Drugs and the Law

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) is also against the law in most states and territories. If illegal drugs are found in a person’s locker, home, car, etc., they will be charged, unless they can prove that the drugs do not belong to them.

The two most common drug offence types are ‘possession’ and ‘supply’. So what do these offences mean?

Possession: this includes carrying an illegal drug, or having it at the person’s home or car, etc. Possession also includes jointly possessing a drug together with another person.

Supply or trafficking: this means providing an illegal drug to another person. Traditionally a trafficker is considered someone who exchanges drug(s) for money, property or services.  However, if any illegal drug is passed onto others (even friends) this is also considered to be ‘trafficking’.

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.

Minor Drug Offence

Most states and territories will allow police to divert someone from going to court if charged for a minor drug offence. An example could be possession of very small amounts of some illegal drugs.

This can result in:

A caution

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.

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: 

A fine

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’ , despite the fact that 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 sold as ‘legal’ and ‘safe’, however, many contain ingredients that are illegal and potentially very dangerous.

For more information, see Emerging Drugs and Synthetic Cannabinoids.

Evidence Base

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.
Page last reviewed: 16 December 2019.