Dr Caitlin Hughes, Professor Alison Ritter


While legal threshold quantities for drug trafficking have long been used in every Australian state there had been scant attention to their design, efficacy or harms. New research by Hughes, Ritter, Cowdery and Phillips (in press) funded by the Criminology Research Council has evaluated threshold quantities in six different states of Australia in terms of the likelihood of users exceeding trafficable thresholds for personal use alone and the likelihood of disproportionate sanction of traffickers. This used a range of data, including typical patterns of consumption and purchasing (sourced from the NDSHS, IDRS and EDRS), and demonstrated that illicit drug users in some states and for some drug types can consume up to 19 times the current trafficable thresholds (for their personal use alone), and that thresholds also blurred the boundaries of ‘serious’ and ‘minor trafficking offences’. This led to the conclusion that existing trafficable thresholds place particular groups of users and traffickers at risk of unjustified and disproportionate sanction, with residents in the states of NSW and South Australia most at risk. A number of policy recommendations have been put forward, including increasing trafficable thresholds in NSW for heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and MDMA.

While the report is awaiting release our discussions with policy makers in one jurisdiction have highlighted concerns that reforming thresholds may lead to adverse effects including increasing levels of drug use and/or trafficking. This stands contrary to the existing criminological research on drug law reform more generally (e.g. research on the effects of decriminalization – see for example Hughes and Stevens, 2010; Fetherston and Lenton, 2005). However, the potential or actual effects of changing threshold quantities have not been explicitly tested to date. It is clear from drug law reform agenda, that even if unfounded, fears, particularly when raised by policy makers can block valuable opportunities for evidence-informed reform. Hence, this research seeks to address a potential policy concern by exploring perceptions of existing laws and anticipated effects if threshold quantities were reformed. This research will provide important evidence to inform policy makers about the risks associated with reform of the threshold limits.


The specific objectives of this project are to explore:

1)  Attitudes towards existing threshold limits in NSW and SA, amongst two populations who inject drugs (people who inject drugs and people who both inject drugs and deal). This will explore perceptions of the benefits, costs and impacts of thresholds (e.g. on use, purchasing and dealing behavior);

2)  Perceptions of likely effects if threshold quantities were modified in NSW and SA: including impacts (if any) on use, purchasing and dealing behavior; and

3)  Differences (if any) in anticipated effects by state (NSW vs SA) and population (people who inject drugs and people who both inject drugs and deal).

Who Will Benefit?

This research will provide the first evidence-informed knowledge about the likely effects of reforming current thresholds. If our hypotheses are supported, this should negate or mitigate a feared outcome from reform. As such, this project affords the unique opportunity to feed into the policy processes surrounding drug trafficking thresholds and increase the likelihood of evidence-informed policy translation.


Focus groups will be conducted with people who inject drugs in each of the target states: NSW and South Australia. For each state 2-3 focus groups will be conducted: including 1-2 with people who inject drugs and 1 with people who both inject drugs and deal in each state (recruitment permitting).


Focus groups will take place end 2013/ early 2014.




For more information relating to this project, please contact Caitlin Hughes:


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