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Using evidence to evaluate Australian drug trafficking thresholds: Proportionate, equitable and just?

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Date Commenced:
Project Supporters:

Australian Institute of Criminology - Criminology Research Grants

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Project Members: 
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Mr Benjamin Phillips
Senior Research Officer
Mr Nicholas Cowdery
Adjunct Professor
Project Main Description: 

Most Australian states and territories have adopted drug trafficking thresholds which specify quantities of drugs, over which it is presumed an offender has committed an offence of ‘drug trafficking’, rather than ‘possession for personal use’. Yet, in spite of known risks from adopting such thresholds, particularly of an unjustified conviction of a user as a trafficker, the capacity to deliver proportional sanctioning (or conversely the opposite effect) has been subject to limited research to date. In this study we evaluate the capacity of trafficking thresholds crossing five drug types (heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and cannabis) and six Australian states (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia) to deliver proportional, fair and just sanctioning of drug offenders. 


The purpose of this study was to:

  • Evaluate whether the trafficable thresholds for five different drugs allow the prosecution and the judiciary to properly distinguish drug users from traffickers and to enable sanctions based on the relative seriousness of a drug trafficking offence;
  • Compare and contrast threshold design across Australia taking into account inter-state differences in current legal thresholds and drug markets;
  • Determine whether the problems identified with the ACT drug trafficking thresholds are common across state systems.
Design and Method: 

For each state we evaluated the applicable trafficable threshold quantity against two metrics of the quantity of a drug that a user is likely to possess for personal use alone (typical patterns of use and purchasing) and three metrics of the actual/potential seriousness of a drug trafficking offence to the Australian community (retail value, harm and social cost). Data for each of the five metrics were derived from an array of sources. For example, data on typical patterns of drug use were sourced from three different national surveys: two of regular drug users (the 2011 Illicit Drug Reporting System: IDRS and the 2011 Ecstasy and related Drug Reporting System: EDRS) and one from the general population (the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: NDSHS). 


The project revealed that regardless of the drug or state most median and mean quantities that Australian drug users report consuming or purchasing are lower than the trafficable thresholds. This indicates that most users are at minimal risk of exceeding the trafficable thresholds when they follow typical use and purchase patterns. On the other hand, the maximum consumed or purchased is often higher than the trafficable thresholds. This indicates that particular groups of users are at risk of an erroneous charge as a trafficker (most notably users of MDMA and users in NSW and SA), particularly when they purchase in bulk or have a high use (e.g. binge) session. We show that the risks in such circumstances are exacerbated by the idiosyncratic Australian criminal justice response to drug traffickers. We outline a number of ways to reduce risks to users, including legislative reforms to elevate threshold quantities for some drugs/states.

Final report:
Caitlin Hughes, Alison Ritter, Nicholas Cowdery and Benjamin Phillips (2014) Evaluating Australian drug trafficking thresholds: Proportionate, equitable and just? Report to the Criminology Research Advisory Council, Canberra.
Hughes, C., Ritter, A., Cowdery, N. and Phillips, B. (2014). Australian threshold quantities for ‘drug trafficking’: Are they placing drug users at risk of unjustified sanction?,Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice no. 467, Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
Presentations and posters:
Hughes, C., Ritter, A.  & Cowdery, N. (2013). Legal thresholds for drug trafficking: Evaluating the risk of unjustified charge of users as traffickers in six Australian states. Presentation at the 7th International Society for the Study of Drug Policy Conference, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia.
Hughes, C., Ritter, A.  & Cowdery, N. (2013). Australian drug trafficking thresholds: An interstate comparison of trafficable threshold quantities versus typical patterns of user consumption and purchasing behaviourPresentation at the 6th Australasian Drug Strategy Conference, Luna Park, Sydney.
Hughes, C., & Cowdery, N. (2013). Deemed supply in Australian drug trafficking laws. DPMP Research Symposium, Canberra.

This project will enable Australian policy makers and legislators to re-assess the current design of Australian drug trafficking thresholds. 

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