Drug law enforcement policy: The deterrent effects of Australian policing strategies

Expected Date of Completion:
Project Supporters:

Australian Research Council - Discovery Project DP150100910

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Project Main Description

The Australian government expends an estimated $1.7 billion on responding to illicit drugs every year, with policing comprising 64% of this expenditure. One core assumption underpinning this investment is that police can deter, discourage or prevent drug offending. It is argued that drug laws and enforcement of those laws will reduce involvement in drug use and trafficking. But, there remains very limited research into the extent or nature of deterrent effects. One cause of this gap is methodological. The absence of attention to this issue is increasingly problematic as there is concern that some of the newer "deterrent" strategies, such as drug detection dogs, may lead to adverse impacts.


The project will:

a) measure the deterrent effects of four Australian policing strategies on current and would-be  offenders’ decisions to use, possess, purchase or traffick illicit drugs;

b) track deterrent effects of drug law enforcement under real world policing conditions in Sydney, NSW and the facilitators and barriers to police deterrence; and

c) generate a new conceptual framework of drug law enforcement deterrence.

Design and Method

There are a number of challenges to assessing deterrent effects; including deficits in the capacity of traditional crime data to capture offending that has ‘not occurred’.The study will therefore draw together a number of approaches. First, a national online survey will be developed using experimental deterrence vignettes to measure the effects of four different Australian drug law enforcement strategies on current and would-be offenders’ decisions to use, possess, purchase or traffick illicit drugs, taking into account two different settings in which the policing strategies could be applied and differential impacts on offending engagement and the volume, severity and harmfulness of offending. Second, we will prospectively follow up over a three month period 60 drug offenders from Sydney, NSW to track deterrent effects of drug law enforcement under real world policing conditions. Third, we will draw together the findings from component one and two for the purpose of theory analysis and extension: namely to refine the deterrence hypothesis to the specific rubric of policing illicit drugs including the expected outcomes of using police to deter drug crime.

Project Supporters

Australian Research Council - Discovery Project DP150100910


This will provide the first comprehensive test of the extent to which police can be expected to deter drug crime, as well as specific insight into the specific utilities of four drug law enforcement strategies that are currently employed in Australia. It is hoped that this will improve the capacity for more evidence-informed responses to drug-related crime.

Project Collaborators: External

Professor Robert MacCoun
University of California, Berkeley

Doctor Don Weatherburn
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

Project Status
Date Commenced

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