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FactCheck: does Australia spend $1.5 billion a year on drug law enforcement, with 70% due to cannabis?

Was David Leyonhjelm correct about the proportion of drug law enforcement costs attributable to cannabis? AAP/Mick Tsikas

FactCheck: does Australia spend $1.5 billion a year on drug law enforcement, with 70% due to cannabis?

Was David Leyonhjelm correct about the proportion of drug law enforcement costs attributable to cannabis? AAP/Mick Tsikas

Of the A$1.5 billion spent annually on drug law enforcement, 70% is attributable to cannabis. – Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, speaking in parliament in support of the passage of the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016, on February 24, 2016.

Estimating Australia’s annual drug law enforcement expenditure is a difficult and inexact science.

Drug law enforcement may be involved with other crime fighting. For example, it’s hard to know exactly what proportion of the money spent tackling organised crime entails drug law enforcement, given that illicit drugs may be just one source of income for these groups.

Some arrests are also categorised as illicit drug offences, even when the primary focus of the police may be a different issue. For example, a person arrested for being drunk and disorderly may be found to be in possession of a small quantity of cannabis. This is still counted as an illicit drug offence even though the primary focus of police was dealing with the unruly behaviour and enhancing community safety.

Against this background, we sought to test against the evidence a statement by Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm that A$1.5 billion is spent annually on drug law enforcement in Australia and that 70% is attributable to cannabis.

Does Australia spend A$1.5b a year on drug law enforcement?

When asked for a source to support his statement, a spokesman for Senator Leyonhjelm referred The Conversation to a page on the Drug Law Reform Australia website. The webpage states:

Most of Australian drug arrests were for cannabis around 61,011, or 65% of drug arrests. Around 80% of those were for possession… The total cost of drug law enforcement is around $1.1 billion, not counting drug related crime which is unquantifiable.

There is a discrepancy between Drug Law Reform Australia’s reporting of the cost of drug law enforcement ($1.1 billion) and Senator Leyonhjelm’s estimation ($1.5 billion).

The Drug Law Reform Australia webpage, in turn, cites a report by the team at the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the University of New South Wales.

That research team estimated that in 2009-10, Australian drug law enforcement activities cost between A$1.03 billion and A$1.07 billion. That estimate included police services, judicial resources, legal expenses, corrective services, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (now the Australian Border Force).

Taking the mid-point of this amount ($1.05 billion) and adjusting for inflation using the Reserve Bank of Australia’s inflation calculator (for the period 2010-2015) gives the approximate cost for 2015 of $1.18 billion, well short of Senator Leyonhjelm’s estimation of $1.5 billion.

So we found no evidence to support Senator Leyonhjelm’s assertion that A$1.5 billion is spent annually on drug law enforcement in Australia. That figure is not in the source he used.

Nevertheless, given the difficulties associated with accurately costing drug law enforcement, this discrepancy is not a major flaw.

Is 70% of Australia’s annual drug law enforcement spend due to cannabis?

It is unclear how the senator derived this figure of 70%.

The Drug Law Reform Australia webpage correctly cites the Australian Crime Commission’s 2011-12 Illicit Drug Data Report in stating that 61,011, or 65%, of drug arrests (including expiation offences) were cannabis-related.

It may be the case that Senator Leyonhjelm has assumed that because 65% (or 70% as he stated) of arrests were cannabis-related then 65% of drug law enforcement costs are related to cannabis.

If so, this is unlikely to be correct for a number of reasons, including:

  • Contemporary Australian policing policy approaches aim to reduce the chances that someone arrested for minor cannabis offences (like use and possession) will end up in the criminal justice system. Expiation (atonement) and diversion schemes are common, which drives down the cost of cannabis law enforcement. Cannabis arrests are cheap, because they typically do not involve court or prison (which cost taxpayers a lot of money).
  • The vast majority of cannabis offences are for simple possession, which do not generally stem from expensive and complex investigations. So the average cost would be substantially lower than many other drug-related cases. Cannabis is also bulky, pungent and requires land or hydroponic facilities to grow, so it is easier for police to find than, say, a methamphetamine lab. Destroying a commercial cannabis crop is also far easier and less costly than dismantling a methamphetamine laboratory.
  • Trafficking cannabis into Australia is largely unnecessary, as the overwhelming majority of the cannabis available in Australia is grown locally. That said, there were four large seizures at the border in 2013-14. Most seizures are for cannabis seed coming through the post. Therefore, it is unlikely that a large proportion of Australian Border Force resources are applied to cannabis.
  • Similarly, the Australian Federal Police’s expenditure on the detection of cannabis possession offences is likely to be low.

Verdict

We found no evidence to support Senator Leyonhjelm assertion that A$1.5 billion is spent annually on drug law enforcement.

While approximately 70% of all illicit drug offences are cannabis-related, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that 70% of drug law enforcement costs are attributable to cannabis. – Roger Nicholas and Ann Roche


Review

This is a sound analysis, and I concur with the verdict. That is not to say that spending on drug law enforcement is small, nor that it should not be subject to greater scrutiny. Having better and more recent data (the last drug budgets was 2009-10) will improve Australia’s capacity to have sensible debate about spending priorities. – Alison Ritter


Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.