Policing people who use drugs across the globe: How does Australia compare?

Dr Caitlin Hughes1, Dr Monica Barratt1, Assoc Pfof Jason Ferris2, Dr  Larissa Maier3, Professor Adam Winstock4
1National Drug And Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW, Randwick, Australia, 2University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 3University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland, 4University College London, London, UK

Drug law enforcement subsumes the lion’s share of drug policy expenditure across the globe. Fuelled by knowledge that much of this investment is ineffective or counter-productive there have been increasing calls for cross-national comparisons to identify where policing approaches differ and what approaches may be more effective. Using a new drugs police module added to the 2017 Global Drug Survey this study provides the first cross-national analysis of the incidence and nature of illicit drug-related police encounters in 26 countries including the UK, USA, Australia, Germany, Italy, Canada and New Zealand. A total of 49,869 people who had recently used illicit drugs completed the module. Key variables assessed included the incidence and frequency of drug-related police encounters in the last 12 months that involved: a) being stopped and searched; b) encountering a drug detection dog; c) being given a caution or warning; and d) being charged and arrested. We show that drug-related police encounters were more common in some nations, including in Italy, the UK and Australia. Types of policing encountered further differed. For example, Australia was one of three countries with the highest incidence of drug detection dog encounters. Importantly, multi-variate logistic regressions show that cross-national differences in drug policing remain after controlling for drug use prevalence and the number of police personnel in each nation. The findings suggest that the policing of people who use drugs may be more intense in some parts of the globe, Australia included. Implications for research, policy and practice will be highlighted.


Dr Caitlin Hughes is a criminologist and Senior Research Fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. She works as part of the multi-disciplinary Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) which seeks to improve Australian drug policy by identifying what works, translating research evidence and engaging directly with policy makers.


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