Summary of Australia21’s third report on drug law reform
20 March 2017
The Australian media carries stories about illicit drugs on an almost daily basis. This
coverage reflects not only a widespread anxiety about the threat of illicit drugs to young
Australians, but also a growing awareness that ‘we cannot arrest and imprison our way out
of this intractable mess’.
Australia21 gathered for a one day Roundtable involving 11 senior and experienced law and
law enforcement officials, supplemented by five people from drug services and drug
research, to consider how Australia could start to make some progress in this difficult field.
Like most other countries, Australia has over the last half-century relied heavily on efforts to
control the supply of illicit drugs. The results have been disappointing. During this period the
drug market has continued to expand and become more dangerous. Even worse, drug-related
deaths, disease, crime, corruption, violence and threats to national security have
Senior law enforcement leaders and prominent politicians have acknowledged that our
current approach offers little hope for improved outcomes. Meanwhile, the international
drug policy consensus has begun to unravel. In recent years a growing list of countries has
started to treat illicit drugs as primarily a health and social issue, requiring far more political
and financial investment in these areas. A number of countries have reduced or eliminated
penalties for drug possession for personal consumption. Some have started to regulate
cannabis, establish drug consumption rooms, and provide treatment with pharmaceutical
heroin for people with severe and intractable problems. The results of these approaches
have been encouraging. About a dozen new measures were discussed and broadly
supported by the Roundtable.
Several decades ago Australia gained an international reputation as a country willing to try
new approaches to protect our health and well-being. Our politicians from several parties
worked well together and managed the transition to pragmatism superbly. But the capacity
to continue the reform process dried up. For many years, countries in Western Europe and
the Americas have been the ones trying new approaches while Australia has just looked on.
Our capacity for reform has been gridlocked.
Meanwhile, Australia’s drug problems have grown steadily worse. Australia21’s first report
on illicit drugs argued the case that our national approach to drugs was failing to deliver the
sorts of outcomes we were entitled to expect. Our second report on drugs argued that other
countries were now benefitting from changing their approach. In this, Australia21’s third
report on illicit drugs, a Roundtable dominated by senior people from a law and law
enforcement background endorsed 13 specific strategies.
Essentially, this approach involves: reducing and where possible eliminating penalties for
drug possession and use; expanding and improving the health and social assistance provided
to our young people with drug problems; and, where possible, undermining the black
market for illicit drugs with a regulated ‘white’ market. But retail sale of quantities of high
purity drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ice is now illegal and we believe should always be
illegal. Australia21 makes no apology for emphasising that we hope Australia’s approach to
drug policy reform will be incremental and dominated by rigorous evaluation.
The political and other difficulties in attempting to regulate as much of the drug market as
possible should not be under-estimated. But the health, social and economic costs of
continuing a ‘business as usual’ approach are also clearly growing. For many years, a
dysfunctional drug policy has had poor outcomes, except for politicians playing for a ‘tough
on drugs’, ‘law and order’ image. Those days of fear-mongering appear to be coming to an
Not only have attempts to reduce the supply of drugs been disappointing, but also attempts
to reduce the demand for drugs. Young people increasingly growing up in a world with
shrinking hope for the future find a brief chemical vacation an attractive alternative to
limited education and employment opportunities. The consequences of growing inequality
cannot be ignored indefinitely: we have to achieve a major reduction in severe poverty.
Australia21 seeks to start a national conversation about the conclusions and
recommendations in this report. We hope that the political culture in drug policy will soon
be changed and that an area dominated for many years by moralism, stigma and fear
campaigns will increasingly be dominated by compassion, respect for evidence, cost
effectiveness, respect for the rule of law and a search for better outcomes. We support a
drug policy which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs, their
families and communities, while minimising financial and other costs to the community and
Download this Media Release
Media Release - Summary of Australia21 Report - Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely? on 20 March 2017
Download the Roundtable Report
Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely - Roundtable report (Editors: Mick Palmer, Alex Wodak, Bob Douglas and Lyn Stephens)