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21. An assessment of illicit drug policy in Australia (1985 - 2010): themes and trends

This work aims to provide an accessible description and assessment of drug policy in Australia from 1985 to 2010. Approaches to drug policy are constantly changing as a result of international and domestic factors, the comings and goings of governments, political imperative and the uptake of new knowledge. Consequently, this report represents the situation as it stands in Australia up to mid-2010. We take the Australian context (section 1) as our starting point, then summarise Australia’s National Drug Strategies over time comparing them to those of other nations (section 2). We then provide analysis of trends and patterns of drug use and harms in Australia (section 3), government action on drugs (section 4), and finish with an analysis of the roles of some of the many actors in the Australian drug policy landscape (section 5).

We take the Australian context as our starting point because drug policy does not sit within a vacuum and is connected with broader economic, social and welfare policies. Using this as our foundation, we then focus on the development of the national drug strategies to examine the ways in which Australia’s drug policy from 1985 to 2010 has been distinctly characterised by harm minimisation, partnership approaches, a balance between policy elements and a commitment to evidence-informed policy. We discuss these features by placing each in the context of the similar and contrasting approaches of the international community.

We examine trends in drug use and associated harms in Australia by analysing data from key population surveys, sentinel surveys of active drug users and data routinely collected, and consider what may account for these changing patterns. We note especially the changing rates of cannabis use in Australia and consider the impact of the notable Australian heroin drought (2000/2001). In this context we make international comparisons, and although the data are limited, we can draw some conclusions about Australia’s drug use and associated harms compared to other nations and how these have changed over time.

We know that drug policy is but one of many factors affecting prevalence of drug use and harms. Due to the complexity of drug policy analysis, we seek to understand how the many competing ‘voices’ within the Australian drug policy landscape shape and influence the nature of drug policy in Australia. In doing so, we consider the ways that advocacy coalitions have translated their beliefs and agendas into policy impact over time, and begin to contemplate possible future impact on choice of policy solutions. We concentrate particularly on the roles played by the research community, the state, international regulatory bodies, and the ‘third sector’, as well as the general public more broadly.

What is perhaps striking about Australian drug policy is the degree of consistency and coherence in the overall approach since 1985 – that is almost twenty five years of a consistent approach, without deviation. But despite Australia’s historical position as a champion of ‘harm minimisation’, it appears that Australia is now falling behind some other nations in terms of innovation and continuous development of harm minimisation strategies.

Note on coverage:
This report concerns itself with illicit drugs. Illicit drugs refer to cannabis, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy, hallucinogens and ‘designer’ drugs. Excluded from the term ‘illicit drugs’ are tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals (e.g. benzodiazepines), performance enhancing drugs (e.g. anabolic steroids) and other common substances which may be inhaled for psychoactive effects (e.g. petrol), even when these substances are used illegally. We appreciate that this distinction is artificial and problematic for a number of reasons; for example polydrug use is the norm. However there is a concentration of harms in relation to illicit drugs, limited instruments available for control or regulation and a greater prominence of supply reduction as a mode of control lending itself to policy analysis confined to this frame.