The Guardian • Issue #2102

Drugs: government spends big on law enforcement

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2102

“I passed a drug test for work, and my dog destroyed the evidence.” Photo: Levy – (CC BY 2.0)

Governments in Australia spent nearly $5.5 billion on illicit drug countermeasures in 2021/2022, but less than 10 per cent went towards strategies aimed at preventing use and reducing negative consequences.

Australian governments spend more on law enforcement in illicit drug policy than treatment, prevention and harm reduction combined, says a UNSW Sydney report.

The report shows that state and federal governments spent approximately $5.45 billion in the 2021/2022 financial year on illicit drug countermeasures. Nearly 65 per cent ($3.5 billion) was spent on law enforcement programs, including $1.8 billion on routine policing against drugs. Less than 2 per cent ($90 million) was spent on harm reduction measures such as needle syringe programs and supervised injecting facilities.

“Governments do invest a significant amount of money on proactive drug policy, and where they spend that money shows what they consider as important in responding to drugs,” says Professor Alison Ritter AO, the report’s lead author and drug policy specialist at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture. “This research provides the foundation for evaluating the investment and whether Australia is on the right path to reducing drug-related harm.”


The Australian ‘drug budget’: Government drug policy expenditure 2021/2022 is the most recent report in the ‘drug budget’ series, which estimates spending on proactive responses to illicit drugs by governments across Australia.

Money spent on prevention, such as in-school education programs, slightly decreased since the last report in 2009/2010, down from 9.5 per cent to 6.7 per cent in 2021/2022. Spending on harm reduction also decreased from 2.2 per cent to just 1.6 per cent.

Spending on law enforcement remained relatively stable, slightly down from 64.9 per cent to 64.3 per cent of expenditure. Meanwhile, spending on drug treatment services rose from 22.0 per cent to 27.4 per cent.

Dr Annie Madden AO, Executive Director of Harm Reduction Australia (HRA), says the report reveals the true extent of governments’ chronic under-investment in harm reduction.

“Australian governments have continued to claim their position as a global leader in harm reduction over many decades. In this case, however, the evidence does not lie,” Dr Madden says. “We know that frontline harm reduction services such as needle and syringe programs, opioid treatment, take-home naloxone, drug consumption rooms and drug checking services reduce potential harms including drug-related deaths.

“The fact that harm reduction spending has continued to decline in the face of unprecedented evidence of impact and effectiveness is deeply concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is the undeniable fact that harm reduction saves lives.”

State and territory governments spent the most against illicit drugs, accounting for 76 per cent or $4.11 billion of the total proactive expenditure, the majority of which ($2.87 billion) was for state law enforcement.

“The lion’s share of the investment is from state governments and continues to be in law enforcement, and that’s related to the policing of drugs, which we know is an expensive activity,” Prof. Ritter says. “At the same time, the amount that’s invested in helping people who are experiencing problems with illicit drugs is significantly less as a proportion of spending.”

University of New South Wales Sydney

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