Queen's Policy Engagement

Drug and Alcohol Policy in Australia: A Word from the Experts

In the first of a two-part audio blog, Dr John Moriarty looks at how Victoria in Australia changed its approach to developing its drugs and alcohol policy by putting harm minimisation at the centre of its thinking.

Drug and Alcohol Policy in Australia: A Word from the Experts

The Australian province of Victoria became a world leader in drug policy during the 1980s when the State Government shifted its focus from eradicating drug use to reducing the harms which accrue from using intoxicating substances. As a postgraduate student, I had the chance to visit one of my supervisors in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, during his sabbatical there. I arranged to record interviews with some experts on the development and implementation of this innovative policy approach to drug use.

Harm reduction and harm minimisation

Here’s Jeff Rich of the Department of Health for Victoria, explaining how the region’s drug policy shifted in the 1980s.



‘Alcohol and other drugs’

What intrigued me the most in all of the conversations was how often I heard the phrase ‘drugs and alcohol,’ ‘alcohol and other drugs’ or some other variation. Dr Stefan Gruenert is CEO of Odyssey House, a treatment facility and training organisation for people with drug and alcohol-related problems. Here’s Stefan’s take on the tension between drug and alcohol policy.



Dr Menka Tsantefski is a Social Worker and lecturer at Melbourne University and she agrees that the public discussion of alcohol and illicit drugs have been separate, but are coming together because of the magnitude of harm caused by alcohol use.


Professor John Toumbourou is a leading public health researcher at Melbourne’s Deakin University. His comparative research between the US ‘Zero tolerance: Just Say No’ approach to alcohol and drugs and the Australian harm reduction model was how I first found out about Australia’s policy innovations, so I was very pleased that he agreed to speak to me. In the following clip, he expands on the theme of harm from alcohol use, by describing a game-changing strand of research that compares the harms of alcohol use to the individual drinker with the harms of their use to others.



Good advice in good time

So how do you push back against the influence of lobby groups and political opinion that aims to portray alcohol use as benign? Here policy makers, researchers and practitioners all seem to agree on the need to better educate and advise young people. Jeff Rich describes how harm minimisation has been integrated into school curricula in Australia.



Here’s Stefan Gruenert describing an educational approach by Odyssey, with a particular focus on the interplay between the alcohol industry and sport.



Best advice

And what about young people themselves and their families? What exactly is the best advice for families with a teenager? This is something John Toumbourou has thought a lot about and here he shares some of the conclusions he has arrived at.



Is harm reduction a success story?

As a policy tool, it seems harm reduction is to be used, much like intoxicants themselves, in healthy moderation. The issues John Toumbourou raises reflect the delicate act of balancing the risk of enacting policies or laws which tacitly condone or encourage potentially harmful acts, while operationalising the law in such a way that the harms to those who use were reduced rather than worsened by its application.

I put the question of whether harm reduction has been a success directly to Jeff Rich of the Department of Health. Here is his response.



So, yes and no is the answer: perhaps we should call that a qualified success.

In the forthcoming Part 2 of this blog, myself and Dr Andrew Percy will discuss how this thinking and innovation around alcohol policy might inform how we approach alcohol use, particularly during adolescence, here in Northern Ireland.

All the above participants agreed for their recordings to be used for the purpose of public dissemination.


The featured image in this article has been used thanks to a Creative Commons licence.





Dr John Moriarty
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Dr John Moriarty is a lecturer in the School of Social Science, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests are in mental health, use of administrative data sources, education and careers.

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