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

Project Supporters:

Colonial Foundation Trust

Drug Type:
image - Australia Black
Project Members
image - Kari Lancaster Low Res 2017
Senior Research Fellow
Ph +61 2 9385 6799
Project Main Description

This work aimed to provide an accessible description and assessment of drug policy in Australia from 1985 to 2010, including a description of the policy context, the successive iterations of the National Drug Strategy, trends in drug use and harm, and drug policy actors. It is hoped this report will become the ‘source’ document for those wanting an overview of the Australian situation.

Design and Method

We took the Australian context as our starting point. 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. 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 conclude with an analysis of the roles of some of the many actors in the Australian drug policy landscape.


Australia has achieved a great deal since the adoption of the harm minimisation approach to drug policy in 1985. We find evidence that Australia has done comparatively well in implementing policy which is known to be evidence based and effective.  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.

The consideration of the multiple, and often competing, ‘voices’ in the drug policy system is important in this context. We identify five ‘voices’: the research community; the state; the third sector; international regulatory bodies; and the general public. In our analysis we find that the research community has contributed to encouraging evidence-based policy but inherent barriers remain in bridging the gap between evidence and policy. The shift in government, from public sector ‘rowing’ to more ‘steering’, has impacted on drug policy and led to changes in the provision of treatment, prevention, and even policing services by non-government actors. As a result, the role of the third sector has risen in prominence in Australia, consistent with this pluralised governance. In association with this rise, as demonstrated through the roles of bodies such as the Australian National Council on Drugs, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia and Drug Free Australia, we observe the emergence of a more vocal conservative element in drug policy debate. It is unclear to what extent this signals a shift away from Australia’s harm minimisation approach, or whether these ‘voices’ reflect ongoing ideological tensions. International regulatory bodies continue to be important players in influencing Australian drug policy, particularly regarding scope for developing harm reduction approaches. Finally, we argue that the Australian general public have an important stake in drug policy, but at present there are no formal mechanisms to engage with them. A critical variable in engaging the public is the role of the media, as evidence demonstrates that media are influential in defining the scope of policy problems and proposing solutions.

Project Supporters

Colonial Foundation Trust

Project Collaborators: External

Katrina Grech
formerly NDARC

Peter Reuter
University of Maryland

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Drug Type
Project Status
Date Commenced

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