Democratising Drug Policy

Reference: Ritter, A., Lancaster, K. & Diprose, R. (2018). "Improving drug policy: The potential of broader democratic participation." The full academic paper and research is available online at the International Journal of Drug Policy

We need governments to make better decision about illicit drugs. The alternative is to remain stuck in the same futile cycle.

Every time a young person dies tragically and needlessly at a music festival or dance party, our commentators clamour for our politicians to respond immediately. We make drugs policies on the run. But, policy quick-fixes are mostly ineffective and we find ourselves no better prepared to avert future tragedies or drug-related harm.

We need to change the way drugs policies are made.

We have decades of research that tells us what works and we are continuously building that evidence base. Smarter drug policy would involve making use of that evidence alongside and integrated with the other drivers of policy such as public opinion, and personal experience.

Drug policy is rarely driven by the evidence. Instead drug policy is driven by perceptions of what the public want, and is fuelled by the media and shock jocks. Often it is based on singular events and tragedies.

One way in which drug policy can be informed by what the community wants is through public opinion polling.

We know, for example, that the majority of Australians want to see the legal status of drugs changed for personal use. Between 64% and 88% of Australians support options other than a criminal offence for personal drug use (Hughes, C., Ritter, A., Chalmers, J., Lancaster, K., Barratt, M. & Moxham-Hall, V. (2016). Decriminalisation of drug use and possession in Australia – A briefing note. Sydney: Drug Policy Modelling Program, NDARC, UNSW Australia). In Australia, there are about 100,000 arrests every year for drug use – not for drug supply but for drug use. This is an enormous cost – both economically and socially. International evidence shows that decriminalisation of personal use of drugs reduces the cost to society and to individuals, and does not significantly increase drug use. Here public opinion and evidence align.

Sometimes, though, public opinion and evidence do not align. For example, when we surveyed young people about various alcohol control measures, their views were not concordant with research evidence about effectiveness (Lancaster, K., Ritter, A., & Matthew-Simmons, F. (2014). Young people's opinions about alcohol and other drug policy. Canberra: Australian National Council on Drugs). There are well-recognised problems with what is termed "raw" public opinion. This includes the very high "don't know" responses (a signal that opinions may not have been thought through), as well as the challenge of 'which public' – people who use drugs are the group most affected by government policies yet too often their opinions are marginalised. Instead of relying on polls to determine community opinion, what is required is a more engaged public, where the complex issues and views can be discussed and debated. Drugs policy researchers must get on the front foot and engage the media, the public, business leaders, policy makers and Australians who use drugs. We need a genuine contest of ideas, informed by evidence, to provide an alternative to knee-jerk policy on the run.

We need to move beyond "public opinion surveys" and consider other ways of engaging community members, including people who use drugs, in meaningful debate about drug policy. One such option is "deliberative democracy". Deliberative democracy moves beyond raw public opinion and has as its goal to create an inclusive, democratic, deliberative and thoughtful process of political decision-making on drug policy in order to give voice to "the people". One example of a deliberative method is the Citizens Jury, where members of the public, randomly selected, have the opportunity to consider in depth the problem and possible solutions. My colleagues and I have recently published a paper examining the potential of deliberative democracy to improve drug policy processes. We also consider its limitations.

Get the Full Paper, Improving drug policy: The potential of broader democratic participation by Ritter, A., Lancaster, K. & Diprose, R. on The International Journal of Drug Policy.

Reproduced with permission: Drug Policy Modelling Program, NDARC, UNSW Australia.

Policies concerned with illicit drugs vex governments. While the 'evidence-based policy' paradigm argues that governments should be informed by 'what works', in practice policy makers rarely operate this way. Moreover the evidence-based policy paradigm fails to account for democratic participatory processes, particularly how community members and people who use drugs might be included. The aim of this paper is to explore the political science thinking about democratic participation and the potential afforded in 'deliberative democracy' approaches, such as Citizens Juries and other mini-publics for improved drug policy processes. Deliberative democracy, through its focus on inclusion, equality and reasoned discussion, shows potential for drug policy reform and shifts the focus from reliance on and privileging of experts and scientific evidence. But the very nature of this kind of 'deliberation' may delimit participation, notably through its insistence on authorised modes of communication. Other forms of participation beyond reasoned deliberation aligned with the ontological view that participatory processes themselves are constitutive of subject positions and policy problems, may generate opportunities for considering how the deleterious effects of authorised modes of communication might be overcome.

Ritter, A., Lancaster, K. & Diprose, R. (2018). Improving drug policy: the potential of broader democratic participation. International Journal of Drug Policy Early online: 


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