Drug laws and regulations

David McDonald, Caitlin Hughes

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Drug laws (Acts) and regulations (subsidiary legislation) are created by parliaments. They determine the criminal status of psychoactive substances, such as what drugs are deemed ‘legal’ and what are ‘illegal’, as well as the penalties for cultivation, manufacture, use, possession and supply of ‘illegal’ drugs, and rules around access to ‘legal’ drugs. Drug laws and regulations can be powerful instruments for minimising drug- related harm, particularly with respect to the legal drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical products. This is because governments can regulate the markets in those drugs. Governments have less control over the availability and harmfulness of drugs that are illegal, such as cannabis and ecstasy. Many people assume that the illegal/ illicit drugs are those that cause the most harm to the user or to the broader community. No solid, rational basis exists, however, for the current classifications of drugs as legal or illegal. A key to understanding the role and impacts of drug laws is to focus not only on what the laws state, but also on how they are implemented. Unfortunately, there are many examples of adverse consequences flowing from certain patterns of drug law enforcement that were never intended by the governments that drafted the laws. It is rare for drug laws to be subjected to systematic and in- depth evaluation. But when evaluated, existing drug laws are often found to be ‘not fit for purpose’. For example, research has shown that the degree to which drug laws deter drug- related crime is not so much a function of the severity of penalties but rather of the swiftness and certainty of the penalties. This creates a challenge in using drug laws and regulations to deter offending. In this chapter, the current drug laws and law enforcement patterns are described, as well as the active drug law reform movement in Australia and internationally. Although important and beneficial incremental changes to drug laws have been implemented across Australia in recent decades, drug law reform advocates are calling for a broader reconsideration of the prohibition policy that underlies the way we deal with illegal drugs.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDrug Use in Australian Society
EditorsAlison Ritter, Trevor King, Nicole Lee
Place of PublicationSouth Melbourne
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9780190306458
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Drug abuse
  • drug laws
  • illicit drug laws
  • drug law reform


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