Drug laws


Position statement

Attempts to control drug use through the criminal justice system have clearly failed. Instead of reducing harm, current laws have negative health and social impacts on individuals, our communities and the nation as a whole. Criminal convictions often have adverse life-changing consequences, while failing to prevent hospitalisations and premature deaths. Drug law reforms urgently need to be introduced by all Australian Governments and greater resourcing should be allocated to treatment and rehabilitation.

The goals of drug law reforms should be: reducing deaths, disease, crime and corruption; improving the protection of human rights of all Australian citizens (especially young people); and reducing the burden on the criminal justice system, taxpayers and families.



  1. The overriding objective of Australia’s national policy on drugs should be the minimisation of harm to users and those around them.
  2. The policy should include substantially reducing the size of (or eliminating) the criminal supply, by incrementally moving psychoactive drugs from the black market.
  3. More proportionate funding should be directed into harm minimisation and away from ineffective drug law enforcement.
  4. It should be recognised that criminal and antisocial behaviour resulting from drug use is largely a result of the high costs of maintaining a drug habit and only in some cases the specific effect of the drug.
  5. Users should be able to submit drugs for testing in a controlled environment to prevent avoidable deaths and overdoses.
  6. Current practices to test drivers for the presence of psychoactive substances should be to ascertain whether the driver is unsafe or unfit to drive, especially as new laws governing use of medicinal cannabis come into effect.
  7. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that include arrest rates for use and possession of psychoactive substances should be considered only partial measures of ‘success’, unless they also include harm reduction measures.
  8. Savings made from cutting back unproductive law enforcement activities should be re-allocated within law enforcement to areas of greater benefit to the community.
  9. Opioid Substitution Treatment (OST), including methadone and buprenorphine, should be available for all heroin-dependent prisoners, sentenced and remanded, and should continue to be available following release at reduced cost.
  10. The potential for an expanded OST service to substantially reduce the Australian prison population and associated costs should be explored by state and federal taskforces and warrants serious attention by the Australian Productivity Commission and the Australian Law Reform Commission.
  11. In view of the long and successful operation of the medically supervised injecting centre in Sydney, serious consideration should be given to the establishment of controlled drug consumption rooms in other parts of Australia.
  12. Australian authorities should review the effectiveness of the 2013 New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act.
  13. Two pilot projects to trial and evaluate the health and social programs recommended in this report should be conducted — one in a remote disadvantaged community and another in an urban community with substantial social and drug related problems.


Current work

Australia21 - Drug users and law enforcers stand side by side for drug law reform March 2017

In September 2015, Australia21 held a third Roundtable on drug laws, with law and law enforcement experts. The groundbreaking report from the Roundtable was released in March 2017, with a call for an end to criminal penalties for personal use and possession and a new focus on addressing the health and social issues associated with drug-taking.

Former premiers, police chiefs, prison officers and lawyers stood side-by-side with drug users and their families, to throw down the gauntlet on drug law reform, in response to the findings.

‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’ was launched by former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr, causing a flood of public and media interest.

It was a powerful sign that Australians are losing their stomach for the failed War on Drugs and instead want an end to avoidable deaths and criminal convictions that ruin lives and often push people towards harder drug use.

Leading the charge was the Roundtable convenor, Australia21 Emeritus Director Mick Palmer. Mr Palmer was the Australian Federal Police Commissioner from 1994 to 2001 and the Northern Territory Police Commissioner from 1998 to 1994.

“Law enforcement can’t solve what is a serious issue and we need a more multi-faceted approach to deal with the problem,” he said.

“What we now have is badly broken, ineffective and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy.”

Jeff Kennett, who is the founder of BeyondBlue, called for a new era of brave politics.

“The issue of deaths and wasted lives should always be a top priority for any we elect to govern our affairs. Yet in this area of drugs, I don’t think it gets that priority,” he said.

Mr Kennett pointed out there had been no ‘seminal advance’ in 40 to 50 years with the exception of Sydney’s safe injecting facility, which the report suggested should be replicated elsewhere in Australia.

“Where are the legislators today with the courage to try something different that might, in some way, bring about a change of direction in this particular area of pursuit? I’ve got to say to you, I can’t see them anywhere at the moment.”

Bob Carr, who also served as Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said there should be wide consultation about introducing more medically supervised injecting rooms and pill testing at music events.

“Let’s not be dogmatic, let’s be open minded.”

The Australia21 report calls for an approach that distinguishes between high-end production and trafficking on the one hand, and personal use and possession on the other.

It does not recommend open-slather legalisation of all drugs; instead, it supports incremental, robustly evaluated steps towards a national policy of decriminalisation, standardising the discretionary approach to personal use and possession of cannabis and other substances that is already being adopted by frontline law enforcers at the state and territory level.

Advertising of any legalised and regulated drugs would not be permitted and some harder substances would require stringent controls, such as prescription by a doctor.


Jill Wran and others at drug law reform report launch      



Read more about the launch here.

Read what doctors and drug users said about the report here.

Read the full report here.


Previous roundtable reports and discussion papers

Download Discussion Paper 1 What are the likely costs and benefits of a change in Australia’s policy on illicit drugs
McDonald, D 2011, A Background paper for an Australia21 roundtable, Sydney, 31 January 2012, addressing the question: What are the likely costs and benefits of a change in Australia’s current policy on illicit drugs? Australia21, Canberra.

Download Report 1 The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen
Douglas, R & McDonald, D 2012, The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen, Australia21, Canberra.

Download Discussion Paper 2 What can Australia learn from different approaches to drugs in Europe including especially Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden?
Hughes, C & Wodak, A 2012, A Background paper for an Australia21 roundtable, Melbourne, 6 July 2012, addressing the question: What can Australia learn from different approaches to drugs in Europe including especially Portugal,Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden? Australia21, Canberra.

Download Report 2 Alternatives to prohibition: Illicit drugs: How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians
Douglas, R, Wodak, A & McDonald, D 2012, Alternatives to prohibition: Illicit drugs: How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians, Australia21, Canberra.



Participants in Australia21’s first illicit drugs roundtable held at the University of Sydney, January 2012

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