4808.0 - Illicit Drug Use, Sources of Australian Data, 2001  
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Contents >> 5. Law and order

Examples of available data

  • A total of 83,049 arrests for drug offences were reported by law enforcement agencies in 1999-2000.

  • Police seized 4,365 kg of cannabis, 735 kg of heroin, 382 kg of amphetamine-type substances and 839 kg of cocaine in Australia in 1999-2000.

    Source: Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence 2001, Australian Illicit Drug Report 1999-2000, ABCI, Canberra.

  • A drug offence was the most serious offence recorded for 2,227 (10.3%) persons in Australian prisons on 30 June 2000.

    Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Prisoners in Australia, 2000, Cat. no. 4517.0, ABS, Canberra.

  • During July 1999 to June 2000, 33.3% of victims of homicide had consumed alcohol at the time of the offence, and 35% of these victims had consumed both alcohol and illicit drugs, most commonly cannabis.

    Source: Mouzos, J. 2001, ‘Homicide in Australia 1999-2000’, in Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice No. 187, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

  • In a study conducted in 2000 involving 1,631 adult males detained in four police lockups across Australia, 65% of those detained for a violent offence and 82% of those detained for property offences tested positive for amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cannabis, cocaine, methadone or opiates.

    Source: Makkai, T. & McGregor, K. 2001, Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA): 2000 Annual Report on Drug Use Among Police Detainees, Research and Public Policy Series No. 37, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

5.1 Introduction

There is legislation against cannabis, heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens, amphetamines and designer drugs such as ecstasy throughout Australia. Drug offences range from possession, use, trafficking or dealing, to importing, manufacturing or growing particular drugs. The impact of illicit drugs on law and order goes beyond drug offences as many other crimes, such as prostitution, theft and violent offences, may be related to an involvement with drugs. A further issue is the prevalence and health consequences of illicit drug use among those under remand or in custody for other crimes.

This chapter outlines sources of data about the impact of illicit drug use on law and order. A distinction is made between sources of data about drug offences and sources which can provide data about the association of other crime with the use of illicit drugs. Further information on major data sources is available in Appendix 1. The data quality issues outlined in Chapter 7, are applicable to these collections.

5.2 Data sources

5.2.1 Drug offences

The Commonwealth has legislated against certain drugs. In addition, each State and Territory is responsible for legislation which uniquely defines drug offences within its jurisdiction. Enforcement of these laws involves many public agencies across Australia, including customs, police forces, courts, legal representatives, and correctional services.

Each of these organisations use administrative systems which are potentially capable of furnishing data related to drug offences, although distinguishing drug offences from other offences may not always be possible. Data from these administrative databases are generally not accessible to the public, although summary statistics are often published in the annual reports of each organisation. However, data from many of these organisations are made available to the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence (ABCI). The ABCI endeavours to disseminate to the public information concerning illicit drug use from various law enforcement organisations. The ABCI should be the first point of contact for those interested in gaining data from these administrative sources.

Achieving aggregated national data from independent Commonwealth, State and Territory sources is a complex process. The various law and order agencies collect data for their own administrative use, which leads to a lack of uniformity in the collection process and the resulting data items. A further consequence of aggregation is the possibility of overlap between agencies. For example, in the event of drug seizures and arrests, joint operations may involve the Australian Federal police and relevant State and Territory police. This may result in joint exercises being reported by both agencies involved. Consequently, a single incident may be counted twice when data are aggregated to a national level.

Steps have been taken to overcome these problems associated with the aggregation of data from various law and order agencies. The National Illicit Drug Statistics Framework has been developed as a joint project between the ABCI and the ABS on behalf of the National Community Based Approach to Drug Law Enforcement. This common framework for the collection of illicit drug statistics identifies a core set of statistical data items and includes definitions, standards and counting rules for those items. The framework is comprehensive and its adoption will ensure more comparable output, to enable a more complete picture of illicit drug activity in Australia.

Australian Illicit Drug Report (AIDR) (Appendix 1, A1.1)

In the Australian Illicit Drug Report 1999-2000 (Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, 2001) the ABCI presents both qualitative and quantitative data from agencies such as the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Customs Service, the National Crime Authority, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, Directors of Public Prosecution, State and Territory police services, correctional services, and forensic science centres.

This report, published annually since 1991-92, provides comprehensive information on the market for each of the main illicit drugs. Issues addressed include the number of arrests classified by provider and consumer offences; frequency and quantities of seizures; international supply and demand trends; and sources, prices and purity of the various types of drugs. Data are available at State and Territory level as well as national aggregates. The 1999-2000 report includes data on the association between illicit drugs and money laundering as well as the distribution and use of illicit drugs in New Zealand.

National Prisoner Census (Appendix 1, A1.23)

One measure of the prevalence of drug offences is the proportion of the prison population that has been incarcerated for drug offences. An annual census of prisoners in Australia was begun in 1972 by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) and transferred to the responsibility of the ABS in 1994. The collection is based on a census of the prison population in Australia at 30 June each year. Information collected includes age and sex of prisoner, most serious offence, State or Territory of incarceration, history of previous imprisonment, length and type of sentence and Indigenous status. Results of the 2000 Prisoner Census were published by the ABS in June 2001, Prisoners in Australia 2000, Cat. no. 4517.0. This publication replaces an annual report Prisoners in Australia, produced by the ABS for the Corrective Services Ministers’ Council for the years 1994 to 1999.

In terms of drug offences, the National Prisoner Census provides statistics on the number of adults in Australian prisons whose most serious offence is possession and/or use; dealing and/or trafficking; or importing, growing and/or manufacturing of illicit drugs. The most serious offence is determined primarily by length of sentence, or, where sentences are equal, by the Australian National Classification of Offences (ANCO) (Cat. no. 1234.0, ABS, 1985).

Data generated from the annual prisoner census have a number of limitations regarding the counting of convictions for illicit drug offences. For the purpose of the census, only a prisoner’s most serious offence is recorded, resulting in an undercount of the total number of drug convictions. For example, if a prisoner is serving a sentence for both possession of heroin and the more serious offence of assault, the illicit drug conviction will not be recorded in the National Prisoner Census. A further limitation in estimating the number of illicit drug offenders in prisons is the bias toward prisoners serving relatively long sentences. As the census is a snapshot of the prison population on a particular day, prisoners with long sentences are more likely to be in prison on this day than those who are serving sentences of less than 12 months.

The census does not provide information on drug type, which would be useful in determining patterns of illicit drug use. Nor does the census provide information on juvenile offenders as it is restricted to adult prisons. Finally, prisons are operated by State and Territory departments and consequently the administrative recording practices of the various jurisdictions may result in inconsistencies in the data.

National Police Custody Survey (Appendix 1, A1.22)

Data for the third National Police Custody Survey was collected during August 1995 at each occasion on which a person was taken into police custody and physically lodged in a police cell at any location in Australia. It also covered people already in the cells at the commencement of the survey. Data was collected on the most serious offence associated with the incident of police custody, including possession, use, dealing, trafficking, production or manufacturing of illicit drugs. Other data collected include the age and sex of the detainee, Indigenous status, the location of the police station or watchhouse, reason for being lodged in cells, period of lodgement, and reason for release.

This survey, which the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody initiated in 1988, was conducted by the AIC in 1992 and 1995, with the cooperation of the police services. It aimed to meet the need for useful national information regarding the extent and nature of police custody in Australia as an interim measure until all police services established administrative systems which could produce uniform data.

Data presented in the 1997 report by Carlos Carcach and David McDonald, National Police Custody Survey August 1995, include the number and rate of drug offences compared with other offences, by age group, sex and Indigenous status.

5.2.2 Other crime issues related to illicit drug use

In addition to those offences directly relating to illicit drugs, the extent to which other criminal activity (such as property and violent crimes) is associated with illicit drug use is also of concern. Until recently, there had been a lack of empirical data concerning the involvement of illicit drug users in crime other than drug offences.

(a) Illicit drug use among people arrested/convicted of other offences

Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) (Appendix 1, A1.9)

A recent initiative in the investigation of the use of drugs by people who commit crime is Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA). DUMA is a study of drug use among arrestees, coordinated by the AIC and funded under the National Illicit Drug Strategy. It seeks to monitor drug use among people who have been charged with a criminal offence and are being detained in a police lockup facility.

DUMA is designed to monitor local drug markets, but its consistent methodology and data collection instruments enable comparative analysis of sites across Australia. As the AIC is affiliated with the International Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (I-ADAM) program, DUMA conforms with international standards, allowing for comparison with other affiliated countries, including the United States, England, Scotland, South Africa and Chile.

DUMA is a pilot project which began in January 1999 for three years, and has now been funded for a further two years with an extension of survey sites. During 1999-2001, data are being collected quarterly from four pilot sites in three jurisdictions: Southport watchhouse in Queensland; East Perth lockup in Western Australia; and Bankstown and Parramatta police stations in New South Wales. A further two sites, in South Australia and Victoria, will be included in 2002. Data are collected on arrestees’ use of specific drugs, including amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine and opiates; the offences for which they have been arrested; and sociodemographic information. Urine samples are also taken as a means of validating the self-report response to questions on recent drug use.

Not all of those who are detained by police from the selected sites are invited to participate. At each site, interviews are conducted only at specific times of the day, during a three week period every three months. Some offenders are assessed by police staff as ineligible, usually because they are considered a danger to the interviewer. Further, minor offenders who are issued with ‘notices to attend court’ are not brought into police stations for processing and are thus out of scope for DUMA.

A summary of results of the first collection of DUMA has been published in the report Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA): 2000 Annual Report on Drug Use Among Police Detainees (Makkai & McGregor, 2001). A number of other publications that focus on particular sites or aspects of the research are available on the AIC website http://www.aic.gov.au/research/duma.html.

National Homicide Monitoring Program (Appendix 1, A1.18)

Focused primarily on monitoring trends in the incidence of homicide, this database contains information on the presence of alcohol or other drugs in both victims and perpetrators. It also contains data on whether drugs were involved in the motive for the homicide and whether drugs were involved in the method of execution.

Data concerning the incident and the offender come from police records. When the offender is apprehended within sufficient time of the incident, details of any drug used by the offender are included. Data concerning the use of alcohol and drugs by the homicide victim has been collected from coronial records since July 1996, but prior to 1996-97 this data item was based on information available from police reports.

The AIC established the National Homicide Monitoring Program following the recommendations of the National Committee on Violence. It aims to identify any common characteristics among individuals who have been homicide victims, the characteristics of offenders and the circumstances which may contribute to the likelihood of homicide occurring. The AIC has maintained this collection with the cooperation and support of all Australian police services since 1990. Information from the program is made available on the AIC website http://www.aic.gov.au/research.

National Diversion Minimum Data Set

Diversion programs which are currently being established under the National Drug Strategy are aimed at treating rather than incarcerating drug users who come to the attention of law enforcement agencies. The Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care is presently working toward establishing a standard set of administrative data from all States and Territories regarding these new diversion programs. The National Diversion Minimum Data Set is intended to provide information on the effectiveness of these diversion programs by linking law enforcement and health data. In future, this administrative requirement should result in a new source of information on illicit drug use by arrestees. The capacity of police services to deliver the information required for this dataset is still being assessed and it may be some time before data are available for analysis.

Diversion programs are administered by State and Territory Governments and can differ greatly. This may have implications in the collection of national data, as discussed in Chapter 7 Data quality issues.

Australian Illicit Drug Report (AIDR) (Appendix 1, A1.1)

In addition to data on arrests and seizures, the ABCI Australian Illicit Drug Report (see 5.2.1 Drug offences) incorporates information on illicit drug trafficking and detection of use in Australian prisons. These data are collected from various public and private prisons in each State and Territory.

The usefulness of these data in assessing illicit drug use among prisoners has a number of limitations. They do not identify the characteristics of prisoners who use illicit drugs, which would help identify patterns of use. Also, prisons in Australia are the responsibility of each State and Territory Government, resulting in differences in procedures employed to detect and report illicit drug use among prisoners across Australia.

Drug Use Careers of Offenders (DUCO) (Appendix 1, A1.8)

The AIC has begun a survey of drug use among prisoners, called Drug Use Careers of Offenders (DUCO). In a similar vein to DUMA, this survey aims to examine the association between drug use and criminal careers among prisoners. It entails a three year survey of prisoners’ criminal and drug-using histories, questioning adult male inmates in the first year, adult female inmates in the second year and juvenile inmates in the third. Data collection was completed for the male sample during 2001.

(b) Criminal activity by known illicit drug users

Data sources mentioned in 5.2.2(a) collect information about illicit drug use from people who are known to have committed a crime. Another approach to investigating the link between illicit drug use and crime is to gather information from known illicit drug users about their criminal activity. A number of surveys of illicit drug users, including those described below, provide some data regarding illegal activities of that group.

Australian Needle and Syringe Program (NSP) Survey (Appendix 1, A1.2)

The Australian NSP Survey has been conducted annually since 1995, coordinated by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR). It targets all clients who present at selected needle and syringe program sites across Australia during a one-week period. Clients are asked to complete a self-administered questionnaire and to provide blood for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and HCV (hepatitis C virus) antibody testing. The survey includes questions about clients’ experience of prison in the previous year, including whether they had injected drugs while in prison.

Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) (Appendix 1, A1.10)

The Illicit Drug Reporting System, which began in Sydney in 1996, is a further source of information on illicit drug users’ involvement in criminal activity. This annual monitoring of illicit drug use, coordinated by NDARC, now collects information in most capital cities in Australia. One component of this reporting system is a survey of injecting drug users, which includes questions on the extent of respondents’ participation in drug dealing, property, violent or fraudulent crime in the month prior to being surveyed. The latest publication of national data is Australian Drug Trends 2000: Findings from the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) (Topp et al., 2001).

(c) Other sources

There have been numerous other studies investigating the link between crime and illicit drug use, which are considered to be beyond the scope of the current publication because of limitations in geographic scope. CD-ROM literature databases such as AustROM can be of assistance in locating relevant papers. One example of such a study would be the extended questions regarding illegal behaviours that were included in the NSW sample of the national Australian School Students Alcohol and Drugs Survey (coordinated by the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria), which is discussed in Chapter 2 Prevalence and patterns of illicit drug use. Results of this NSW study are available in Juveniles in Crime - Part 1: Participation Rates and Risk Factors (Baker, 1998).

5.3 Data issues

Legislative differences exist between States and Territories in definitions of an illicit substance, the quantities used to distinguish between consumers and providers of illicit drugs, and the penalties imposed. These differences make it difficult to compare data from different States and Territories and, to some extent, compromise the validity of any statistics based on aggregations of State and Territory data.

Commonwealth, State and Territory governments each legislate against similar lists of drugs. These lists are much more inclusive than that used for this publication. For example, they can include many commonly prescribed drugs such as tranquillisers which are out of the scope of this publication. Thus, data on illicit drug use from crime and justice agencies which use this legal definition may differ from figures calculated by other agencies.

Differences also exist in the counting units used by the different sources of data. Police and court statistics generally count the number of arrests and hearings, whereas prison statistics count people, as do studies investigating the link between crime and illicit drug use. As a person may commit more than one crime, data on drug crime derived from police and court figures may not be comparable with data derived from other sources.

Data from administrative sources such as police, courts and prisons, and data from surveys may be inconsistent. One factor is that these sources may refer to different populations. Not all drug offences will be detected by police and result in charges being laid, fewer will result in conviction and fewer still will result in imprisonment. Consequently, a person may commit a drug offence but not be represented in administrative datasets, although such a person may be represented in surveys of illicit drug users, such as the NDARC Illicit Drug Reporting System and the NCHECR Australian Needle and Syringe Program Survey.

Further limitations of both administrative data and surveys in providing information about illicit drug use are discussed in Chapter 7 Data quality issues.

5.4 Data gaps

Police and prisons

At present the data on arrests for drug offences cannot be categorised according to the seriousness of the offence. For example, although the possession of a small amount of an illicit drug is often not considered as serious an offence as possession of a much larger amount, in existing data sources no distinction would be made if both amounts are considered a traffickable quantity. In the AIDR, distinction is made between consumption and provision offences but no further classification is possible. A finer classification would be needed to provide a more accurate assessment of the extent of offences associated with illicit drugs.

There is currently very little information on the numbers and characteristics of people in juvenile detention centres as a result of drug offences, as the annual National Prisoner Census conducted by the ABS includes only adult prisoners. The third phase of the AIC's Drug Use Careers of Offenders survey (Appendix 1, A1.8) will provide some information in this regard.


The number of court cases involving drug charges is a potential indicator of drug offences. However, there is currently no national data source and data from State and Territory agencies are inconsistent.

The ABS collects data on cases heard in State and Territory Supreme and Intermediate Courts or their equivalent, which are published annually as Higher Criminal Courts, Australia (Cat. no. 4513.0). The publication provides national case-flow data showing the number of defendants processed by the higher criminal courts, but currently this collection does not include the type of offence committed. Consequently, drug offences cannot be identified. There are plans to expand the data included in future collections to include offence and penalty information. During 2001, the ABS tested a set of offence and penalty data for 1999-2000, for reliability and comparability.

Another limitation of this ABS collection in relation to illicit drug statistics is that it refers to the Supreme and Intermediate Courts, whereas the majority of drug offences, being relatively minor, would be heard in Magistrates Courts. At present, there is no national source of data on Magistrate Courts proceedings that includes information on offence type and penalty, with the capacity to categorise by type of drug offences.

Court statistics at State and Territory level are collected in many cases by the relevant Attorney-General’s department. For example, in New South Wales, the Attorney-General’s Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research have collected and published annual statistics on criminal cases finalised by the New South Wales Local, District, Supreme and Children's Courts since 1974. These include the number of persons charged with drug offences and the number of drug charges made. Information is also available on the type and size or length of the penalty imposed, and the age, sex and Indigenous status of offenders.

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