This era of change is boosted by a landmark decision from the United Nations calling on its member states to go further with drug policy reform, because it sees that criminalisation for minor drug use and possession offences is not only wasteful and ineffective, but also harmful, increasing prison overcrowding, the spread of infectious diseases and reducing or delaying access to essential health services.
In such a climate of flux, evidence-based research provides the crucial link to help guide the best possible reform decisions – and Associate Professor Hughes’ research examines reforms that can be applied to all illicit drugs and produce substantial, long-term change.
“Australia was an early leader in drug law reform, but there is now an international appetite to go further and to learn from the latest evidence-base about optimal models to enable more effective health, social and criminal justice responses.”
“New avenues to resolve this problem and obtain a balanced solution are required. Even law enforcement authorities who have long had objectives to target illicit drug suppliers, recognise they can’t just arrest their way out of this problem.”
Associate Professor Hughes notes a multidisciplinary approach is key to more effective responses and that combining criminological research with insights from health and social policy can expediate development. “Most people who use drugs will do so in non-problematic ways, but for others use of drugs can be tied up in a host of interconnected social issues such as school truancy, unemployment, homelessness or childhood trauma. If we don’t pay attention to addressing unmet needs or access to social services, Australian and international responses to drugs will continue to be stymied.”
Associate Professor Hughes believes change can be driven through stronger co-operation and understanding between researchers and policymakers. She was recently appointed President of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy, and United Nations approval of this group has given added status to its international meetings, expanding conversations between nations wanting to explore more evidence-based and effective drug policy reforms. Associate Professor Hughes is representing Flinders University in Vienna in October 2023 at a United Nations technical meeting on alternatives to conviction and punishment for people who use drugs. Due to this progress, Associate Professor Hughes is confident of building capacity for more research and realworld impacts within and beyond Australian borders.
While collaborations between researchers and policymakers helps underline the necessity for big-picture drug policy reform, research also plays a crucial role in identifying the scale of local drug problems. Associate Professor Hughes is leading an investigation into the increasing influence of crystal methamphetamine, also known as ice, on Australian rural and remote communities.
“We are seeing an international trend in drug trafficking that targets regional areas as being highly profitable markets, so they have become serious targets, and our research underlines the urgency for effective measures to help affected communities,” she says. “Increasing global availability, supply and use of ice resulted in Australians consuming 11.1 tonnes of methylamphetamine in 2021, with rates of use remaining high, particularly in regional areas. We need a roadmap to reduce supply and harms, and to strengthen these communities.”
Developing innovative solutions will be the goal of a five-year research project funded by the Australian Research Council. “It’s not going to be easy, but with our expert multidisciplinary team of Professor Mark Halsey, Research Lead of Flinders Criminology, Professor Jacqueline Bowden, Director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction, and Emeritus Professor of Criminology Andrew Goldsmith, along with international advisors from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UK and USA, we have the capability to produce research that makes a real difference – in regional Australia and around the world."