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Public opinion and drug policy: engaging the ‘affected community’

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Date Commenced:
Project Supporters:

Colonial Foundation Trust; and
Centre for Research Excellence into Injecting Drug Use (CREIDU)

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

Public opinion can play an important role in determining policy and informing political processes. However, the majority of public opinion data regarding attitudes to drug policy in Australia is collected at the broader population level, and the voices of people who use illicit drugs have traditionally been marginalised within policy debate and remain under-explored. The ‘affected community’ notion suggests that policy should be informed by the people it most directly affects – however we do not know, for example, if people who use drugs have similar or different views to the broader population about fundamental drug policy questions such as the role of needle-syringe programs, treatment and drug legalisation. This stymies opportunities for policy-making to be informed by those it most directly affects.

Project Collaborators: External: 

Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL)


This project explored the attitudes and opinions of people who use drugs towards drug policy in Australia.

Design and Method: 

The project used a mixed methods design, analysing quantitative survey and qualitative focus group data. The quantitative survey formed a supplement to the 2011 Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) and the 2012 Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) questionnaires, with the inclusion of drug-related policy questions drawn from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS). A sentinel sample of almost 1000 people who inject drugs and 600 psychostimulant users in Australia were asked about their levels of support for various drug policy measures, drug legalisation, and penalties for the supply of illicit drugs. Responses were compared to the 2010 NDSHS. Qualitative focus groups with people who inject drugs were undertaken in collaboration with AIVL in Sydney and Canberra. The quantitative results were used as the springboard for detailed focus group discussions. The qualitative data was analysed in collaboration with AIVL, to ensure consumer participation in all stages of the study and to access AIVL’s expertise in understanding the views and perspectives of people who use drugs.

Quantitative data collection and analysis is complete. There was a high level of support among IDRS participants for measures to reduce the problems associated with heroin, but heterogeneity in levels of support for legalisation and penalties for sale/supply across different drug types. Differences between the opinions of the IDRS sample and the NDSHS sample were identified regarding support for harm reduction, treatment, legalisation and penalties for sale/supply.The qualitative component of the study investigated why people who inject drugs hold particular views, and considered the complexities of how lived experience and opinions about drug policy intersect within this affected community. A duality of opinion was identified, borne from lived experience of stigmatisation, which sometimes led people who inject drugs to qualify levels of support. By exploring the rationales underlying opinions, a tension emerged between what people who inject drugs theoretically know to be effective interventions, and experiences of how policies are delivered. 


Lancaster, K., Santana, L., Madden, A., & Ritter, A. (2014, in press). Stigma and subjectivities: Examining the textured relationship between lived experience and opinions about drug policy among people who inject drugs. Drugs: Education Prevention & Policy, DOI:10.3109/09687637.2014.970516.

Lancaster, K., Sutherland, R. and Ritter, A. (2014) Examining the opinions of people who use drugs towards drug policy in Australia, Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 21(2): 93-101. DOI: 10.3109/09687637.2013.838211.

Lancaster, K., Ritter, A. & Stafford, J. (2013) Public opinion and drug policy in Australia: engaging the ‘affected community’Drug and Alcohol Review, 32(1), 60-66.



Lancaster, K., Ritter, A., Santana, L. and Madden, A. (2013, December) Public opinion and drug policy: engaging the ‘affected community’. Paper presented at the 11th Dangerous Consumptions Colloquium, 12-13 December, Sydney.

Lancaster, K. (2013, October) Examining the opinions of people who use drugs towards drug policy in Australia. Invited presentation at the NSW Users and AIDS Association ‘Drug Policy and You’ Symposium, 16 October, Sydney.

Lancaster, K. and Ritter, A. (2011, November). Public opinion and drug policy: engaging the ‘affected community’. Paper presented at APSAD, Hobart, Australia.  13-16 November. 

Lancaster, K. and Ritter, A. (2011, October). Public opinion and drug policy: engaging the ‘affected community’. DPMP Team Meeting, Sydney, 13-14 October.


The research may be used to inform future submissions to government, dialogue with policy makers and help to identify key policy issues of concern to the ‘affected community’. As previous public opinion research about drug policy has focused on the attitudes of the general community, these findings will provide an essential resource for researchers, policy makers and advocacy groups alike. The findings provide an opportunity to rethink the role played by the ‘affected community’ in drug policy processes, and generate better understandings of how these voices can, and should, be included in drug policy debate.

This project also affords the opportunity for AIVL to engage in collaborative research with DPMP, which is mutually beneficial for both organisations.

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