Oceania is comprised of 24 countries, encompassing an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 islands, including Australia, New Zealand and the numerous Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICT) of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
Oceania is a tremendously diverse region that is home to 34 million people, with over 1,200 languages and dialects. While Australia and New Zealand are highly developed nations, many PICT are faced with considerable challenges relating to poverty, political instability, and poor governance and technical capacity. In addition, their proximity to major drug producing countries in East Asia and high demand consumer countries (i.e. Australia and New Zealand) within the region creates a propitious setting for drug trafficking routes.
Cannabis is produced in Australia and New Zealand as well as many of the small islands in the region. The major part of this cannabis is consumed locally and there is no evidence to suggest that it is being trafficked to other regions. Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are also produced in the region, mainly in Australia and New Zealand (read more).
Geographically, Oceania is not on any of the main trafficking routes. Its cocaine market is still small although it has been expanding recently. Cocaine seizures have increased in Oceania, where 2009/2010 levels were approximately four times higher than those in 2005/2006.
Heroin consumed in the region is Afghan heroin, which is trafficked from Africa and South East Asia on route to Australia, New Zealand and (for relatively smaller amounts) some of the PICT, mainly as certain of these locations function as trafficking hubs. Although Australian users only represent 0.85% of total global heroin consumption, they contribute to 4% of the global market value (read more).
Oceania’s annual prevalence of drug use (except for heroin) remains much higher than the global average. The region is characterised by high prevalence rates for ATS (1.7% to 2.4%), both for ecstasy (2.9%), the use of which is on the decline in the region, and amphetamines (2% to 2.8%). Meanwhile cannabis use is relatively high compared to other regions in the world, at 9.1% to 14.6% of the population aged 15 – 64. The estimated annual prevalence of opiate use (2.3% – 3.4%) is also higher than the global average. It should be noted that prescription opioids are used more than illicit heroin. There are indications of an increase in the prevalence of cocaine use from 1.4% -1.7% in 2009 to 1.5% – 1.9% in 2010; the figure mainly reflects increased rates of consumption in Australia and New Zealand (read more).
Poly-drug use, particularly involving alcohol – both legally and illegally produced homebrew – as well as cannabis, inhalants, kava (for example, on Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu) and emerging markets for amphetamine-type stimulants, are more common in the PICTs than injecting drug use (read more).
There are significant numbers of people who inject drugs (PWID) in Australia (149,591) and New Zealand (20,163), with opioids being the most commonly injected (read more).
Little is known about the prevalence of drug use in the PICT due to a lack of reliable observational systems and a consequent absence of data. However, ATS use among secondary school students has been reported in many Pacific Islands, with lifetime prevalence of methamphetamine consumption reported to be high in the Marshall Islands (13.1%) and Palau (7.1%). There is also evidence of methamphetamine injecting in many Pacific island territories, and in Vanuatu, where methamphetamine is injected by 41% of injecting drug users aged 15-24 (read more).
Traditional use of mild plant stimulants, such as betel nut and kava, is a longstanding part of Pacific Island culture, with the use of kava and cannabis being widespread. Alcohol consumption is increasing in the Western Pacific Region, with home-brewed beverages predominating in many PICT.
Regional drug policies
Supply reduction strategies are directed toward enforcing the prohibition on the non-medical use of controlled drugs and regulating access to legal drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals and other licit substances. Supply reduction activities, including border and domestic policing, extend to controlling the availability of precursor chemicals and equipment used in the manufacture of drugs. The region's approach to supply reduction is generally one of 'zero-tolerance' (read more).
Drug trade related violence in Oceania is relatively minor compared to other regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean. This is reflected in comparatively low homicide rates. Although organised criminal organisations are involved in trafficking drugs to the region, they do not pose a significant security threat.
Criminal justice system
In Oceania, including the region's more developed countries, there still remains a criminal justice based approach for dealing with drug addiction. However, Australia and New Zealand are characterised by policies with an important public health component.
Recently, the New Zealand government started piloting drug courts, which although is still a criminal-justice based method, integrates drug treatment into the criminal justice system. More recently, a potentially revolutionary legislative change which creates a legal recreational drugs market in New Zealand is expected to have near-unanimous support when it comes before Parliament. The Psychoactive Substances law will require party-pill manufacturers to prove their products are low-risk before they come on to the market, and then, if on the market, these products will be sold under tight restrictions (similar to alcohol controls).
In New Zealand Cannabis possession remains a criminal offence and possession of any amount may lead to a criminal charge. Decriminalisation has been debated in Parliament but did not receive support from the major parties.
A number of Australian states have established various models of cannabis decriminalisation for over 25 years and have more recently developed mechanisms to divert drug users into treatment instead of custodial sentences. Three Australian states (South Australia, Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory) have some sort of cannabis decriminalisation, although in 2011 the centre right liberal party repealed the Cannabis Infringement Notice in Western Australia, which had permitted people caught in possession of cannabis to incur fines instead of a criminal prosecution. (Read more: Lenton, Simon and Allsop, Steve 2010, ‘A tale of CIN—the Cannabis Infringement Notice scheme in Western Australia’, Addiction, 105, p. 810.)
There have been extensive studies on the impact of cannabis decriminalisation in Australia, which suggested only minor increases in cannabis use. It is also important to note that cannabis use has increased in states that have not decriminalised cannabis, indicating that these increases are the result of other factors such a cultural change.
There are an estimated 53,000 people living with HIV in the Oceania region. With the exception of Papua New Guinea, which has a generalised HIV epidemic, epidemics in the PICT have remained small (read more). The primary route of HIV transmission in all PICT is heterosexual sex.
There are approximately 170,000 PWID in Australia and New Zealand combined, a small proportion of whom are living with HIV (1 and 0.4%, respectively), and over half of whom have hepatitis C (HCV) (54.6 and 51.9%, respectively). It is notable that the prevalence of injecting drug use much is higher and accounts for a greater proportion of HIV transmission (18%) among Aboriginal Australians than among non-Aboriginals (3%). However, few recent, reliable and representative data exist on population size estimates of PWID, or on the prevalence of blood-borne viruses and other drug-related harms in the PICT (read more).
Australia and New Zealand are explicitly supportive of harm reduction in their national drug policies, with needle and syringe exchange programmes (NSPs) and opioid substitution therapy (OST) widely available country-wide. Australia’s low HIV prevalence has been attributed to the early adoption of harm reduction services, and it is the only country in the region to provide a safer injecting facility (SIF) as a component of its policy response. Australia has one of the world’s highest rate of needle/syringe distribution, with on average 203 syringes distributed per PWID per year in 2011. Likewise, New Zealand has one of the highest NSP coverage rates in the world, having distributed 2.7 million needle-syringes from the approximately 200 outlets across the country at an estimated rate of 270–280 needle-syringes per person per year. While drug treatment including OST and antiretroviral therapy (ART) is now a core focus for Australian and New Zealand correctional facilities, the implementation of needle exchanges in prison is being debated in Australia.
Nevertheless, barriers to accessing services remain, including a level of cultural inappropriateness of services, poorer coverage in rural areas and the stigma of hard drug use remaining.
Meanwhile, in the PICT, harm reduction services rarely exist. Although there is limited non-OST drug treatment available in some PICT countries, drug treatment is generally limited to that provided in psychiatric wards. Nevertheless, there are efforts to improve this situation, including via the Pacific Islands Forum which brings countries in Oceania together to address fundamental drug control issues. In addition, there are a number of Australian and New Zealand-based foreign aid and development initiatives focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention in the PICT. However, few explicitly mention harm reduction in their mandates. More recently, a new network was launched – the Pacific Island Drug and Alcohol Research Network (PDARN), spearheaded by the Burnet Institute and the Australian National Council on Drugs. It is hoped that these initiatives will improve outcomes for drug users across the region.
As noted above, in Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, there are higher levels of problematic drug and alcohol use amongst the indigenous population than the mainstream population. In Australia controlled drugs consumed by aboriginal and Torres Island strait people tend to be cannabis, amphetamines and prescription medication, while heroin and cocaine use is comparatively low (read more). In addition, there are indications that injecting drug use is becoming more prevalent in aboriginal communities, and is becoming a driving factor for HIV transmission (read more).
- New Zealand Drug Foundation, Psychoactive Substances Law
- Pacific Drug and Alcohol Research Network
- Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat
- The Global State of Harm Reduction (Oceania)
- Damrongplasit, Kannika, Hsiao, Cheng, and Zhao, Xueyan, 2010, ‘Decriminalization and Marijuana Smoking Prevalence: Evidence from Australia’, American Statistical Association Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, 28 (3)
- Legal Services Commission of South Australia, 1977, Diversionary Schemes
- Lenton, Simon and Steve Allsop, 2010, ‘A tale of CIN—the Cannabis Infringement Notice scheme in Western Australia’, Addiction, 105: 810
- The Pacific Drug and Alcohol Research Network
- Australian National Drug Strategies
- Australian national data on drugs