Drug and Alcohol Use and the Law
In Australia, the legal drinking age is 18 years old. It is illegal for someone under the age of 18 (minors) to purchase or to drink alcohol in licensed premises (e.g. a bar, club, restaurant). In many jurisdictions it is also illegal for someone under the age of 18 to consume alcohol in public places.
In a private residence, it is illegal to supply alcohol to minors unless you have the parent or guardian's permission and can provide responsible adult supervision.
It is against the law to possess, use, make, import or sell illegal drugs. Possession of drug-using equipment (e.g. a cannabis bong or pipe) that has been used to consume drugs is also against the law in most states and territories. Likewise, if illegal drugs are found in a person's locker, home, car, etc. they will be charged, unless they can prove the drugs do not belong to them.
The penalties for drug offences vary depending on the age of the offender (adult or minor), type of drug, quantities involved, previous offences, and the state or territory in which the offence happened.
A criminal record can lead to difficulties getting a job, credit card or even a visa for overseas travel.
Minor Drug Offence
Most states and territories will allow police to divert someone from going to court if charged for a minor drug offence such as possession of very small amounts of certain illegal drugs.
This can result in:
A formal warning recorded on a database for police records.
A youth justice conference
A meeting where issues surrounding the offence are discussed with the parent/guardian, police, and health professionals.
A drug assessment and education session
This involves being assessed for drug use and undergoing an education and counselling session.
Major Drug Offence
If someone is caught with a larger quantity of illegal drugs or is a repeat offender, they may not qualify for a diversion or caution and could face other penalties such as:
This can be up to $100,000.
A criminal penalty
This can include a heavy fine and/or imprisonment which may be up to 25 years.
What about “Legal Highs”?
In recent years, many ‘new’ drugs have arrived on the market. These are often advertised as ‘legal highs’, even though in many cases they are not legal. These substances are also marketed as ‘synthetic drugs’, ‘party pills’, ‘research chemicals’, or ‘plant food’, and are often used as substitutes for other illegal drugs. They are sometimes sold in stores or online and marketed as ‘legal’ and ‘safe’, however many contain ingredients that are actually illegal and potentially very dangerous.
For more information, see Synthetic Cannabinoids and “Legal Highs”.
Most of these substances are illegal, or are quickly made illegal, because of health risks.
Drug Use and Schools
All schools take drug use very seriously. Although their first priority will be to look after the student and provide help, the person could also be suspended or expelled. The consequence will usually depend on the school policy and the nature of the specific drug incident.
This section outlines the law for drug-related offences in Australia. This information is a general summary and should not be taken as comprehensive legal advice. If you have been charged with a drug offence you should contact a criminal lawyer for assistance.
This factsheet was developed following expert review by researchers at the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney, the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.
See Illegal Drugs and the Law: Detailed Resource for more information.
Page last reviewed: 11 December 2019.