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The conservative shift in drug policy: evidence and implications

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Colonial Foundation Trust

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image - Kari Lancaster Low Res 2017
Associate Professor Kari Lancaster
Scientia Associate Professor
Project Main Description: 

It has been argued that the increased influence of conservative advocacy groups and the impact of the political social conservatism of ‘The Howard Years’ has led to a conservative shift in Australian drug policy, away from harm minimisation and towards a zero tolerance model (Mendes, 2001, 2007). While some commentators have argued that Howard’s ‘Tough on Drugs’ policy ‘overturned’ the harm minimisation framework (Bessant, 2008), others suggest that there has been a ‘disconnect’ between the political strategy of zero tolerance, and the policy practice of harm reduction (Wodak, 2004). National drug policies are often regarded as benign, rhetorical documents, however this belies the subtlety with which such documents generate shared discourses and evolving understandings of policy issues over time. Critically analysing the ways in which policy language constructs and represents policy problems is important as these discursive constructions have implications for how we are invoked to think about (and justify) possible policy responses. 


Taking the case of Australia’s National Drug Strategies, in this study we aimed to delve beyond the surface of national drug policy documents, so as to develop better understandings of how drug policy problems are constructed and represented through the language of drug policy over time. In doing so, we aimed to explore how drug policy is understood, the narratives which shape policy development over time, what the ‘problem of drugs’ is represented to be and the role of stakeholders in shaping these understandings.

Design and Method: 

We analysed each iteration of the National Drug Strategy since 1985, using an approach informed by aspects of critical discourse analysis theory and Bacchi’s  (2009) ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be’ framework (an approach which focuses on problematisation).This allows for systematic tracking of the issue over time, with a particular focus on discursive elements which have come to be understood as characteristic of the ‘Australian approach’ to drug policy, including harm minimisation, balance, partnerships and evidence-informed policy.


Our analysis demonstrated shifts in the ways that drugs have been ‘problematised’ in Australia’s National Drug Strategies. Central to these evolving constructions was the increasing reliance on evidence as a way of ‘knowing the problem’. Furthermore, by analysing the stated aims of the policies, this case demonstrates how constructing drug problems in terms of ‘drug-related harms’ or ‘drug use’ can affect what is perceived to be an appropriate set of policy responses. The gradual shift to constructing drug use as the policy problem altered the concept of harm minimisation and influenced the development of the concepts of demand- and harm-reduction over time. These findings have implications for how we understand policy development, and challenge us to critically consider how the construction and representation of drug problems serve to justify what are perceived to be acceptable responses to policy problems. These constructions are produced subtly, and become embedded slowly over decades of policy development. 


Lancaster, K. & Ritter, A. (submitted) Examining the construction and representation of drugs as a policy problem in Australia’s National Drug Strategy 1985-2010.

Lancaster, K. and Ritter, A. (2012, November). A Conservative Shift in Drug Policy (?): Evidence and Implications. Paper presented at APSAD, Melbourne. 


It is hoped that the systematic analysis undertaken in this project will contribute to understandings of how discourse can shape and inform the ways in which the problem of drugs is understood in Australian society. Such understanding has important implications for the future of drug policy and the interventions and responses that are funded by government.

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