Tackling Ice and Illicit Drug Use Fact Sheet

Illicit drug abuse is having a devastating impact across Australia. It can lead to violence, relationship breakdown, community dysfunction, crime and increased prison rates. The impact is felt most heavily in disadvantaged communities and by women and children. 

Labor welcomed the release of the National Ice Taskforce report in December 2015. It identified strategies to take a systematic and coordinated approach to education, health and law enforcement in order to tackle ice use. 

The report notes that law enforcement efforts will only succeed if greater emphasis is also placed on measures to reduce demand, including prevention strategies. It also notes that treatment services should be expanded, particularly community support services.

The head of the Taskforce, former Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, has told the Government that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. The report also told us what many communities across Australia already knew – treatment services just cannot keep up with demand. 

A Shorten Labor Government will deliver smart, cost-effective policies that help vulnerable communities in the grip of illicit drug abuse. 

A Shorten Labor Government will invest $31.8 million to:

  • Invest in local solutions to assist at-risk communities.
  • Provide long term funding security for treatment services.
  • Drive improvement in the treatment workforce through a National Capability Plan.
  • Restore expert advice through an independent Advisory Council.
  • Review harm minimisation strategies.

The need for action and a new approach

Despite increases in drug seizures, arrests and an explosion in growth in the prison population, illicit drugs are readily available and drug use remains constant. There is evidence that the street price of some illicit drugs, including ice, is falling.

Treatment services are over-stretched and under-funded. The Liberal Government has cut almost $1 billion from funds that support the treatment sector. They have also kept essential services on a slow drip feed of 12 month contracts. People in regional Australia face particular barriers in accessing timely treatment.[1] Overall, fewer than half of all people seeking alcohol and illicit drug treatment in Australia are able to get the help they need.[2] 

Of the $1.7 billion that Australian Governments spend each year on illicit drugs policy, just 22 per cent is spent on treatment, 9.5 per cent on prevention and 2.2 per cent on harm minimisation.[3]

In addition to the strong response from police and the justice system, we need to focus on alcohol and illicit drug abuse as a health problem. The situation for many people will not improve until we boost investment in prevention strategies, treatment services and harm minimisation. 

Evidence from around the world shows that this works. One study in the United States found that treatment is 10 to 15 times more cost-effective than enforcement interventions at reducing serious drug-related crime.[4] Following New Zealand’s decision to dedicate significant resources to treatment services, methamphetamine use has halved nation-wide.[5]

In the 1980s and 90s Australia led the world in harm minimisation strategies such as needle and syringe programs that saved thousands of lives. We must make sure that our current strategies are up to date and this means exploring all available options.

Labor’s Plan

Our approach will put people first and dedicate funds to policies and programs that are proven to deliver value for money.

Investing in Local Solutions 

Alcohol and harmful drugs like ice affect people from various backgrounds in urban settings and rural areas across Australia. However, some communities are in a particularly precarious position with rates of substance misuse rising and treatment services and other forms of community support few and far between.

That is why our $7 million Local Solutions Fund will provide targeted support for certain regions which are especially vulnerable to problems caused by alcohol and drug abuse. If we can prevent substance misuse and provide timely treatment and support for those who need it, we can change peoples’ lives and help at-risk communities.

Strengthening Treatment Services 

Labor’s aim is to make it easier for a person with a drug or alcohol problem to find a treatment service than it is to find a drug trafficker. 

Currently treatment services across Australia that receive Commonwealth funds have no long-term funding security.  Because of the Liberal Government’s neglect of the sector they have no certainty about their future. This makes it extremely difficult to hire and retain skilled staff, invest in infrastructure and meet increasing demand for help. The Liberals are using short term funding arrangements as an alternative to performance and contract management. 

In government, Labor will provide longer-term funding certainty for treatment services. It is time to end the Liberal Government’s mismanagement and support treatment workers on the frontline. 

Improving Workforce Capacity 

Labor understands that the major cost for any treatment service is staffing. Services need highly trained and competent professionals working on the frontline and supporting people to beat addiction is labour intensive. Labor will drive improvement in the Commonwealth-funded treatment workforce and strengthen community confidence in the sector by dedicating $22 million to a National Capability Plan. 

The plan will:

  • Deliver consistency of service provision through a National Support Program featuring the implementation of nation-wide quality standards.
  • Enhance client outcomes through a professional capacity-building program. The program will support workers involved in direct client care obtaining relevant post-graduate qualifications.

This way, whether someone is receiving treatment in the Kimberley, inner-city Sydney or rural Victoria – adherence to the standards will be the same. Labor will also make sure that workers on the frontline are obtaining the training and skills they need to help people turn their lives around.

Restoring Expert Advice

A Shorten Labor Government recognises that we need to listen to the experts when it comes to improving alcohol and illicit drugs policy. 

Unfortunately, the Liberal Government has axed or curtailed several expert bodies including the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, which was forced to shut down in 2014. This meant that the drug and alcohol research library was warehoused and 50 years’ worth of evidence and papers is no longer available to the public, academics and health experts.

Labor will reinstate an independent Advisory Council to ensure that the sector has direct access to up-to-date research and independent advice on the misuse of alcohol and other drugs, costing $5 million over four years. The Council will get on with the job of minimising harm to society and individuals from substance misuse without the prospect of funding cuts. 

Expanding Harm Minimisation Strategies 

A Shorten Labor Government will review Australia’s current harm minimisation strategies with consideration of the new risks facing people using illicit drugs. We will look at the evidence on current services and work in partnership with the States and Territories to support policies that work.

When opioids like heroin and the spread of blood borne viruses were the principal alcohol and illicit drugs policy concern the Hawke Labor Government introduced Needle and Syringe Programmes (NSP) as a harm reduction method. Our NSPs have prevented an estimated 57,000 cases of HIV in Australia. For every $1 invested in NSPs in Australia saved $4 in health care costs and $27 in overall costs to the community.[6] 

However, Australian governments have not updated our harm minimisation strategies in response to the new illicit drugs being used. Young people are dying as a result. This has come into sharp focus during the last two summer periods, where seven young people died from drug overdoses at popular music festivals. 

The evidence suggests that harm minimisation strategies should form an important part of an effective response to the drug and alcohol misuse yet just 2.2 per cent of total government spending on alcohol and other drugs policy is dedicated to harm minimisation. It is therefore vital to examine all available approaches and progress policies that save lives. 

Labor’s Record

Labor has a proud record when it comes to alcohol and illicit drug policy reform. As our national platform states, we are committed to an evidence-based strategy that aims to approach this complex policy area from a health and welfare perspective.

Under the Hawke Government, the Labor Party led the world in harm minimisation policies. Our response to the growing health crisis posed by heroin use and the spread of HIV/AIDS was timely and effective. By 2010, approximately 4,500 deaths from HIV and 90 deaths from hepatitis C were projected to have been prevented.[7] 

The previous Labor Government introduced ground-breaking reforms in tackling youth “binge drinking” and the introduction of plain tobacco packaging.[8] Kevin Rudd also introduced measures to restrict sales of precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine and banned the importation of “pipes” used to take drugs including ice.

The Liberal Government’s Record

For two years in a row, Commonwealth funding to the non-government sector, via the NGO Treatment Grants Program, has been rolled over for just 12 months at a time. It is considered a temporary reprieve by the sector and has created an urgent funding crisis. 

These services are unable to plan for the future, adequately retain staff and manage a response to emerging challenges under such a short-term funding agreement. The administrative burden and high staff turnover means the services continually struggle to meet patient needs. 

Over three Budgets, the Liberal Government has cut almost $1 billion from the Health Flexible Funds, which support alcohol and illicit drug rehabilitation services among other health priorities.   

The sector remains uncertain about how much money will be cut from the substance misuse funds and how this will affect their operations.

Financial Implications 

The investment will cost $32 million over the forward estimates. 












[1] National Rural Health Alliance Inc., Illicit Drug Use in Rural Australia: Fact Sheet 33, June 2012.

[2] Alison Ritter, Lynda Berends, Jenny Chalmers, Phil Hull, Kari Lancaster and Maria Gomez, Drug Policy Modelling Program National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre UNSW, New Horizons: The review of alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia, July 2014.

[3] National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Government drug policy expenditure in Australia 2009/10, June 2013.

[4] United States RAND Drug Policy Research Centre, Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: throwing away the key or the taxpayer’s money?, 1997.

[5] New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Tackling Methamphetamine Progress Report, October 2014.

[6] Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing, Return on investment: evaluating the cost-effectiveness of needle and syringe programs in Australia, 2009.

[7] Parliamentary Library briefing paper, “Harm Reduction”, 23 November 2015.

[8] Parliamentary Library briefing paper, “Crystal methamphetamine in rural and regional Australia”, 31 March 2015.

[9] Totals may not sum due to rounding.