Why addressing the world drug problem is an important issue for Australia and our region

Brendon Hammer By Dr Brendon Hammer, Australia’s Ambassador to Austria 

Almost a quarter of a billion people used illicit drugs in 2014, resulting in an estimated 207,400 deaths worldwide.

In my time as the Australian Ambassador in Vienna it has become clear to me the impact of the world drug problem goes far beyond this human toll. It is fuelling transnational organised crime, burdening national healthcare systems, undermining political stability and threatening sustainable development.

Organised criminal groups thrive on the profits generated from trafficking illicit drugs. In the Asia-Pacific region, countries are increasingly vulnerable to transnational organised crime. The illicit drug trade in this region is worth over US$30 billion a year, and creates major public health, social, and criminal justice challenges. Australia is determined to disrupt these networks, and has contributed over $5 million to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in recent years to combat transnational organised crime and illicit drug trafficking.

Synthetic drugs, including methamphetamines, are rapidly becoming a major problem across our region – including at home in Australia. In fact, Australia uses more methamphetamine per capita than any other country, and this challenge is growing – we intercepted more than 50 times as much crystal methamphetamine (also known as ‘Ice’) in 2014 as we did in 2010. These trends significantly impact Australia’s own health and security.

The need for international cooperation on these issues is clear. At the 60th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs this week in Vienna, Australia is working to capitalise on the momentum generated by last year’s UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). UNGASS was a landmark moment in global drug policy that recognised public health and law enforcement measures are essential if we are to effectively reduce the demand, supply, and effects of illicit drugs.

Australia believes we need to take a holistic and multifaceted approach. Law enforcement is crucial, and Australia is working closely with our partners in the Asia-Pacific region to disrupt trafficking of ice and other drugs by organised criminal groups.


But health-based approaches grounded in sound evidence are equally important. Prevention strategies and adequate treatment for users are essential if we want to reduce the harms associated with drug use and stop at-risk individuals from turning to drugs in the first place. We know these programs work. Australia is committed to ensuring non-discriminatory access to healthcare for drug users, including vulnerable groups such as detained persons, women and children.

Suppressing illicit drugs is important. But at the same time, we have to be careful not to create barriers to accessing controlled narcotics for medicinal purposes, including pain relief. I was personally deeply dismayed to learn that three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries without adequate access to pain relief.  This translates into thousands of people in horrific pain unable to escape their agony. We must do more to address this situation. It is encouraging to see that pilot projects in East Timor and Ghana, supported by Australia through the UN‘s Joint Global Programme on Access to Controlled Drugs, have shown that it is possible to develop robust national systems to ensure access at the same time as preventing diversion.

Australia is a strong contributor to the UN drug control regime, including as a safe and reliable producer of over half the world’s licit opiates. In recognition of this strong track-record, we are seeking a seat on the Commission for Narcotic Drugs for the 2018-21 term. If elected, we will bring an Asia-Pacific perspective and advocate for balanced, evidence-based approaches and greater access to controlled substances for medicinal purposes. It is clear that international cooperation will be key to combatting the world drug problem, and Australia is well-positioned to take a leadership role in this important global issue.


Dr Brendon Hammer is Australia’s Ambassador to Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia. Dr Hammer is Australia’s Resident Representative and Governor on the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Australia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Vienna, as well as Australia’s Permanent Representative to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission.

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