5 Decrimalization

When thinking about effective strategies to combat the negative impacts on society as a consequence of the trade and consumption of illicit drugs such as ICE and Heroin the concept of decrimalization often raises a negative response in our society, which in many cases is underpinned by fear and disgust. This was certainly my view some years ago.

Australia and other western nations such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America have long adopted a criminalization approach to respond to and combat drug use and addiction.

In a report released by the Australian Government as part of the National Drug Strategy 2010-15, of the total social costs of drug abuse in 2004/05 of $55.2 billion, alcohol accounted for $15.3 billion (27.3 per cent of the unadjusted total), tobacco $31.5 billion (56.2 per cent) and illicit drugs $8.2 billion (14.6 per cent). Alcohol and illicit drugs acting together accounted for another $1.1 billion (1.9 per cent)[1].

Despite the significant financial investment into a model that criminalizes the use of illicit drugs, the impacts of illicit drug use on the individual and Australian society has grown.  As well reported today, Australia is in the grips of a “raging” Ice epidemic and experiencing a growth in drug and alcohol related deaths and crime.


The draft National Drug Strategy 2016-2025[2] reports more than 18% of Australians consume alcohol on a daily basis at levels that place them at risk of long-term harm[3]and 26% drink at levels on a monthly basis that pose a risk in terms of short-term harms, such as injury. While daily smoking prevalence for those aged 14 years or older declined to 12.8% in 2013[4], the proportion is approximately 2.5 times higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[5] Cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug with 10.2% of Australians 14 years and over using in the past 12 months[6]. While there has not been a rise in self-reported methamphetamine use overall, the proportion of users reporting the use of more potent crystal-methamphetamine form in the last 12 months, more than doubled between 2010 and 2013.[7]


In 2014, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that the number of alcohol and other drug treatment agencies and treatment episodes in Australia has been steadily increasing over the last decade, with 162,362 closed (completed) treatment episodes in 2012/13 (an increase of 6% from 2011/12).[8] The most common principal drug of concern for clients was alcohol (41%) and the proportion of clients reporting amphetamine (including methamphetamine) as their principal drug of concern has increased from 7% in 2009/2010 to 14% in 2012/2013.


I am one of the lucky few that has survived the horrific impacts of illicit drug use and have been in recovery for five years. While for a long period of time I would use any drug I could get my hands on, my drug of choice prior to getting the help and support I required just over five years ago was Ice (methamphetamine). My own story is reflective of many others who have and continue to struggle with the ongoing impact of addiction.  The affects of addiction on ones own physical and mental health, their families and loved ones, and society as a whole makes this an issue for everyone.   Whether we like it or not this epidemic impacts on us all in some way and therefore requires a joint effort to combat.


During the last five years I have reflected on my own experiences and am now dedicated to supporting those suffering from the devastating affects of drug and alcohol addiction whether they be the person using the substance, family members and other loved ones trying to manage it, or broader society who are being affected by the impacts of crime and safety.


When first considering the decimalization of drugs and alcohol I must admit I was horrified.  Images in my mind of people strolling down the street able to purchase Ice and Heroin, use, and then cause havoc was alarming. However over the past year or so I have started to begin to research the concept of decriminalization and some of the work currently being done around the globe in relation to this.


One such example is Portugal, who in 2001 implemented what was seen at the time (and to many still now) a radical and controversial policy that decriminalized the use of illicit drugs. Portugal had a drug epidemic that was tearing the country apart with drug related deaths due to blood born disease at an all time high. Fifteen years on, Portugal has realized some amazing results, lowering the death rate as a result of drug use by almost half and decreasing the number of active addicts.[9]


As we grapple with the drug epidemic in Australia and it becomes clearer the problem is only growing, the innovative approaches of others are worth considering.

The pertinent question is:  Is there a way to do this better, and what can we learn from others?


While I consider myself to be one of the extremely lucky ones, there are many people on a daily basis that aren’t so lucky.  How can we all work together to address this public health issue that in some shape or form impacts on us all.

Jack Nagle


[1] Published: 2008 – Australian Government Department Health and Ageing – ISBN: 1 74186 523 9 Online ISBN: 1 74186 524 7Author: David Collins and Helen Lapsley – viewed 11 August 2016

[2] Draft National Drug Strategy 2016-2025 page 12. Viewed 11 August 2016 –  www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/Publishing.nsf/…/draftnds.pdf

[3] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2014) National Drug Strategy Household SurveyDetailed Report 2013, Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat No. PHE 183. Canberra: AIHW.

[4] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2014) National Drug Strategy Household Survey Detailed Report 2013, Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat no. PHE 183. Canberra: AIHW.

[5] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2013). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, Specific Population Groups. Available at: http://www.aihw.gov.au/alcohol-Aboriginal and-other-drugs/ndshs-2013/ch8/. Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2012: Detailed Analyses. Cat. No. IHW 94. Canberra: AIHW.

[6] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2014) National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2013, Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat no. PHE 183. Canberra: AIHW,

[7] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2014) National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2013, Drug statistics series no. 28. Cat no. PHE 183. Canberra: AIHW,

[8] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2012–13. Drug treatment series 24. Cat. no. HSE 150. Canberra: AIHW.

[9] British Journal of Crimonoloy- Advance Access publication 21 July 2010- Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens. Viewed 11 August 2016 at https://kar.kent.ac.uk/29910/1/Hughes%20%20Stevens%202010.pdf