Time to refresh Australia’s National Drug Strategy
2 Sep 2015|

No drugs

In April 2015, the Commonwealth Government established a National Ice Task Force to develop a National Ice Action Strategy. With the establishment of the National Ice Task Force one could be forgiven for thinking that Australia doesn’t have a national drug strategy. But Australia does have a time-tested drug strategy, and it’s scheduled for review at the end of the year.

Australia’s strategic policy responses to its illicit drug problem have their origins in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, as heroin became a central part of pop culture, Australia experienced the first symptoms of what would, by the 1990s, become a national heroin epidemic. The combined impacts of the emergence of HIV and AIDS and then-prime minister Bob Hawke’s admission that his daughter was a heroin addict led to a national groundswell that created a space for improved public policy dialogue.

In 1985, public support for a Commonwealth response resulted in the formation of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse. During the campaign’s initial stages of development, the nascent concepts that underpin Australia’s national drug strategy emerged. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse was based on the theory that Australia’s policy approach needed to be built on three key pillars: demand, supply and harm reduction. In those early days of the national strategy, each pillar of the strategy—and their associated policies—were implemented as separate priorities.

By the mid-1990s, Australia faced a steep increase in heroin-related deaths that substantiated the fact that the nation was in the midst of a heroin epidemic. This period was also marked by increases in the treatment for heroin addiction, arrests for heroin possession and hepatitis C infections.

In 1997, the Howard Government initiated its Tough on Drugs strategy as the national response to the heroin epidemic. The initiative was based on the same three pillars advocated by the national Campaign Against Drug Abuse. The title of the strategy, and the conservative perspectives that underpinned it, led to many mistaking the strategy for an Australian version of the American ‘War on Drugs’.

(The ‘War on Drugs’ is a long-standing, global policy proposed by Richard Nixon in the 1970s. The policy itself sought to act as rhetoric to draw together US and eventually global efforts on the basis of the symbolic declaration of a war. The rhetoric allowed for US law enforcement agencies access to extraordinary powers including the deployment of military capabilities. But without integrated demand reduction strategies the War on Drugs has done little to stem the social harm of drugs.)

A review by the Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs found that the Tough on Drugs initiative led to the seizure of over 14 tonnes of heroin, and a substantive reduction in opioid overdoses. However, the real success of the strategy wasn’t achieved by declaring a war on drugs, but through the integration of enforcement, education and treatment efforts from the streets to the parliament.

The overuse of the term ‘integration’, especially in Australian policy circles, has arguably seen it become a cliché rather than a national strategy for countering narcotics. But Australia’s experiences with national responses to illicit drugs in the 1990s revealed that the integration of education, health and enforcement efforts into a single strategy offers one of the few innovative policy responses to illicit drugs.

Around December 2000 the Australian domestic illicit drug market began to experience a shortage in heroin which would continue for almost ten years.

In 2010, Australian state and territory governments and the private sector worked together to develop the National Drug Strategy 2010–2015. With the heroin drought a distant memory, the ‘operationalisation’ of the nation’s drug strategy changed. The strategy sought to improve ‘health, social and economic outcomes for Australians by preventing the uptake of harmful drug use and reducing the harmful effects of licit and illicit drugs in our society’.

While senior health, education and enforcement officials continue to meet regularly to discuss policy focused on harm reduction, the integration of these strategies is rarely achieved. Policy integration pushes for more inter-sectorial interaction. Drug strategies have a better chance of being successful when each initiative is integrated into a strategically focused harm reduction strategy.

It’s important to note that this integration is probably only possible when enforcement, education and treatment are supported by a shared theoretical perspective. For instance, the Tough on Drugs initiative was underpinned by the stance that government must support a zero tolerance position to drugs.

More than 1.3 million Australians aged fourteen years and older have used methamphetamines in their lifetime; and 400,000 Australians are using ice on regular basis.

With the current National Drug Strategy expiring in December 2015, and Australia facing a substantive problem with ice, it’s time revisit both our strategy using the policy lessons of the heroin epidemic and international best practice. The policy professionals responsible for the development of our next strategy should consider the importance of the integration of supply, demand and harm reduction strategies. In a practical sense, joint planning and coordination of enforcement, education and health should extend from strategic to tactical levels.

There will be no simple solutions for Australian policymakers trying to address the ‘ice epidemic’; and the lessons we’ve learned should underpin future policy responses. These lessons have taught us that harm, supply, and demand reduction are important—but aren’t as effective as they could be if they aren’t integrated in a strategy focussed on harm minimisation.