Illicit drug use in Australia
Illicit drug use in Australia is the recreational use of prohibited drugs in Australia. Illicit drugs include illegal drugs (such as cannabis, opiates, and certain types of stimulants), pharmaceutical drugs (such as pain-killers and tranquillisers) when used for non-medical purposes, and other substances used inappropriately (such as inhalants). According to government and community organisations, the use and abuse of illicit drugs is a social, legal and health issue that creates an annual illegal market estimated to be worth A$6.7 billion.
- 1 Drug use in Australia
- 2 Drug law reform
- 3 Australian illicit drug user organisations
- 4 See also
- 5 References
Drug use in Australia
Prior to Australian Federation, there was little policy response to the use of illicit substances. Opium was mostly regulated via colonial trade laws, with most government interventions taking the form of warning labels, designed to prevent death through overdose. According to the Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council in 1899, there were three main "classes" of opium users. The first class was middle class, middle aged women who took the drug for menstrual pain or to alleviate the symptoms of depression. The second class of opium users included doctors, nurses and other health professionals, who used the drug as a strategy for coping with the stress of their work. The third class were Chinese migrants, amongst whom the drug was primarily used as a recreational substance.
Many of the initial attempts to control opium were motivated by racism, with Anglo-Celtic Australians Australians citing opium use by Chinese Australians as a danger to health and morality. As Australia approached Federation, an increasing number of bills were passed in state parliaments to restrict the use of opium. By 1905, there were many laws in place which prohibited the import and use of smoking grade opium; however, by the 1930s, Australia had the developed the world's highest per capita rate of heroin consumption.
With the introduction of laws and policies which prohibited the import and use of opium, taxation income the government had previously been earning from opium imports was redundant. A customs report in 1908 noted that "it is very doubtful if such a prohibition has lessened to any great extent the amount bought into Australia."
Desmond Manderson, an expert on the history of Australian drug policy, has asserted that from this time forward, Australia's drug policies have been more dictated by international relations and a political need for moral panic than any concern for health and welfare (Manderson, 1993).
Following World War I, the Hague Conference and The Treaty of Versailles began to set international agreements on drug laws (Berridge, 1999). Britain signed the treaties on behalf of Australia, and from this point on, Australia's State and Territory governments have created their own laws and policies relating to illicit drug use. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was an increasingly internationalist approach to drug policy, overseen by the League of Nations, with Australia enacting a series of increasingly strict drug laws (Mandelson, 1987), despite the low incidence of illicit drug use in Australia during this period. Although Australia was initially influenced by the strict illicit drug controls and penalties promoted by the League of Nations, and subsequently the United Nations; following the end of the World War 2, Australia's illicit drug policies became increasingly influenced by the United States, due to the United States' increasingly pro-active participation in United Nations policy making and large financial contribution to United Nations budgets. Hence, the strong British influence on Australia's drug policies waned, and Australia's illicit drug policies shifted from a health and social focus to an increased focus on law enforcement and criminal justice.
Illicit drug use in Australia was popularized in Australia in the 1960s. The shifting of social and cultural norms in the 1960s counterculture, which explicitly involved a sense of revolution, created a youth culture which was enthusiastic about exploring altered states of consciousness and were keen to experiment with drugs. In 1960's Sydney, the most high-profile use of illicit drugs was focused around the Kings Cross area, whose reputation as a "red light district" attracted members of various international armed forces on leave from the Indochina Wars.
American troops stationed in major Australian cities such as Sydney provided access to drugs like heroin. Heroin became immensely popular during the Vietnam War-era, and was smuggled into the country from South East Asia through crime syndicates in collaboration with members of the Nugan Hand Bank and the C.I.A. Subsequently, drug use increased in the 1960s and 1970s, as did laws prohibiting illicit drug use and police powers. Since this period, Kings Cross has retained its reputation for vice and has remained a popular destination for tourists.
Prior to this time, drugs had been synonymous with Kings Cross and the neighboring suburb of Darlinghurst. In the 1920s and 1930s, local Razor Gangs achieved such a level of notoriety through their violent attempts to control the local cocaine trade, that Darlinghurst became colloquially known as "Razorhurst". In 1932, Phil Jeffs established one of the area's most notorious nightclubs, the Fifty-Fifty club, in which gambling, sex work, "sly-grog" (illicit alcohol) and cocaine were freely available. Jeffs avoided police attention by bribing high profile police officers to refrain from raiding the club.
Drug use increased exponentially by the mid-1980s. With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, transmission of the virus was identified as a serious public health risk for injecting drug users and media attention focusing on illicit drug use increased dramatically. A series of public health campaigns, known as the "Grim Reaper campaign" were televised in 1987, designed to increase awareness of the risk of transmission of virus; however, due to the "shock tactics" used in the advertisements, the campaign was criticized as further marginalizing groups at high risk of HIV/AIDS. In 1985, Australia's Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, revealed in a nationally televised interview that his daughter, Rosslyn, was a heroin user. Following Hawke's admission, a new drug initiative, the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NCADA), was launched. Roundtable discussions instigated by the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse produced a National Drug Strategy that has continued to provide a foundation for Australia's illicit drug policy approach.
Australia's first National Drug Strategy (1985), focused on demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction. However, studies have identified that this policy, which continues today, has failed as government funds are primarily focused on law enforcement, rather than prevention and treatment.
The death of Sydney teenager Anna Wood from ecstasy in 1995 prompted strong media coverage and moral outrage over concerns relating to teenage drug use in Australia and attacks on rave dance parties, where Wood consumed the drug and later became ill. Wood's parents later vehemently campaigned the "Just Say No" policy across the country to prevent the tragedy from re-occurring. However, despite state and federal governments investing millions of dollars in anti-drug campaigns, ecstasy use has increased amongst Australians, including young people.
During the 1990s, Australia experienced a heroin "epidemic", in which high quality, low priced heroin, imported from South East Asia, was readily available in many metropolitan, suburban and rural areas. However, since 2001, Australia has been experiencing what is being referred to as a "heroin drought", with high grade heroin being much more difficult to access.
As a result of this, many other illicit drugs have risen and fallen in popularity to fill this void, with prescription temazepam, morphine, oxycodone, methamphetamine and cocaine all being used as a substitute. 2008 has seen a reversal of this trend, with the arrival of Afghan heroin being seen in Sydney for the first time ever. Although anecdotal evidence from illicit drug users reject the claim, some researchers assert that the potency of heroin has since been on the rise, and is nearly comparable to the purity of heroin prior to 2000.
In 2001, the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre opened in Kings Cross. It was opened on the recommendation of the Wood Royal Commission. Prior to this, several venues such as strip clubs or brothels in Kings Cross rented out rooms to injecting drug users so that they could have a private and safe place to inject. This practice went on with unofficial approval by the police, as it kept injecting drug use off the streets and in the one area. This further allowed criminal activity to profit off illicit drug use, as many venue owners would sell rooms and drugs. The Wood Royal Commission identified that while there were benefits to these illegal shooting galleries, allowing police to cooperate with illegal activities could encourage corruption, it suggested an independent medical facility to continue providing safety for the users, and safety for the public by lessening the impact of drug use on the streets, such as discarded needles or drug related deaths.
The Australian Crime Commission's illicit drug data report for 2011–2012 was released in western Sydney on 20 May 2013 and revealed that the seizures of illegal substances during the reporting period were the largest in a decade due to record interceptions of amphetamines, cocaine and steroids. The report also stated that average strength of crystal methamphetamine doubled in most jurisdictions within a 12-month period and the majority of laboratory closures involved small "addict-based" operations.
The Melbourne inner-city suburbs of Richmond and Abbotsford are locations in which the use and dealing of heroin has been concentrated for a protracted time period. Research organisation the Burnet Institute completed the 2013 'North Richmond Public Injecting Impact Study' in collaboration with the Yarra Drug and Health Forum, City of Yarra and North Richmond Community Health Centre and recommended 24-hour access to sterile injecting equipment due to the ongoing "widespread, frequent and highly visible" nature of illicit drug use in the areas. During the period between 2010 and 2012 a four-fold increase in the levels of needles and syringes collected from disposal units and street-sweep operations was documented for the two suburbs. In the local government area the City of Yarra, of which Richmond and Abbotsford are parts, 1550 syringes were collected each month from public syringe disposal bins in 2012. Furthermore, ambulance callouts for heroin overdoses were 1.5 times higher than for other Melbourne areas in the period between 2011 and 2012 (a total of 336 overdoses), and drug-related arrests in North Richmond were also three times higher than the state average. The Burnet Institute's researchers interviewed health workers, residents and local traders, in addition to observing the drug scene in the most frequented North Richmond public injecting locations.
On 28 May 2013, the Burnet Institute stated in the media that it recommends 24-hour access to sterile injecting equipment in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray after the area's drug culture continues to grow after more than ten years of intense law enforcement efforts. The Institute's research concluded that public injecting behaviour is frequent in the area and inappropriately discarding injecting paraphernalia has been found in carparks, parks, footpaths and drives. Furthermore, people who inject drugs have broken open syringe disposal bins to reuse discarded injecting equipment.
A study (part of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 published in The Lancet), led by Professor Louisa Degenhardt from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, reported in late August 2013 that Australia has one of the world's most serious drug problems, caused by amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis and opioids. Co-author Professor Harvey Whiteford, from the University of Queensland, stated: "There is no doubt Australia has a culture, especially among our young people, which does not see the taking of illicit substances or binge drinking as particularly detrimental to the health. Our study suggests otherwise."
In mid-September 2013, research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics valued the contribution of the illicit drugs market to the Australian economy at A$6 billion, while tax avoidance is responsible for an additional A$20 billion. The same research also recorded a fall of 19 per cent between 2008 and 2013 due to a reduction in the sales of heroin and cannabis.
An Australian study released on September 16, 2013 showed that ambulance callouts for meth and amphetamine-related issues rose from 445 to 880 cases in Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria—this rise is attributed mainly to crystal methamphetamine, as attendance figures rose from 136 to 592 cases. The list of reasons for the callouts included anxiety, paranoia, palpitations, gastrointestinal symptoms, and self-harm.
2012 United Nations World Drug Report
The 2012 United Nations World Drug Report published data that indicated that Australia has one of the highest global prevalence of cannabis use. The report also stated that cocaine use had increased over the four years leading up to 2012. The use of methylenedioxymethylamphetamine (MDMA), more commonly known as "Ecstasy", declined from 3.7 per cent to 3.0 percent between 2007 and 2010; however, the highest number of manufacturing laboratory interceptions occurred in Australia during this period.
The Australian government enacted numerous policies in response to illicit drug use. During the 1980s, it was one of the first countries to enact the policy of "harm minimisation", which consists of three pillars: "demand reduction", "supply reduction" and "harm reduction". This policy is still in effect as of 2012 and the following outlines are contained in the The National Drug Strategy: Australia’s integrated framework document:
- Supply reduction strategies to disrupt the production and supply of illicit drugs, and the control and regulation of licit substances. It involves border security, Customs and prosecuting people involved in the trafficking of illicit substances.
- Demand reduction strategies to prevent the uptake of harmful drug use, including abstinence orientated strategies and treatment to reduce drug use; This involves programs promoting abstinence or treating existing users.
- Harm reduction strategies to reduce drug-related harm to individuals and communities. It is a policy that is a "safety net" to the preceding two policies. The threefold model accepts that demand prevention and supply prevention will never be completely effective, and if people are involved in risky activities, the damage they cause to themselves and society at large should be minimised. It involves programs like needle & syringe programs and safe injecting sites, which aim to prevent the spread of disease or deaths from overdoses, while providing users with support to reduce or stop using drugs.
In 2007 Bronwyn Bishop headed a federal parliamentary committee reported that the Government's harm reduction policy is not effective enough. It recommended re-evaluating harm reduction and a zero-tolerance approach for drug education in schools. The committee also wanted the law changed so children can be put into mandatory care if parents were found to be using drugs. It suggested "establish[ing] adoption as the ‘default’ care option for children aged 0–5 years where the child protection notification involved illicit drug use by the parent/s". The report says federal, state and territory governments should only fund treatment services that are trying to make people permanently drug-free and priority should go to those that are more successful.
The report was criticised by a range of organisations such as Family Drug Support, the Australian Democrats and the Australian Drug Foundation for lacking evidence, being ideologically driven and having the potential to do harm to Australia. The Labor Party authors also released a dissenting report. The report and its recommendations have been shelved since the election of the Rudd Government in 2007 (Rudd was prime minister until 2010).
A report authored by Professor Alison Ritter, the director of the drug policy modelling program at the University of NSW (UNSW), was released in June 2013 calculated that the Australian Government continues to spend A$1.7 billion dollars on its annual illicit drug response. Entitled "Government Drug Policy Expenditure in Australia", the report also concluded that the harm reduction arm of the government's policy, with 2.1 per cent of the drugs budget, or A$36 million, devoted to harm reduction in the 2009-10 financial year. During the same time period, A$361 million, or 21 per cent, was directed towards treatment and A$1.1 billion was expended on law enforcement. The report identifies a significant decrease in the proportion of funds allocated to harm reduction over time and Ritter expressed her concern in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper:
It's a shift in policy that hasn't been formally acknowledged. There is absolutely no reason that investment should have decreased. We don't have good evidence that law enforcement works, and we have anecdotal evidence I suppose that it might not work as a policy. We continue to arrest people and drugs keep coming into Australia … and profits continue to be made.
Drug law reform
A number of Australian and international groups have promoted reform in regard to 21st-century Australian drug policy. Organisations such as Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, Responsible Choice, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Norml Australia, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) Australia and Drug Law Reform Australia advocate for drug law reform without the benefit of government funding. The membership of some of these organisations is diverse and consists of the general public, social workers, lawyers and doctors, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy has been a formative influence on a number of these organisations.
Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform
The Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform consists of politicians from state and federal governments. Upon joining the group, all members sign a charter that states:
This Charter seeks to encourage a more rational, tolerant, non-judgmental, humanitarian and understanding approach to people who currently use illicit drugs in our community. The aims of the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform are to minimise the adverse health, social and economic consequences of Australia’s policies and laws controlling drug use and supply.
As of 1998, short-term goals of the Group include:
- an increasing focus on the reduction of harm associated with drug use
- abolition of criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs
- the adoption on a national basis of the South Australian and Australian Capital Territory expiation notice model for the reform of laws regarding the personal use of marijuana
- the adoption of a process including consultation and prescription by medical practitioners for selected illicit drugs
Long-term goals include "the reform of drug laws in planned stages with detailed evaluation of such laws at all stages and the minimisation of the harmful use of drugs".
According to its website, Responsible Choice is an organisation that was initiated in response to the criminalisation of cannabis in Australia, specifically in terms of the legalisation of alcohol, another drug that the organisation describes as "our ONLY legal similarly categorised substance". The organisation explains that its mission is to "enliven the debate as to whether or not cannabis should enjoy regulation within Australian society comparable to alcohol. It is also our intention to provide recent, relevant and factual information regarding both cannabis and alcohol" and Responsible Choice's "resident writer", Tim, further explains that:
As a parent I have come to realise that I no longer believe alcohol is a recreational drug I would encourage my children to use. Knowing full well that when the time comes the choice will not be mine to make, I have made it a goal of mine to investigate, research and comment on current drug policy juxtaposed with the negative effects alcohol, with a view towards providing researched based information to those who are seeking it. This has allowed me to see the place that cannabis should rightly have in our society, specifically in its capacity to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol.
As of February 2013, Responsible Choice provides support to the Australian Drug Law Reform political party.
Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation
The Charter of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation is "endorsed by the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform, seeks to encourage a more rational, tolerant and humanitarian approach to the problems created by drugs and drug use in Australia." Supporters of the organisation can provide financial donations, join the organisation as a member and review the website for its information resources. The website also lists numerous Australian supporters of drug law reform:
- Nicholas Cowdery AM QC Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions
- Ken Crispin QC (retired) Supreme Court Judge
- Professor Peter Baume AC Former Senator for New South Wales
- Geoff Gallop Former Premier of Western Australia
- Dr. Wendell J. Rosevear OAM
- The Hon. Amanda Ruth Fazio Member of the NSW Legislative Council
- The Hon. Richard Stanley Leigh Jones Former Member of the NSW Legislative Council
- Dr Mal Washer MP Federal Liberal Member for Moore
- Kate Carnell AO Former Chief Minister of the ACT
- Michael Moore CEO Public Health Association of Australia and Former Minister for Health and Community Care
- Mick Palmer AO APM Former Commissioner, Australian Federal Police
- Dr Michael Wooldridge Former Commonwealth Minister for Health
- Professor David Penington AC Former dean of medicine and vice-chancellor at Melbourne University
- The Hon. Cate Faehrmann Member of the NSW Legislative Council
- The Hon. John Della Bosca Former member of the NSW Legislative Council
The Hon. Stanley Lee Jones states on the website of the Foundation:
If heroin were legal today, as it was in 1953, society would not have a drug problem. I talked to a former member for Monaro who was a chemist and who dispensed heroin in the 1950s. He said he had no problems with his customers when heroin was legal. In those days 70 per cent of crime was not associated with drug prohibition: It did not exist because heroin was legal. The problems began only when heroin became illegal and a criminal fraternity developed around its sale, as occurred during the prohibition era of the 1930s when criminals made money by selling illegal alcohol. When there is a profit motive involved people will push any illegal substance. That is the key problem: If there were no profit motive there would be no incentive to push drugs on the streets of Cabramatta or anywhere else. When people finally realise that they will find a solution to the drug problem.
The Foundation features numerous reports that are available for download on its website, such as the Australia21 reports "Alternatives to Prohibition" and "The Prohibition of Ilicit Drugs: Killing and Criminalising Our Children", "A Balancing Act" from the Open Society Foundation, Release's "A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Policies in Practice Across the Globe", and "Children of the Drug War", edited by Damon Barrett and produced by Harm Reduction International.
NORM Australia is based in Kotara, New South Wales, produces a quarterly magazine (the first edition of the NORML Australia Magazine can be viewed online) and "supports the right of adults to use marijuana responsibly, whether for medical or personal purposes." The organisation "also supports the legalization of hemp (non-psychoactive marijuana) for industrial use." The organisation's website's membership list consists of 17 individuals, while the representatives of the organisation of the organisation are also listed on the website: Sean Sylvester (President), David Perkins (Vice President) and Vickie Blay (Treasury).
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) Australia
As of February 2013, Paul Cubitt, a former correctional officer who was originally based at Long Bay prison in New South Wales, Australia, is the President of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) Australia. Cubitt has revealed that successive employment positions within the Australian correctional and justice system, including a period at the Alexander Maconochie correctional centre in Canberra, Australia, and a vocational course led him to an understanding of "the harm that society is doing to people who are afflicted by drug abuse". As of February 2013, the website of the organisation is not functional.
Greg Denham, a former police officer who served in the Australian states of Queensland and Victoria, has conducted work on behalf of LEAP Australia in the Victorian capital city of Melbourne—as the executive officer of the Yarra Drug and Health Forum, Denham has also been a vocal supporter of a proposal to establish a supervised injecting facility in the Melbourne suburb of North Richmond.
Drug Law Reform Australia
The organisation, under the leadership of Greg Chipp, emerged prominently in 2013, and is a political outflow of non-political parents' and friends' groups for drug law reform. The organisation achieved the status of a political party in early 2013 by attracting in excess of 500 members, and fielded candidates in the 2013 Australian election. The goals of the Drug Law Reform Party are:
- Stop the senseless harm caused by the failed prohibition policies, which criminalize ordinary Australians for personal drug use.
- Advocate for conscience votes on single issues where legislation does not match the lived reality of large proportions of the Australian public.
- To encourage political and community debate of alternatives to the current drug laws.
- Call for a royal commission into organized crime and corruption associated with the drug trade.
- Through parliament representation, use the senate committees, and productivity commission to examine the current drug laws.
Global Commission on Drugs
In its 2011 report, the Global Commission on Drugs found that the "global war on drugs has failed." The Commission, headed by several former heads of state, a former UN Secretary General and others, observed that governments around the world must begin introducing "models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organi(z)ed crime and safeguard the health and safety of their citizens." With this in mind, the organisation, Australia 21, began researching drug policy in the Australian context.
In response to an 2011 international report by the Global Commission on Drugs, the organisation, Australia21 appointed a steering committee to evaluate Australia's current illicit drug policy. The report found that Australia's current drug policy, focused as it is, on criminalisation of supply and use of drugs, has driven the production and use of drugs underground and has "fostered the development of a criminal industry that is corrupting civil society and government and killing our children." They also noted that "[b]y defining the personal use and possession of certain psychoactive drugs as criminal acts, governments have also avoided any responsibility to regulate and control the quality of substances that are in widespread use." The report also highlighed the fact that, just as alcohol and tobacco are regulated for quality assurance, distribution, marketing and taxation, so should currently, unregulated, illicit drugs.
Australian illicit drug user organisations
In response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s, Australian drug users began to self-organize into community, peer-driven state and national drug user organisations. The aim of these organisations was to give voice to the experiences of Australian drug users and to advocate for drug-related policy reform, the provision of harm reduction prophylactics, the expansion of opioid substitution programs, to highlight the health issues affecting illicit drug users and to reduce the stigma and discrimination many illicit drug users experience. Drug user organisations have been recognized by state and federal governments as an effective strategy to educate illicit drug users in relation to techniques for avoiding blood-borne virus transmission, responding to drug overdose, safer injecting techniques, safer sex and legal issues. Australian drug user organisations use a peer education and community development approach to health promotion, with the aim of empowering illicit drug users by providing them with the skills they need to effect change in their own communities.
As of November 2012, every Australian State and Territory, with the exception of Tasmania, has a state-funded drug user organisation. A number of health services also employ illicit drug users to provide peer education in relation to specific issues affecting illicit drug users. Australia's peer-based drug user organisations are members of the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), a national drug user organisation, which advocates for changes to current illicit drug policy at a national level. As a member-based organisation, AIVL also supports State and Territory peer-based organisations to strengthen their internal governance structures, their capacity to provide services to illicit drug users and assists member-based organisations to develop advocacy strategies for engaging in localized drug-related policy issues.
AIVL is a member of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), an international network of drug user organisations and drug user activists, that advocate for the health and human rights of illicit drug users. INPUD facilitates representation by illicit drug users to lobby international policy-making bodies such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Harm Reduction International, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International AIDS Society.
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