Legislating thresholds for drug trafficking: A policy development case study from New South Wales, Australia

Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes, Alison Ritter, Nicholas Cowdery

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Legal thresholds are used in many parts of the world to define the quantity of illicit drugs over which possession is deemed "trafficking" as opposed to "possession for personal use". There is limited knowledge about why or how such laws were developed. In this study we analyse the policy processes underpinning the introduction and expansion of the drug trafficking legal threshold system in New South Wales (NSW), Australia.

Methods: A critical legal and historical analysis was undertaken sourcing data from legislation, Parliamentary Hansard debates, government inquiries, police reports and research. A timeline of policy developments was constructed from 1970 until 2013 outlining key steps including threshold introduction (1970), expansion (1985), and wholesale revision (1988). We then critically analysed the drivers of each step and the roles played by formal policy actors, public opinion, research/data and the drug trafficking problem.

Results: We find evidence that while justified as a necessary tool for effective law enforcement of drug trafficking, their introduction largely preceded overt police calls for reform or actual increases in drug trafficking. Moreover, while the expansion from one to four thresholds had the intent of differentiating small from large scale traffickers, the quantities employed were based on government assumptions which led to "manifest problems" and the revision in 1988 of over 100 different quantities. Despite the revisions, there has remained no further formal review and new quantities for "legal highs" continue to be added based on assumption and an uncertain evidence-base.

Conclusion: The development of legal thresholds for drug trafficking in NSW has been arbitrary and messy. That the arbitrariness persists from 1970 until the present day makes it hard to conclude the thresholds have been well designed. Our narrative provides a platform for future policy reform.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)992-1000
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Australia
  • Drug
  • Law
  • Policy process
  • Trafficking


Dive into the research topics of 'Legislating thresholds for drug trafficking: A policy development case study from New South Wales, Australia'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this