Schaffer Online Library of Drug Policy Sign the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy


Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies | Beyond Prohibition

Beyond Prohibition

Report of the Redfern Legal Centre Drug Law Reform Project

September 1996

1 . History of Project


The Redfern Legal Centre Drug Law Reform Project began in mid 1994. Its objectives were to promote informed public discussion about drug law reform, and to contribute to bringing forward reform of the drug laws.

Redfern Legal Centre provided funding to pay one part-time worker to coordinate the Project and to carry out many of its tasks. The Project was oversighted by a small but typically enthusiastic committee, which reported to the Centre's Management Committee. The funding for the Project came (until February 1996) from the Centre's own resources, primarily litigation costs. From March until September 1996, the Project was funded by a grant from the Law Foundation of NSW

Redfern Legal Centre undertook this Project for several reasons:

1. Drug prohibition fosters crime (because prohibition artificially inflates prices for drugs on the black market). Abandoning prohibition would be the simplest single way to achieve a noticeable reduction in property crime, and to a lesser but still important extent, violent crime.

2. Those affected by drug-inspired crime are primarily the socially disadvantaged. Drug law reform is desirable as a social equity measure.

3. Prohibition contributes to police corruption. It is no accident that the clear majority of police named adversely in evidence before the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption are in some way connected to drugs - police stealing drugs or money from drug suppliers, police selling drugs, police planting drugs on suspects as false evidence. Prohibition makes the drug trade so extravagantly profitable (it is the second largest trade in the world) that it creates enormous temptations for police and other officials. We cannot hope to significantly reduce the opportunities for police corruption while the drugs prohibition continues.

4. Prohibition has a significant negative impact on the legal system. Dealing with people facing drug charges, or charges of property crime generated by the drugs black market, creates an enormous drain on the courts, and in particular on public funds available to provide legal services for the poor and disadvantaged. Reducing drug-related crime would free up law enforcement resources for other activities, and would improve the resource capacity of the Legal Aid Commission and community legal services to pursue other matters, such as consumer claims and antidiscrimination cases.

5. Public health outcomes are compromised by laws which drive drug use underground. In particular, the drug laws hamper efforts to contain the spread of HIV and Hepatitis B and C.

6. Despite years of community debate and the strength of the case for reform, prohibition has been fiercely resilient . Reliance on the criminal law to control behaviour in other areas of moral or personal choice gambling, sex work, abortion, censorship - has generally receded in recent decades, with the drug laws the notable exception. The demise of prohibition is not as inevitable as it perhaps once appeared to be.

We believe that meaningful reform of our drug laws necessarily involves reconsidering the laws about supply as well as possession and use of drugs, and laws about other drugs as well as cannabis.

Harm reduction is a pragmatic approach which emphasises reducing the personal and social harms associated with drug use, while accepting that eliminating drug use is impossible. Harm reduction has been officially the central goal of Australian drugs policy since the mid 1980s, although most public resources devoted to the drug problem continue to promote prohibition (eg, funds to police and customs services and unrealistic, wholly negative drug education). We believe that harm reduction (in any meaningful definition) is incompatible with prohibition. The Project has attempted to develop coherent harm reduction strategies, focusing on measures which would reduce or eliminate the drugs black market.

Community Forums

The Project convened a series of community forums at which service providers in the health and community sectors in particular were invited to identify, from their perspective, the ways in which existing legal approaches to drugs impacted on their work, and to identify which legal framework could best support drug treatment and education programs. These forums were held in both South Sydney, where the Legal Centre is located, and in Cabramatta, Sydney's major heroin distribution point. The discussion at these forums was invaluable in assisting the Project to developing strategies and proposals for change.


Two discussion papers were written and distributed in the course of the Project.

The Harm Reduction Model of Controlled Drug Availability, published in May 1995, attempted to tackle concretely the question of what exactly drug law reform could look like. Most previous proposals for law reform were either inadequate (eg, the on-the spot fine model adopted in various forms in South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory), or airy generalisations about the possibility of regulating or deregulating the drugs market (with the idea of controlled availability little more than a slogan). We considered it a priority to do the work of systematically applying harm reduction principles to all aspects of drug consumption, production and distribution - in an open-minded but hopefully not fanciful way. The Harm Reduction Model therefore represents a detailed projection of what controlled availability might look like in practice.

The Harm Reduction Model was widely circulated and was endorsed by a number of community organisations and individuals.

An updated and expanded second edition of The Harm Reduction Model was published in July 1996. Importantly, the second edition included a set of Principles for Controlled Drug Availability to complement the essentially practical proposals illustrating some possible means of regulating drug supply and consumption.

The Project's other discussion paper was Steps to Harm Reduction. A companion document to the Harm Reduction Model, this paper addressed the present and short-term future. It provided an analysis of the possible immediate steps which could and should be taken in drugs policy and drug law reform. Again, the value of the paper lay in its attempt to be detailed and specific. The paper is a blueprint for reform, providing a list of proposals to achieve a graduated replacement of prohibition with harm reduction.

These two papers form the major part of this report.

The Project also produced:

Two very popular bumper stickers (slogans End Prohibition: Support Drug Law Reform and Break the Crime Cycle: Support Drug Law Reform)

A full colour poster, a graphic presentation of what the future of drugs policy might look like.

A series of Fact Sheets with statistics and other information detailing the social impact of existing drug laws.

Discussions with politicians

Throughout the Project, we held discussions with a number of NSW Parliamentarians, including Ministers and their advisors. It must be said that the political climate proved to be not conducive to change on drug policy, despite some early encouraging if ambiguous statements from the incoming Carr Government.

Issues discussed included many of the issues dealt with in this report, including the desirability of introducing a trial of legal safe injecting spaces, and a possible Parliamentary motion on prioritising harm reduction in drugs policy.


The Project also provided formal, detailed submissions on proposals for law reform to the following inquiries.

Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service

Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council (Pennington Committee)

Commonwealth Access to Justice Inquiry.

Conference papers

During the life of the Project, we participated in a number of conferences and seminars. Perhaps the most significant conference papers we presented were a paper in September 1995 to the NSW Corrective Health Services Symposium on Drug-Related Crime, and the two papers to the 7th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm, in Hobart in March 1996.

Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies | Beyond Prohibition