Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia – A briefing note

image - Scales 280
Author: Hughes, C., Ritter, A., Chalmers, J., Lancaster, K., Barratt, M. & Moxham-Hall, V.

Resource Type: General

Key messages

  1. Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation: decriminalisation removes criminal penalties for use/possession either by law (de jure) or by practice (de facto).
  2. There is strong public support in Australia for decriminalisation approaches.
  3. The research evidence indicates that decriminalisation of drug use:
    • Reduces the costs to society, especially the criminal justice system costs
    • Reduces social costs to individuals, including improving employment prospects
    • Does not increase drug use
    • Does not increase other crime
    • May, in some forms, increase the numbers of people who have contact with the criminal justice system (net widening)
  4. Many countries around the world have decriminalised drug use and possession in various ways.
  5. Australia currently has a mixture of de jure and de facto decriminalisation schemes for use and possession of illicit drugs: but decriminalisation is not universal. Accordingly, many people continue to be sent to court for possession of only minor quantities of drugs.
  6. There is an opportunity to expand decriminalisation for drug use in Australia, particularly through de jure decriminalisation schemes targeting all illicit drugs. This may further reduce costs to the criminal justice system and to individuals.

What does the research evidence tell us about the effects of decriminalisation?

A number of international and Australian studies have considered the effects of decriminalisation - for a full list of studies, see the DPMP annotated bibliography: https://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/resource/drug-law-reform-annotated-bibliography-2016