Australians are pragmatic and humane when it comes to penalties for drug use

Date Published:
21 May 2012
Contact person:
Marion Downey
Phone:
02 9385 1080

More than half of the Australian population agree that possession and use of cannabis, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine should be decriminalised and only result in minor penalties, data from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) released today shows.

Professor Alison Ritter who heads up the Centre’s policy research group, the Drug Policy Modelling Program, says that an analysis of the most recent results of the Federal Government’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS, 2010) show that Australians make a very clear distinction between applying penalties for use and possession of illicit drugs as against the sale and supply of these drugs. “The current rigorous public debate taking place about illicit drug use in Australia is incredibly healthy and most welcome,” says Professor Ritter. “But we do need to be very clear about the terms we are using when discussing public opinion. There is confusion about the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation.

“Our analysis of the NDSHS data, which randomly sampled the views of about 26,000 people across the Australian population , clearly shows that most Australians distinguish between legalising the use of illicit drugs and decriminalising their use which would mean lower penalties for personal use.”An analysis of the 2010 NDSHS data relating to public opinion on decriminalisation and legalisation shows that:

  • More than half of the Australian population agree with decriminalisation actions for the personal use of cannabis, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine. This does not mean they support decriminalising the sale and supply of these drugs.
  • On the other hand, less than one quarter of Australians support the legalisation of cannabis, heroin, ecstasy, and methamphetamine.
  • Australians do make a distinction between legalisation and decriminalisation options.


The survey asked Australians whether they think that the personal use of drugs should be made legal. Less than a quarter believed cannabis should be legalised, only seven per cent believed ecstasy should be legalised and only six per cent believed heroin should be legalised.

The results are very different when it comes to opinion on applying penalties for personal use and possession of illicit drugs:

  • The vast majority of Australians support the decriminalisation of cannabis use
  • Half of all Australians support the decriminalisation of ecstasy use.
  • Just under half of Australians support the decriminalisation of heroin and methamphetamine use.


The decriminalisation options which respondents could choose from included: no action; caution/warning; referral to education; referral to treatment; and small fine ($200). The criminalisation options included: substantial fine ($1000); community service; weekend detention; prison; or other.

When asked these questions 73 per cent supported actions which effectively decriminalised cannabis use; 52 per cent supported decriminalising ecstasy use; 46 per cent supported decriminalising heroin use and 47 per cent supported decriminalising methamphetamine use.

“It is apparent from the data that people have a clear understanding of the impact of legal issues when it comes to personal use of illicit drugs,” says Professor Ritter. “In these circumstances Australians have for many years now shown a very humane approach when it comes to the personal use of illicit drugs.”

She added: “Our findings are not really surprising because some form of decriminalisation for possession and use is already the status quo in most Australian states. For example South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory apply civil penalties such as fines for possession of cannabis. As well, across Australia all jurisdictions apply some form of “diversion” where people caught using drugs are diverted away from the criminal justice system and into education or treatment. This is well supported by a majority of Australians across all classes of drugs.”

But when it comes to legalising drugs or applying penalties for sale and supply of drugs, most Australians support tougher penalties.

When asked whether there should be increased penalties for sale and supply of specific drugs, just over half wanted increased penalties for supply of cannabis; close to 80 per cent supported increased penalties for supply of heroin and methamphetamine and just over three quarters supported increased penalties for supply of cocaine.

Source: What does the research evidence tell us about what Australian think about the legal status of drugs?, DPMP Bulletin (2012), 21