Travel Through Time
Modern Events
Drug Dependence - Laws and Attitudes
Race and Drugs
Treaties, Conventions and Protocols
Cannabis Laws
Alcoholics Anonymous
Methodone Milestones
The History of Harm Minimisation
Ottowa Charter for Health Promotion
Additional Resources

Treaties, Conventions and Protocols

Colonial Australia has, and continues to be, influenced by international treaties and protocols on drugs. This influence extends to the way illicit drug use is managed by health professionals and the courts.

The first major drug treaty was the Hague International convention on opium (1912-1914), which Australia signed in 1913. Soon after, the Harrison Act was passed in the US in 1914, prohibiting non medical drug use. The aim of this was essentially diplomatic: to improve relations between the US and China. Australia followed, by restricting the importation of heroin, morphine and cocaine.

Further international conventions followed in the 20s and 30s, with the aim of influencing both international and domestic controls on drugs.

In 1925 the Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs restricted use of cannabis, opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine to medicinal and scientific purposes. Out of this Convention was established the Permanent Central Opium Board (PCOB) whose charter it was to collect statistics on narcotics use and provide information on narcotic import requirements for participating countries.

Australia continued to use medical heroin, and was criticised by the PCOB along with several other countries in 1949 and the early 1950s. Heroin was used in Australia as an effective painkiller in childbirth, as well as a cough suppressant. Bowing to international political pressure, and despite the protests of the nascent Australian Medical Association, the Commonwealth Government introduced an absolute prohibition on the importation and use of heroin in mid 1953.

1960s and 1970s: More Treaties, More Laws

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 consolidated prior treaties, conventions and agreements. The Convention asked participating governments to 'limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of narcotic drugs'. The Commonwealth ratified the recommendations of the convention in 1967, and enacted the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967.

Into the 1970s, Australian laws were broadened to deal with drug offences. One significant trend over this time was a distinction between 'users' and 'traffickers', and between 'hard' and 'soft' drugs. Penalties for 'traffickable' quantities of drugs were increased in many States, while there were some moves to relax the laws relating to, for example, small amounts of cannabis. For example, in 1975 the ACT reduced the penalty for possession of less than 25 grams or cannabis, with the Northern Territory enacting a similar amendment in 1977.

Times of Change: The Birth of Harm Minimisation

Through the 1980s and the 1990s laws continued to change, with some significant questions being raised about the effectiveness of drug prohibition policy. This was the beginning of the harm minimisation or harm reduction approach to drug use issues.

In 1985, following the Special Premiers' Conference on Drugs, the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NCADA) was established. Instituted at the time of the Hawke Labour Government, with the support of the then Health Minister, Neal Blewett, NCADA outlined a multifaceted approach to drug use. NCADA conceded that interdiction efforts alone were not winning in the 'war against drugs'.

Through the 1990s, cannabis laws in some Australian States were further reformed. In the ACT, Northern Territory and South Australia, in particular, maximum penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis were reduced. However, there is still discretion for fairly tough sentences for non-traffickable quantities of cannabis in many other States. Laws pertaining to possession of injecting paraphernalia were also relaxed in most States in the early 1990s, in line with the harm reduction strategies of needle and syringe exchange programs.

In the late 1990s and today, international attitudes and political considerations continue to influence strategies for the control of illicit drug use. From early in the 90s decade, the idea of a controlled heroin trial for dependent people has been discussed. One argument against such a trial has been that it may contravene international narcotics treaties, or at least be at odds with the spirit of such treaties. The multi-million dollar Tasmanian opium industry may be affected if other countries boycott Australian grown opium.

Just like a half century ago, politics, economics and international diplomacy are a potent determinant of how drug use is managed in Australia.

The Harrison Act


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