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Drug law enforcement policy: The deterrent effects of Australian policing strategies

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Date Commenced:
Expected Date of Completion:
Project Supporters:

Australian Research Council - Discovery Project DP150100910

Project Members: 
Project Main Description: 

The Australian government expends an estimated $1.7 billion on responding to illicit drugs every year, with policing comprising 64% of this expenditure. One core assumption underpinning this investment is that police can deter, discourage or prevent drug offending. It is argued that drug laws and enforcement of those laws will reduce involvement in drug use and trafficking. But, there remains very limited research into the extent or nature of deterrent effects. One cause of this gap is methodological. The absence of attention to this issue is increasingly problematic as there is concern that some of the newer "deterrent" strategies, such as drug detection dogs, may lead to adverse impacts.

Project Collaborators: External: 

Professor Robert MacCoun
University of California, Berkeley

Doctor Don Weatherburn
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research


This project seeks to provide the first comprehensive assessment of the deterrent effects of street-level Australian drug law enforcement at two common settings of policing (outdoor music festivals and licensed entertainment precincts).

Design and Method: 

This project had two key components. First, a purpose-built national online survey (the Drug Policing Survey) was constructed using ten experimental deterrence vignettes that took into account four different policing strategies (including drug detection dogs and collaborative policing) versus a counter-factual (no police presence) and two different settings (outdoor music festivals and licensed entertainment precincts). The survey was administered to a national sample of people who regularly attend festivals, clubs and pubs and used to assess the prevalence and nature of illicit drug use, possession, purchasing and supply given “police presence” versus “police absence” and any differential impacts of the four policing strategies on offending engagement. Second, a mobile app (the Going Out In Sydney app) was constructed to enable real time monitoring of alcohol and drug use and police encounters at festivals, clubs and pubs in Sydney over a three month period. The app was used to log key details including: 1) where patrons went (e.g. festival, nightclub); (2) the prevalence and nature of any alcohol or illicit drug use; and (3) the incidence and nature of any police encounters. At the completion of the study interviews were conducted with all patrons about their experiences of policing at festivals, clubs and pubs.


All data has now been collected.

Part 1: Drug Policing Survey

Over 4000 people took part in the Drug Policing Survey (www.drugpolicingsurvey.com.au) between August and December 2015. The data has been analysed and articles are under review. Findings were also presented at the 2016 International Society for the Study of Drug Policy Conference, the 2016 NDARC Annual Symposium and the 2016 Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology Conference.  

Part 2: Prospective follow up of people as they Go Out in Sydney

Thirty-eight people took part in the Going Out In Sydney study between early to mid-2016: with each using the app to log their alcohol and drug use and police encounters at music festivals and licensed entertainment precincts in Sydney. The data are now being analysed.


This will provide the first comprehensive assessment of the impacts of policing: including the extent to which police can be expected to prevent and reduce harms from drug use, possession, purchase and drug trafficking. It will also provide specific insight into the presence or absence of any unintended consequences and insight into the specific utilities of four drug law enforcement strategies that are currently employed in Australia. It is hoped that this will improve the capacity for more evidence-informed responses: particular at outdoor festivals and licensed entertainment precincts.

Project Research Area: 
Project Status: