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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 20 - Public Policy In Other Countries - Australia



Cannabis was generally little known or used in Australia before the 1960s. However, the drug legislation that was passed in the majority of states and territories in the late 1800s and early 1900s (mainly because of the large number of Chinese who smoked opium) provided a framework that lent itself well to the prohibition of cannabis. The first Australian measures designed to control cannabis use were part of an act passed in 1928 in the state of Victoria to penalize the unauthorized use of Indian hemp and Indian hemp resin. Similar acts were subsequently passed in the other states of the Commonwealth. Penalties for the cultivation, possession and use of cannabis were generally quite harsh in the 1960s and 1970s.[2][178]

The incentive to revise the laws on cannabis use in South Australia came from the recommendations made in 1979 in the Report of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs.[3][179] One of those recommendations was that small-scale cannabis use not be considered a criminal offence. In support of that recommendation, the Royal Commission cited a number of overseas states, including 10 American states, where such a measure had yielded good results.


National drug strategy[4][180]


The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (1985-1992)

The inception of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NCADA) in 1985 was a watershed in Australian drug policy and introduced a focus on public health and harm minimization. The NCADA emphasized that drug use should be treated primarily as a health issue. The decision was made deliberately to situate the program within the Federal Department of Health rather than the Federal Attorney General’s Department, due at least in part to the emergence of HIV/AIDS. But the program from the start involved a strong partnership between the Commonwealth (or federal government), States and Territories. It also intended to foster a partnership between health and law enforcement in a comprehensive strategy involving an integrated approach to licit as well as illicit drugs.

The philosophy of harm minimization includes the strategies of supply, demand and harm reduction. The mission of Australia’s drug strategy is to improve health, social and economic outcomes by preventing the uptake of harmful drug use and reducing the harmful effects of licit and illicit drugs.


The National Drug Strategy (1993-1997)

A further principle underlying the new drug strategy was that reliable data, new approaches and evaluation of effort were required. As part of this new effort, the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (MCDS) commissioned two independent evaluations of the NCADA to assess progress and make appropriate recommendations. After these two evaluations, one released in 1988 and the other, No Quick Fix, in 1992, the campaign was relaunched as the National Drug Strategy (NDS). Incorporating the recommendations from the two evaluations, the National Drug Strategy continued to stress the importance of harm minimization principles. Some of the goals of the Strategy were to:

··          Minimize the level of illness, disease, injury and premature death associated with the use of alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical and illicit drugs;

··          Minimize the level and impact of criminal drug offences and other drug-related crime, violence and antisocial behaviour within the community;

··          Minimize the level of personal and social disruption, loss of quality of life, loss of productivity and other economic costs associated with the inappropriate use of alcohol and other drugs; and

··          Prevent the spread of hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases associated with the unsafe injection of illicit drugs.


The strategic plan identified six specific concepts which were to underpin the development and implementation of drug policy: harm minimization; social justice; maintenance of controls over the supply of drugs; an intersectoral approach; international cooperation; and evaluation and accountability.

Overall responsibility for the broad policy direction and operation of the NDS rests with the MCDS, which comprises both health and law enforcement ministers from each State and Territory as well as from the Commonwealth government. The council meets annually. The National Drug Strategy Committee (NDSC) provides administrative support for the MCDS. It is mandated to develop proposals for the NDS, implement the NDS, develop policy proposals relating to licit and illicit drugs and liaise with other governmental agencies on matters relating to the NDS. It consists of one health and one law enforcement representative from each jurisdiction. The MCDS and NDSC develop national policies and directions which individual jurisdictions then implement as appropriate within their social, political and economic environments.

Report on the National Drug Strategy (1997)[5][181]

In 1997 a report evaluating the National Drug Strategy (1993-1997) was produced. This report, entitled The National Drug Strategy: Mapping the Future, lauded the NDS for a unique combination of features which had brought it international attention and acclaim:

··          The NDS recognizes the complexity of drug issues and the need to provide front-line health professionals and others dealing with drug problems with a wide range of options based on the concept of harm minimization. These range from abstinence-oriented interventions to programs aimed at ameliorating the consequences of drug use among those who cannot be reasonably expected to stop using drugs at the present time;

··          The NDS adopts a comprehensive approach to drugs, which encompasses the misuse of licit as well as illicit drugs. Policies and programs to address the problems of illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals all fall under the aegis of the NDS;

··          The NDS approach to drugs stresses the promotion of partnerships–between health, law enforcement, education, non-overnmental organizations, and private industry; and

··          The NDS attempts to address drug issues in a balanced fashion. This refers to the appropriate balance of effort between the Commonwealth, States and Territories, a balance between supply and demand reduction strategies, and a balance between treatment, prevention, research and education.


Contrary to the fears of many that harm minimization policies might lead to increased public acceptance and use of illicit drugs, the evaluation found that there was no discernible trend in the use of drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and cocaine, although there was some increase in marijuana use. The NDS was also found to have contributed to the success of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy in reducing the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases among intravenous drug users.


The National Drug Strategic Framework (1998/1999-2002/2003)[6][182]

The National Drug Strategic Framework maintains the policy principles of the previous phases of the National Drug Strategy and adopts the recommendations of the report from the previous phase. Its focus remains on harm minimization and continues to seek a balance between supply-reduction, demand-reduction and harm-reduction strategies, emphasizing the need for integration of the various strategies. It also continues the emphasis on evidence-based practice, based on rigorous research and evaluation, including assessment of the cost-effectiveness of interventions.

This next phase of the NDS places emphasis on extending the partnership between health and law-enforcement agencies to take in a broader range of partners, as recommended in the evaluation report. Thus the Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs, which consists of health and law enforcement officers from each Australian jurisdiction, is expanding to include officers from the portfolios of customs and education. The MCDS will now be supported by the Australian National Council on Drugs, consisting of people with relevant expertise from the government, non-government and community-based sectors to provide policy advice. These bodies will develop a series of National Drug Action Plans which will specify priorities for reducing the harm arising from the use of licit and illicit drugs, strategies for taking action on these priorities, and performance indicators.


The National Illicit Drug Strategy (1998 – )[7][183]

In 1997, the Australian government launched the National Illicit Drug Strategy "Tough on Drugs" as the next major phase of the National Drug Strategy. Its implementation began in 1998. The Strategy encompasses a range of supply reduction and demand reduction measures at a total cost of AUD $516 million. Funding for the Strategy is split between demand-reduction strategies, which are being implemented by the Department of Health and Aged Care and the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, and supply-reduction strategies, which are being implemented by the Attorney-General’s Department, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Customs Service. AUD$213 million has been allocated for a range of supply reduction measures to intercept more illicit drugs at borders and within Australia. Law enforcement efforts include funding for 10 new Federal Police anti‑drug mobile strike teams to help dismantle drug syndicates within Australia as well as increased funding for the Australian Customs Service to enhance its capacity to intercept drug shipments.

The remaining AUD$303 million has been allocated for demand reduction initiatives which cover five priority areas:

··          Treatment of users of illicit drugs, including identification of best practice,

··          Prevention of illicit drug use,

··          Training and skills development for front line workers who come into contact with drug users,

··          Monitoring and evaluation, including data collection,

··          Research.

In conjunction with the new strategy, the Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs has been established to provide policy advice for government ministers on a full range of drug-related matters.

In June 1999, Commonwealth, State and Territory health and law enforcement Ministers agreed on a national approach to the development of a drug diversion initiative. This was designed to support the diversion of illicit drug users from the criminal justice system into education and treatment. Diversion involves a graduated series of interventions appropriate to the seriousness of the offence and the circumstances of the offender. Diversion is not considered appropriate for trafficking offences. Drug-involved offenders can be cautioned on the streets and provided with treatment referral information if their offence is possession of a small quantity of drugs. They can be sent for assessment or directly to treatment rather than prison, as long as the offence is not serious and they do not pose a threat to society. Courts and correctional systems can also use commitment or referral to community-based treatment as an adjunct to probation or parole from prison. There is also treatment within correctional facilities and corrections-operated or funded therapeutic communities and halfway houses.[8][184]


Assessment of the National Drug Strategy (2001)[9][185]

Based on the concept of harm minimization rather than the need to eliminate drug use, the NDS recognizes the complexity of drug issues and the need to provide front-line health professionals and others dealing with drug problems with a wide range of options. These options range from abstinence-oriented interventions to programs aimed at ameliorating the consequences of drug use among those who cannot reasonably be expected to stop using drugs immediately. The goals, strategies, guiding principles and performance indicators for the NDS are established by a National Drug Strategy Committee. This committee consists of high-level civil servants from health and law enforcement ministries of each state and territory as well as their counterparts from the federal government. This shared decision-making has been seen as a strength of the NDS since it enhances government co-operation and ensures a high level of visibility for the drug strategy.

Professor Eric Single noted that the Australian government had followed up on a number of the recommendations he had made to improve the NDS. For example, the NDS was renewed for five years, funding was increased, a specialized NDS unit was created within the Commonwealth Ministry of Health, and action plans were developed with regard to other recommendations.[10][186]


[1][177]  This section draws to a large degree on the report prepared for the Committee by the Library of Parliament: R. MacKay, (2001) National Drug Policy: Australia. Ottawa: Library of Parliament, report prepared for the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, available online at www.parl.gc.ca/illegaldrugs.asp.

[2][178]  For a history of the laws relating to cannabis in Australia, see: McDonald et al., Legislative Options for Cannabis Use in Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, 1994, available online at: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/Library/studies/aus/cannabis.htm.

[3][179]  South Australian Government, Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Non‑Medical Use of Drugs South Australia 1979, Final Report (Chairperson: Sackville).

[4][180]  For an outline of the National Drug Strategy from 1985 to the present, see: http://www.aic.gov.au/research/drugs/strategy/index.html.

[5][181]  See Eric Single and Timothy Rohl, The National Drug Strategy: Mapping the Future, A Report commissioned by the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, Canberra, April 1997. Available online at: http://www.health.gov.au/pubhlth/publicat/document/mapping.pdf.

[6][182]  Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, National Drug Strategic Framework 1998‑99 to 2002‑03: Building Partnerships, Prepared for the Ministerial Council by a joint steering committee of the Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs and the Australian National Council on Drugs, Canberra, November 1998. Available online at: http://www.health.gov.au/pubhlth/nds/resources/publist.htm.

[7][183]  For further details on the National Illicit Drug Strategy, see the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care Web site: http://www.health.gov.au/pubhlth/strateg/drugs/illicit.

[8][184]  For further information, see: Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, National Action Plan on Illicit Drugs, 2001 to 2002‑03, Prepared by the National Expert Advisory Committee on Illegal Drugs, Canberra, July 2001. Available online at: http://www.health.gov.au/pubhlth/nds/resources/publist.htm.

[9][185]  See testimony of Professor Eric Single before the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, first session of the thirty-seventh Parliament, May 2001. Available online at: www.parl.gc.ca/drogues‑illicites.asp.

[10][186]  Ibid.

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