Defining Drug Harm in Australia by Jarad Henry

Share Button

Australia is regarded by international drug trafficking syndicates as a wealthy nation with significant demand and a culture of acceptance in the use of illicit drugs. The following two case studies help put this phenomenon in perspective.


15 Million XTC Pills – the world’s biggest seizure – a success or a hamr?

Three tiers of illicit drug supply:

The following diagram provides an overview of the multi tiered approach to illicit drug supply, demand and use in Australia, particularly Amphetamine Type Substances (ATS).


Numerous harms can be linked to illicit drug use, which are not necessarily unique to specific drug types, particularly given the poly drug using nature of consumers. Common health-related harms include decreased memory and learning abilities, distorted senses, an increased risk of respiratory disease and links to various mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. In some cases, illicit drug use may cause psychosis, or hallucinations, and may also exacerbate existing psychotic conditions, such as schizophrenia. Studies have shown that the use of cannabis, for instance, at a young age and use of ATS are associated with up to six times the risk of developing schizophrenia in people with a genetic vulnerability.

The following chart developed by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in the United Kingdom details the vast spectrum of harms associated with illicit drug use and trafficking.  But why are they so harmful? Are they harmful because they are illegal or are they illegal because they’re harmful?


Cannabis Crop Houses and Clandestine Laboratories

Other harms include the risks and hazards associated with ‘grow houses’ where electrical meters are bypassed and operate along side hydroponic watering systems, posing not only a fire / electrocution threat to those inside such premises but also neighboring houses and properties, as well as police members when cannabis crops are detected that must be safely dismantled.

Similarly, Clandestine Laboratories present significant harms to offenders, surrounding buildings, houses and properties, the environment and emergency services personnel deployed to dismantle, transport and handle equipment. Further harms occur through residual contamination and present a serious risk to humans and the environment.


Financing Organised Crime and Related Violence

Criminal syndicates involved in drug distribution, manufacture and importation increases the likelihood of violence in the public domain, particularly between rival organised crime groups, such as Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMCGs). This has been evidenced by several recent high profile incidents and violent crime in almost all Australian jurisdictions.

Road Trauma

Illicit drug use also has well established links to road trauma, with more than 37% of all fatalities on Australian roads alone involving cannabis and / or another illicit drug over the past five years.

While there is limited evidence regarding crash risk and drug dependency per se, approximately 13% of fatal crashes are attributed to drug use. The risk is amplified with alcohol-drug and impairing drug-drug combinations. Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are a particular hazard for long-distance truck drivers. An Australian ‘culpability’ study found ATS in 4.1% of all fatally injured drivers and 23% of fatally injured truck drivers.

Benzodiazepines also increase the risk of road trauma. Research and accident data found benzodiazepines in about 4% of fatalities and 16% of injured drivers. In many cases the benzodiazepines were not abused but were used in combination with other impairing substances.

Transmission of Blood Borne Viruses

Sharing of injecting equipment remains common among both ATS and heroin users and is a leading factor in the transmission of blood borne viruses. While rates of HIV among injecting drugs users in Australia is comparatively low to other jurisdictions, sitting at less than 2%, hepatitis C transmissions remain significantly high (around 70%) and present a continued harm to the wider community, as well as the individuals and their families.

Drug related crime

According to a Drug Use Monitoring Australia (DUMA) report published in 2012 by the Australian Institute of Criminology, nearly half of all police detainees attributed their current offending to alcohol or drugs. Of the illicit drugs, heroin users were the most likely to attribute their offending to drug use, while cannabis users were among the least likely.

It is important to note that in many instances the issue of mental illness, poly drug use and alcohol are also common factors, making it even more difficult to quantify crimes associated solely with crystalline methylamphetamine. However, there appears a significant concern arising in rural areas across Australia, particularly with crystalline methamphetamine.

Drug Policy Expenditure in Australia

Further harms can be attributed to the fiscal or economic costs associated with illicit drug use. Australian governments spent approximately $1.7 billion in 2009/10 on responding to illicit drugs. This included programs to prevent or delay the commencement of drug use in young people, drug treatment services including counseling and pharmacotherapy maintenance, harm reduction programs such as needle syringe programs, police detection and arrest in relation to drug crimes and policing the borders of Australia for illegal importation of drugs and their precursors.

The $1.7 billion amount equates to 0.13% of GDP, and 0.8% of all government spending. In 2009/10 it represented per person spending of $76.28.

The relative allocations to the policy domains were as follows:

Policy domain $ million Percentage
Prevention 156.8 9.2
Treatment 361.8 21.3
Harm reduction 36.1 2.1
Law enforcement 1123.3 66.0
Other 23.1 1.4
TOTAL 1701.1 100

Ambulance Related Attendances

The following two tables illustrate the number of paramedic call outs in Victoria for each drug type in the previous year. Take note that alcohol remains the top contender for physical harm. So again, are drugs illegal because they’re harmful, or are the harmful because they’re illegal? Does killing off one drug type simply open up another market, one with more harmful consequences?




Since the 1980s there have been a number of significant and sustained successes in addressing illicit drug-related harm in Australia, including the implementation of nationwide drug diversion schemes for young and first time drug users, enhanced access to treatment facilities for recidivist offenders and the introduction of harm minimisation policies aimed at reducing the spread of blood borne viruses and risk of overdose.

There have also been significant improvements in supply reduction methods, increased rates of border detection and greater intelligence and operational disruption to high level organised criminal networks, particularly ethnic crime groups and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMCGs).

The Australian President of the Commancheros

So whilst the implementation of a comprehensive response to address illicit drug-related harm continues, many problems associated with use, demand and supply remains a challenge.

These include increased sophistication of organised crime, drug manufacture and infiltration of legitimate business, law enforcement capacity to keep up with technology and closed drug markets on the Internet. An ongoing concern is the vulnerability of Australian borders, both at marine ports and air terminals, but predominantly through the mail and postage system, a common method of drug importation. Cat and mouse, spy vs spy, all jumping on a water bed.

Likewise, limited treatment options for vulnerable groups in need of intervention continue to pose challenges in providing support and help for those most in need, and the acceptance of illicit drug use as ‘normalised’ in Australia by many people requires a cultural shift that is likely to take years to change and I for one doubt I’ll be alive to see it, unless the below cartoon becomes a reality….

But at what cost, big brother?


A revised edition of head Shot is now available from Arcadia Press…


 McCauley’s Creed

“Catch and kill your own…

 The underworld lives by this code.

When somebody gets out of line, they handle it themselves. The victim ends up face down in a driveway with three bullets in the back of the head. Bowling ball style.

The families don’t call the cops and they don’t expect our help. They wash their own dirty laundry and they do it on their own terms.

It’s been that way since I can remember, probably since anyone can. This is how they live. And how they die…”

Share Button