UNGASS Women 2016: Australia

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Australia has several harm reduction and harm minimization programs in place, including safe injection sites and needle exchange and methadone programs; however, it has also pursued several punitive policies focused on arrests and incarceration in an attempt to reduce the supply of drugs. According to the Australian Crime Commission, in 2013-2014, drug arrests were the highest ever on record.[1] In 2014, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott commented, “We are ensuring that the war on drugs is fought as fiercely as we humanly can. It’s not a war we will ever finally win. The war on drugs is a war you can lose – you may not ever win it, but you’ve always got to fight it.”[2] Australia’s increasingly punitive approach is harmful to women, who often operate on the lowest rungs of drug trafficking organizations and are thus exposed to great risk of arrest and have no bargaining power when it comes to making plea deals in exchange for information. Further, Australia’s criminalization of drug use puts healthy drug users behind bars, and isolates women with substance abuse disorders from treatment options and support structures.

According to the Australian Drug Foundation’s latest statistics (for November 2014), 15% of Australians had used drugs in the previous twelve months.[3] The Foundation did not disaggregate their data by gender. Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in Australia, and the drug that the most arrests are made for.[4]

Drug policies

For most of the twentieth century, Australia pursued deterrence-based drug control strategies and criminalized drugs in line with international conventions, but due to there being little drug use in the country, there were relatively few arrests. When drug use increased in the 1960s, greater resources were devoted to drug law enforcement, maximum penalties were raised, new offenses were created, and the number of arrests increased – cannabis-related arrests in New South Wales rose by almost 1,000% between 1966 and 1969. However, there was no accompanying decrease in drug use, drug-related crime increased, and the spread of HIV/AIDS forced the government to reassess its drug policies.[5]

In the mid-1980s, Australia moved to treating drug use as a health rather than a criminal justice issue, and focused its drug policies on harm reduction through the National Campaign Against Drug Use. Despite the introduction of harm reduction programs such as the Needle and Syringe Programs and the roll out of public education on drugs and their health implications, drug use continued to increase: household surveys show that illicit drug use rose by 29% between 1995 and 1998. Cannabis use rose by 37%, cocaine use by 40%, heroin by 50% and amphetamines use by 76%. Drug-related fatalities also increased: opiate overdose deaths rose from six in 1964 to 321 in 1990 and 1,116 in 1999.[6]

Australia introduced its National Illicit Drug Strategy “Tough on Drugs” in 1998, in response to this increase in drug use. The strategy focused on reducing trafficking of drugs into Australia by strengthening border patrols and police investigations, but it also contained a harm reduction component that provided for public education, increased treatment options, the creation of safe drug use spaces, and the diversion of drug users away from prison and into treatment programs. In the first ten years of the strategy’s implementation, the government spent over AUD$1.4 billion on drug-control initiatives.[7] Subsequent National Drug Strategies have stemmed from this initial Strategy.

Australia’s ‘drug threshold’ laws (applicable in all states except Queensland) distinguish between drug possession for personal use and for trafficking. In an attempt to focus on eliminating the drug trade rather than punishing drug users, the courts treat people found in possession of small quantities deemed intended for personal use less severely than those found with quantities deemed to be intended for trafficking. However, drug users’ knowledge of what the exact thresholds are is poor, so people are often not aware that they could be considered to be trafficking drugs.[8] The thresholds for MDMA are particularly low, putting MDMA users at greater risk of arrest and prosecution than users of other drugs; and users in New South Wales and South Australia are particularly at risk because the thresholds for commonly used drugs in these states are very low.[9] Such laws result in women in possession of drugs intended for personal use being prosecuted for trafficking offenses, which carry far higher penalties.

In 2014, the state of Victoria increased the baseline sentence for drug trafficking,[10] significantly beyond what had been recommended by the Sentencing Advisory Council.[11] The baseline sentence was doubled, from seven years to fourteen years. This increase not only represented a move towards introducing mandatory sentences and restricting judicial discretion, but was indicative of an increasingly punitive approach to drug-related activities. The raised baseline sentence exposes women, who are more likely to be charged with small-scale, non-violent drug-related offences, to unnecessary and disproportionately long periods of incarceration.

New South Wales’ drug sniffer dogs program[12] – whereby sniffer dogs are deployed in public places, and when they detect something on a person the person is stopped and searched by the police – has been highly problematic. Tens of thousands of people – most of whom had not been carrying drugs – have been searched by police: in 2013, nearly 17,800 people were searched, 64% of whom were not carrying drugs. The program has also been linked to an increase in overdoses: people seeking to avoid carrying their drugs with them consume them all before leaving home. Although the program does not discriminate based on gender, the use of dogs has been concentrated in poorer neighborhoods with larger Aboriginal communities, indicating that the program is racially and economically biased. Such punitive policing and targeting of vulnerable communities results in stigmatization and criminalization, which can disproportionately affect women.

The impact on women

The Australian female prison population has grown significantly over the last decade: in December 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported an 8.4% increase over the previous twelve months and a 48% increase over the previous ten years. It is growing at a notably faster rate than the male population: in 2012, the male prison population had grown by 0.4% over the previous twelve months and 29% over the previous ten years.[13] In 2015, there were 1,996 sentenced women in Australian prisons, 17.7% of whom were incarcerated for drug-related offences; comparatively, 11.9% of the male prison population was incarcerated for drug-related offences.[14]

Research on Australian women detained by the police shows that women in conflict with the law tend to be socio-economically disadvantaged, and often responsible for the care of dependent children.[15] Debbie Kilroy, CEO of Sisters Inside, has observed that “Among all criminalized women, we are seeing the so called ‘war on drugs’ really becoming a war on the most dispossessed, as we see increased numbers of women resorting to using, selling, or otherwise dealing in legal or illegal drugs in order to cope with everyday life and/or to allow them to gain extra financial resources in order to cope and survive.”[16] Indeed, drug use and criminal activity are more strongly correlated amongst Australian women than Australian men,[17] and female police detainees are more likely than male detainees to attribute their offending to illegal drug use.[18]

Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to incarceration: nationally, Aboriginal women account for over a third (34%) of the Australian female prison population.[19] In some rural areas of Australia, the majority of women in prison are Aboriginal – for example, in Townsville, Aboriginal women account for 80% of the female prison population.[20] Compared with non-Indigenous women, Indigenous women detained by the police tend to be younger, less educated and living in public housing, and more likely to be unemployed and to be caring for children.[21]

In the general Australian population, women are more likely than men to have a substance abuse disorder co-occurring with one or more affective or anxiety disorders (44% vs 31%).[22] The criminalization of drug use thus results in the incarceration of women with substance abuse disorders, without accompanying treatment for these and other disorders. This does nothing to address the underlying causes of women’s substance abuse disorders, and serves only to isolate them from treatment programs and support. There remains an urgent need to emphasize early intervention and harm minimization for Australian women who use drugs, instead of pursuing criminalization and punishment.

Despite women’s increased vulnerability to incarceration for drug-related offences, Australia’s current National Drug Strategy 2010-2015[23] and the proposed, but not yet finalized National Drug Strategy 2016-2025[24] fail to provide any gendered analysis of drug-related issues that would ensure that issues specific to Australian women are adequately addressed.

Proposals for reform 

The Drug Advisory Council of Australia and Drugfree Australia’s joint submission to UNGASS 2016 argues that demand reduction should be the primary focus of global drug policy and that this is more effective than treatment and harm reduction. They suggest that “a shift from harm reduction policies, for example, needle exchange and drug substitutes such as methadone, which are favoured policies in Australia, to a more drug-free attitude needs to occur”.[25] This argument ignores the strong body of evidence indicating that harm reduction strategies are much more effective than prohibition and demand reduction. The abolition of Australia’s existing harm reduction and treatment programs would stigmatize drug users, put intravenous drug users at risk of contracting HIV and other diseases, remove crucial treatment services for those attempting to stop using drugs, and potentially lead to an increase in drug overdoses.

There have been calls from both members of government and civil society for the decriminalization of drugs in Australia. In February 2016, Nicholas Cowdery, the former New South Wales director of public prosecutions, and Richard Di Natale, the federal Australian Greens party leader, called on Australian state governments to consider decriminalizing drug possession and use. Cowdery said, "I am calling on the legalization, regulation, control and taxation of all drugs. … It's extremely frustrating to see the criminal justice system brought in to attach criminal records and all of the trauma that goes with it to people that are not criminals and who are not harming society."[26]

In an annual parliamentary drug policy summit held in March 2016, doctors and researchers encouraged the Australian parliament to fully decriminalize drug possession and use.[27] This would mark Australia’s return to its previously progressive approach to drugs – as indicted by such initiatives as the early adoption of safe injection sites in 2001[28] – that has been overtaken by a more punitive approach in recent years.


[1] Australian Crime Commission. 2014. Illicit Drug Data Report 2013-2014. At: https://crimecommission.gov.au/publications/intelligence-products/illicit-drug-data-report/illicit-drug-data-report-2013-14 [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[2] Mark Colvin. April 29, 2014. “Australia losing its war on drugs.” PM with Mark Colvin. At: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2014/s3994435.htm [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[3] Australian Drug Foundation. 2014. “Statistical trends.” DrugInfo. At:  http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/topics/statistics-trends [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[4] Australian Crime Commission. 2014.

[5] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2008. Drug Policy and Results in Australia. At: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/Drug_Policy_Australia_Oct2008.pdf [Accessed March 22, 2016].

[6] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2008.

[7] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2008.

[8] Hughes, C. E., Ritter, A., Cowdery, N. and Sindicich, N. 2014. “‘Trafficking’ or ‘personal use’: Do people who regularly inject drugs understand Australian drug trafficking laws?” Drug and Alcohol Review. 33: 658–666.

[9] Hughes, C., Ritter, A., Cowdery, N. and Phillips, B. 2014. “Australian threshold quantities for ‘drug trafficking’: Are they placing drug users at risk of unjustified sanction?”. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice. 467. Australian Institute of Criminology. At: http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/461-480/tandi467.html [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[10] Sentencing Advisory Council. 2016. “Baseline Sentencing”. At: https://www.sentencingcouncil.vic.gov.au/about-sentencing/baseline-sentencing [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[11] Lee, J. April 3, 2014. “Attorney-General Robert Clark lifts jail terms for major crimes”. The Age. At: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/attorneygeneral-robert-clark-lifts-jail-terms-for-major-crimes-20140402-35yw4.html [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[12] Corderoy, A. November 30, 2014.  “Drug searches: thousands falsely identified by sniffer dogs.” Sydney Morning Herald. At: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/drug-searches-thousands-falsely-identified-by-sniffer-dogs-20141128-11wlty.html [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics. December 6, 2012. “Women prisoners increasing at a faster rate than men”. At: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4517.0Media+Release12012 [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[14] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016. “4125.0 – Gender Indicators, Australia, Feb 2016”. At: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4125.0Feb%202016?OpenDocument [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[15] Loxley, W. and Adams, K. 2009. “Women, drug use and crime: findings from the Drug Use Monitoring in Australia program.” AIC Reports: Research and Public Policy Series 99. Australian Government and Australian Institute of Criminology. At: http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/rpp/81-99/rpp99.html [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[16] Kilroy, D. May 22, 2012. “Women & Girls in Prison: Australia’s Alternative to Equality & Justice.” JCU Criminology Lecture. At: http://www.sistersinside.com.au/media/Speeches/Women%20&%20Girls%20in%20Prison%20Australia%92s%20Alternative%20to%20Equality%20&%20Justice%20JCU%20Lecture%2022%20May%202012.pdf [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[17] Willis, K. and Rushforth, C. 2003. “The Female Criminal: An Overview of Women’s Drug Use and Offending Behaviour.” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice. 264. Australian Institute of Criminology. At: http://www.aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/tandi_pdf/tandi264.pdf [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[18] Loxley, W. and Adams, K. 2009.

[19] Kilroy, D. May 22, 2012.

[20] Kilroy, D. May 22, 2012.

[21] Loxley, W. and Adams, K. 2009.

[22] Lee, K., Harrison, K., Mills, K. and Conigrave, K.M. 2014. “Needs of Aboriginal Australian women with comorbid mental and alcohol and other drug use disorders.” Drug and Alcohol Review. 33 (5): 473-481. At: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dar.12127/full [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[23] Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy. 2011. The National Drug Strategy 2010-2015: A framework for action on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Commonwealth of Australia. At: http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/Publishing.nsf/content/nds2015 [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[24] Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs. October 2015. National Drug Strategy 2016-2025. Draft: for public consultation. Australian Government. At: http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/Publishing.nsf/content/draftnds [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[25] Baxter, J. January 7, 2015. “D.A.C.A (Drug Advisory Council of Australia) and Drugfree Australia (DfA) UNGASS 2016 Submission: Prevention & Demand Reduction Focus.” At: https://www.unodc.org/documents/ungass2016/Contributions/Civil/DrugFreeAustralia/UNGASS_submission_170715DACA.002.pdf [Accessed August 25, 2015].

[26] AAP. February 19, 2016. “Ex-NSW DPP pushes to legalise drugs.” 9news. http://www.9news.com.au/national/2016/02/19/15/03/ex-nsw-dpp-boss-pushes-to-legalise-drugs [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[27] Safi, M. March 1, 2016. “Parliamentary drug summit to hear case in favour of decriminalising possession.” The Guardian. At:
http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/mar/02/parliamentary-drug-summit-to-hear-case-in-favour-of-decriminalising-possession [Accessed March 23, 2016].

[28] Safi, M. March 1, 2016; Australian Drug Foundation. 2015. “Supervised injecting facilities.” DrugInfo. At:  http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/topics/supervised-injecting-facilities [Accessed March 23, 2016].