A call for regulation

14 December 2021 | Posted In: #141 Summer 2021,

A new report reveals important new insights into how Australians access, consume and experience drugs today. Jake Kendall scours the document.

Presenting survey findings from people from across every state and territory in Australia, the Unharm 2021 survey found the overwhelming majority of respondents — 83 percent had recently used prohibited drugs.

The drug reform advocacy group’s survey also generated unique insights into people’s experiences with drugs, their thoughts on legalisation, and the impact of COVID on drug use.

As with previous surveys, the results disrupt the conventional narrative that only people on the fringes of mainstream society or risk-taking young people use drugs.

Indeed, more than two-thirds of survey participants were over the age of 30, and more than a third were over the age of 45. More than a quarter of respondents earned more than $100,000 per annum. “Drug use happens in all parts of society certainly including the well off,” said Unharm’s Dr Will Tregoning. “If we could have a more realistic response to drug use, we could make people safer, including young people who decide to try drugs for the first time.”

Unharm’s survey results also found that people’s lifetime experiences with most drugs was overwhelmingly positive, with drugs including MDMA, cannabis and cocaine ranking above alcohol for overall positive experiences.

And statistics show that people continue to use recreational drugs in spite of the punitive penalties. Indeed, during a 10-year period when the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission recorded a 96 percent increase in drug arrests, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that the number of people using drugs in Australia increased from 2.7 million to 3.4 million.

“Unharm’s survey results show that fear-mongering tactics and the abstinence approach — used to highlight the worst harms of drug use — do not reflect the majority of people’s experiences,” said Dr Tregoning.

All too often, it is those people in the lowest income bracket who are much more likely to report being stopped and searched for drugs and charged with a drug-related offence. This suggests a relationship between income inequality and criminalisation in Australia. “More people are being arrested than ever for using drugs, but it’s poorer people who are most likely to end up with a criminal charge,” said Dr Tregoning. “Not only is this system failing to keep people safe, it’s also deeply unfair.”

Additional findings from Unharm’s survey include:

• Tobacco and alcohol ranked lower for overall positive experience than drugs which under the law are illegal to buy and use.

• A majority of people supported a legal, regulated market for all drug types.

• For drugs other than heroin, people who recently consumed prohibited drugs mostly said those drugs were easy to obtain.

• Cannabis, alcohol, heroin and  tobacco were the drugs that people said they had increased their use of during COVD-19.

• Most people who had consumed prohibited drugs in the previous 12 months thought it would be very unlikely they would be caught by police.

The report also confirms that the majority of people who use drugs care strongly about harm minimisation. Almost 80 percent of respondents said they would feel much safer if they could access illegal drugs via a pharmacy or some other regulated outlet. “There is clear demand for a better regulated market as part of a realistic response to drug use,” said Dr Tregoning. “A market that gives people the agency and information they need to make good choices.”