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Illicit drug use is a social issue in Australia


Drug use in Australia


Prior to Australian Federation, there was little policy response to the use to illicit substances.[1] Opium was mostly unregulated, 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 was middle class, middle aged women who took the drug for menstrual pain or depression. The second was doctors, nurses and other health professionals, who used the drug as a relief from the stress of their work. The third was Chinese immigrants, amongst whom the drug was a recreational substance[1].

Old advertisement for Bayer Heroin.

Many of the initial attempts to control opium were initial motivated by racism, with anglo-celtic Australians citing opium use by Chinese Australians as a danger to health and morals.[1] 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.

Bayer Heroin bottle.

This removed the taxation income the government had previously been earning from opium imports. 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."[1]

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) [1].

Following World War I, the Hague Conference and The Treaty of Versailles began to set international agreements on drug laws (Berridge, 1999). Britain signed on behalf of Australia, and from this point on, the state governments have each had their own set of drug laws.[1]. 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 stricter and stricter drug laws (Mandelson, 1987).[1].

Kings Cross 1950.

During this period, illicit drug use in Australia was low. The shifting of cultural mores in the 1960s, and presence of US troops on leave from the Vietnam War changed this. The social revolution created a youth willing to experiment, and the troops stationed in major cities such as Sydney provided access to drugs like heroin.[1].

Illicit drug use in Australia began in earnest in Australia in the sixties. In Sydney it was focused around the Kings Cross area, which was a hot spot for tourists and members of various international armed forces on leave. Heroin became immensely popular at this time, and it was smuggled into the country from South East Asia. Prior to this time, drugs had been a part of the history of Kings Cross, as in the twenties, various gangs known as the Razor Gangs fought to control the profits from the distribution of cocaine.

Drug use increased in the 1960s and 1970s, as did prohibition laws and police powers. It reached a flashpoint in the mid 1980s as illicit drug use was given increasing attention in the media. In 1985, a teary Prime Minister Bob Hawke revealed his daughter's heroin use. Soon after, a new drug initiative was launched, the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NCADA). This document was the first implementation of the current policy approach.

Current situation

Australia is currently experiencing what is being referred to as the heroin drought, with high grade heroin being rare on the streets[2]. 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 [3]. 2008 has seen a reversal of this trend, with the arrival of Afghan heroin being seen in Sydney for the first time ever [4]. In 2001, the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre opened in Kings Cross. It was opened on the recommendation of the Wood Royal Commission.

Heroin Injection

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 the streets, such as discarded needles or drug related deaths.[5]

Policy Response

Australia has been at the forefront of drug policy around the world. In the eighties, it was one of the first countries to enact harm minimisation, which entailed the threefold policies of demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction. This policy is still in effect today, and is outlined in the The National Drug Strategy: Australia’s integrated framework as the following:

Clean injecting equipment
  • Supply reduction strategies to disrupt the production and supply of illicit drugs, and the control and regulation of licit substances.[6] 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;[6] This involves programs promoting abstinence or treating existing users.
  • Harm reduction strategies to reduce drug-related harm to individuals and communities.[6] It is a policy that is a safety net to the preceding two policies. The threefold model accepts that harm 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.

Bishop's Report

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.[7][8]

The report was widely criticised by a range of organisations such as Family Drug Support[9], The Australian Democrats[10] and The Australian Drug Foundation[11] for lacking evidence, being ideologically driven and having the potential to do massive 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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Hamilton, Margaret (2001). "Australia's Drug Policy - Our Own?". in Jurg Gerber, Eric L. Jensen (Essay Collection). Drug War, American Style: The Internationalization of Failed Policy and Its Alternatives. Taylor & Francis. pp. 97–120.,M1. Retrieved 19 May 2008.  
  2. ^ Don Weatherburn, Craig Jones, Karen Freeman & Tony Makkai (October 2001). "The Australian Heroin Drought and its impact for drug policy". Contemporary issues in Crime and Justice (59): 1–15.  
  3. ^$file/Mono.60.pdf NDARC Australian Drug Trends 2006
  4. ^ SMH article - Afghan brown heroin hits Sydney streets.
  5. ^ Report on the Establishment or Trial of Safe Injecting Rooms By The Joint Select Committee into Safe Injecting Rooms, Parliament of New South Wales, Executive Summary
  6. ^ a b c Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (2004). The National Drug Strategy: Australia’s integrated framework. Canberra: The Commonwealth of Australia
  7. ^ ABC News: Govt drug policy 'should be zero-tolerance' Thu Sep 13, 2007
  8. ^ Standing Committee on Family and Human Services (2007). The winnable war on drugs: The impact of illicit drug use on families. Canberra: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.
  9. ^ Family Drug Support (2007). An Opportunity Missed: A Considered Response to the ‘Winnable War on Drugs’ Report of the House Standing Committee on Family & Human Services.
  10. ^ Sen. Andrew Murray (2007). Senate Hansard, 18th September 2007, 10:20pm
  11. ^ Bill Stronach (2007). Illicit Drugs and the Family: Parliamentary report lacks credibility and pragmatism Australian Drug Foundation

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