report found desire for policy reforms that enabled young people to make informed and educated decisions about their own bodies, highlighting the view that drug consumption is a personal choice that the government and law enforcement should only intervene with to prevent harm to others. By and large, it is young people that our drug policies are affecting, and it is young people that want a voice in the discussion.

While some young people’s views may be deemed radical, overall, one cannot argue against the importance of law enforcement, health professionals, and the general public coming to some kind of agreement. It is undeniable that law enforcement has its place – as are the dangers of using any kind of drug in the first place. “The drug market is complex, dynamic and changing,” Chantelle Miller said. “However, as police regularly say, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem and responses need to include the community, government and other agencies.”

“We really need to be using whatever evidence we’ve got,” said Lee, “and we often don’t do that.”

Edited by Deborah Kane