Illicit drug use in Australia
By Megan Wood
Legal Studies, Current eventsEDUCATION LEVEL:
Most Australians would be aware of the existence of illegal drugs but would not realise how widespread
the use of these drugs actually is. Roughly 40% of adult Australians admit to using cannabis at least
once in their lives. Many people believe that cannabis is a relatively low risk drug, but there are other
harmful drugs that have seeped into Australian culture and have become a part of it, whether we like it
Illegal or illicit drugs are drugs that are not permitted by law, this means that people cannot use,
produce, sell or import them. There are even restrictions on the importation of certain ingredients used
for the production of drugs, such as pseudoephedrine which is used in the production of
“Drugs, both legal and illegal, are a part of our social life and culture, especially for younger people.”
In fact, in a Queensland survey, as many as 36 per cent of secondary school students questioned
tried cannabis at least once, 6-8 per cent have used amphetamines and there are a staggering 74,000
There are obvious risks to using illicit drugs. There are the legal risks as well as the risk of potential
physical and psychological harm. The effects of illicit drugs are extremely varied, for example many
people will have no adverse reaction to cannabis while others will experience feelings of extreme
paranoia and some heavy users even develop drug induced psychosis, a condition similar to
“The consequences of illicit drug use include physical health outcomes such as kidney, liver and heart damage, loss of memory or concentration, depression, the transmission of viruses through sharing needles, as well as psychological and physical addiction.”
The number of deaths resulting from illicit drug use is significant, but relatively small in comparison to the number of deaths due to the use of legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol. “According to recent
statistics in Australia, 19,019 deaths were associated with tobacco use; 3271 deaths related to alcohol
use; 1023 deaths resulted from illicit drug use.” Australian drug laws
“Drug laws in Australia distinguish between those who use drugs and those who supply or traffic
however there are many similarities and what is illegal in one state will most likely be illegal in
another. As a guide, these are the “five main drug offences in Victoria:
1. Use of a drug of dependence
2. Possession of a drug of dependence
3. Cultivation of a narcotic plant
4. Trafficking in a drug of dependence
5. Conspiracy to commit any of the above 4 offences.”
The penalties that someone might receive for possession or use of drugs vary greatly. Each case is
considered separately and the amount of drugs involved and whether or not it is a first offence will
affect the court’s decision greatly. Some examples of the penalties that someone might receive for
specific drug offences are:
- Trafficking a commercial quantity of any illegal drug, 3 – 25 years in prison and a $5,000 – $250,000
- Trafficking less than a commercial quantity of any drug, 3 – 15 years in prison and a $500 -
- Possession of a drug, 1 – 3 years in prison and a $3,000 - $5,000 fine.
- Use of a drug, maximum of 1 year in prison and a $3,000 fine (the use of cannabis may only incur a
warning and a fine).
Types of drugs
Cannabis, or marijuana, is a drug obtained from the leaves, stems, flowers and seeds of
the Cannabis sativa plant. The main psychoactive compound in cannabis is THC (delta-9
tetrahydrocannabinol). Cannabis is most commonly purchased in the form of dried leaves and flowers,
• cannabis is a depressant that has some mild hallucinogenic properties • cannabis can effect coordination, reduce attention span and cause short term memory loss• cannabis is generally smoked (either in cigarette form or through a water pipe) or it can be ingested as an ingredient in food.
• the cultivation, possession, use and supply of cannabis is illegal throughout Australia as is its importation• some states have moved towards decriminalising the possession of small quantities of
Amphetamines are produced from an oil base. The most common form of
amphetamine production is to convert the oil into a power. The powder may be made into capsules or
tablets. Methamphetamine may appear as rock-like crystals or as a liquid. Facts:
• amphetamines are stimulant drugs and their primary effect is to speed up the activity of the brain and nervous system • at higher doses, amphetamine can cause irregular heartbeat, headaches, dizziness and panic attacks • amphetamine overdose can cause stroke, heart attack, seizure, coma or death • amphetamines can be injected, snorted, smoked or taken orally • most of the amphetamines consumed in Australia are produced within this country in hidden laboratories.
Cocaine comes from the leaves of the coca bush. In Australia cocaine is most commonly
available as a white powder (cocaine hydrochloride). It can also be sold in an alkaloid form for smoking
or as small crystals known as "crack". Cocaine powder is often mixed with other substances such as
lactose, sucrose and talcum powder, in order to increase volume and reduce purity. Facts:
• cocaine is a stimulant, increasing the speed of central nervous system activity.
• the effects of cocaine are felt almost immediately and can last between minutes or hours. • although cocaine can cause euphoria and increased confidence, it may cause anxiety and panic. • long-term, heavy cocaine users can become restless, over-excitable and paranoid. • cocaine is usually inhaled through the nose •
In its original form, ecstasy is a white, bitter-tasting oil. It is usually ingested as a tablet.
Ecstasy tablets may contain varying mixtures of MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), related
drugs like amphetamine and other substances. It is very common to come across fake ecstasy pills
• ecstasy has both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects, it can also lead to increased confidence and euphoria • users may experience clenching of the jaw, grinding of the teeth, nausea, anxiety, as
well as profuse sweating, a tingling feeling and blurred vision • the Netherlands is the world's major producer of ecstasy and most of the ecstasy seized in Australia originated in Europe • ecstasy is available particularly in the nightclub and dance party scene.
Hallucinogens can be naturally occurring or produced synthetically. LSD (lysergic acid
diethylamide) is a synthetic drug. It may be produced as a white powder, tablets, capsules or most
commonly, impregnated in blotting paper. Psilocybin occurs naturally in certain varieties of
mushrooms, often called “magic mushrooms”. Facts:
• hallucinogens act upon the central nervous system to cause radical changes in sensory perception • some people using hallucinogens may experience vivid but negative hallucinations • LSD is not generally produced in Australia and is mainly imported from the United States of America • mushrooms containing psilocybin are ingested whole, as an ingredient in food or brewed as a tea •
Heroin is made from a sticky resin secreted by the opium poppy. Produced by a chemical
process, it results in a white, brown or pink powder or granules. Heroin is generally cut” with a wide
variety of things so purity levels vary greatly. Users do not know how potent the drug is until they Facts:
• heroin is a depressant drug, slowing the activity of the central nervous system • immediately after injecting, users feel a rush of intense pleasure and feelings of well-being • heroin reduces pain, hunger and libido and slows breathing and pulse rate • psychological and physical dependence are common results of long-term use • heroin is most commonly injected intravenously but it can be smoked or snorted • injecting drug users have an increased risk of contracting blood borne diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV • heroin is produced in three major regions known as the golden triangle (Burma, Laos, Thailand), golden crescent (Afghanistan) and Central and South America.
Reducing drug use in Australia
Generally the two main approaches to reducing drug use in Australia are reducing the demand for
drugs and reducing the supply of drugs. Reducing the demand for drugs is not easily achieved, it
involves an understanding of when, where and how people become involved in illegal drugs, and then
supplying the support and education that they need to say no.
It is seen that there is a need for “comprehensive demand-reduction strategies that:
• Seek to strengthen resilience among young people whether in or out of school by fostering stable relationships with family and adults, especially in the early years; • Seek to increase the community’s understanding of the antecedents of drug use and effective interventions to reduce harm; • Link drug-specific interventions with interventions in related areas such as youth crime prevention and mental health promotion strategies, employment and educational strategies.”
Reducing the supply of illicit drugs involves stopping the importation and manufacture of these drugs in Australia. “In the last financial year [2002-03], more than nine tonnes of illicit drugs were seized by Australian law enforcement in over 46,830 seizures.” While drug arrests and seizures in Australia are substantial, drugs still find their way onto our streets. Until either the demand for, or the supply of drugs ceases then drug use in Australia is going to be an issue. Dealing with this issue effectively involves knowing all of the facts about drugs, including why people start using and the variety of methods for helping them stop.
Most Australians are aware of the severe penalties for drug offences in many Asian countries,
what are some of the reasons why people might still try to smuggle drugs in and out of these areas? 2.
Organise a debate in which you look at the arguments for and against the legalisation of
What rights do the Australian police have, and not have, in a situation where they suspect
someone of having drugs on their person?4.
Compare the positives and negatives of “harm minimisation” and “zero tolerance” approaches
to drug use in Australia?
What to Watch
• Cutting Edge: The Meth Epidemic
On the Web
• Australian Crime Commission
• Australian Institute of Criminology
• Australian National Council on Drugs
Health Information – Student Factsheet: Substance Abuse, retrieved from, , 22/3/2004.
National Drug Strategy: Patterns of Drug Use in Australia 1985-95, retrieved from , 25/7/2006. 3.
Health Information – Student Factsheet: Substance Abuse, retrieved from, , 22/3/2004. 4.
, 18/4/2005. 5.
Monash University: Faculty of Law – Drug Offences, retrieved from 7.
Monash University: Faculty of Law – Drug Offences, retrieved from 8.9.10.
Illicit Drugs and Alcohol: Ecstasy, retrieved from 15.
Illicit Drugs and Alcohol: Ecstasy, retrieved from 16.
Illicit Drugs and Alcohol: Hallucinogens, retrieved from , 14/4/2005.18.
, 14/4/2005. 20.
, 25/7/2006. 21.
Australian Crime Commission: Illicit Drug Data Report 2002-03 Key Findings, retrieved from , 18/4/2004.
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