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Public opinion, the media, and illicit policy in Australia

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Date Commenced:
Project Supporters:

Colonial Foundation Trust

Drug Type:
Project Members: 
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Dr Francis Matthew-Simmons
Research Associate
Project Main Description: 

Although “evidence-based” policy is a goal for many, the realities of democratic politics dictate that most policy decisions also need to be acceptable to a majority of the voting population. This project seeks to understand the dynamics of public opinion regarding illicit drug policy in Australia.


By examining two case studies (the legal status of cannabis, and treatment for heroin dependence), this project aims to understand the factors that can influence public opinion. The first case study considers the possibility that policy decisions on cannabis use (decriminalisation) can ‘send a message’ about drug use. The second examines the role of the news media in influencing public opinion, regarding treatment options for heroin dependence.

Design and Method: 

The project involves secondary analysis of attitudinal data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. In addition, a content analysis of news print media has been conducted. Analyses seek to determine relationships between attitudes and a number of explanatory factors, including media content, policy environment, and demographic factors.


Thesis submitted in May 2011

  • Public opinion in Australia towards illicit drug policy appears to be “nuanced”. Public support for cannabis legalisation (and depenalisation) has decreased since the mid 1990s. However, support for criminal penalties for drug possession is also low, and support for harm reduction has also increased.
  • Those groups who exhibit more “lenient” attitudes towards policy (greater support for legalisation and harm reduction) include the young (20-39), and the higher educated. Those who exhibit more “conservative” attitudes include those who are married. Age and gender were also significant predictors, but provided mixed results. Past drug use remains the strongest predictor of opinions towards drug policy.
  • In many cases the results from other surveys differed when compared to the NDSHS. Minor changes in question wording can be influential and the specificity of the question may be important in measuring support for a policy. Trends seen in opinions towards cannabis policy in the NDSHS were reflected in other surveys.
  • Those individuals who live in states with cannabis depenalisation were not more likely to approve of cannabis use (lack of a legitimation effect), and were less supportive of cannabis law reform in general, indicating a “thermostatic” relationship between cannabis policy and public opinion.
  • Media reporting of naltrexone has been more “positive” than that of methadone, with a greater proportion of paragraphs mentioning the benefits of this treatment. There was a significant correlation between the volume of media reporting and support for naltrexone in Australian states (but no relationship regarding methadone).

PhD Thesis: Matthew- Simmons, F.T. (2011) Public opinion, the media, and illicit drug policy. PhD Thesis, University of New South Wales.


This project provides an understanding of public opinion that is based upon the best available evidence; opinion surveys. It provides the most comprehensive review and analysis of public opinion data that has been undertaken in Australia on drug policy, to this point. Any discussion of public opinion should be based upon evidence where possible; however the project also demonstrates that any assumptions made about the general nature of public opinion, by extrapolating from one particular survey question, are likely to be problematic.

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