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Briefing paper: The Australian “Heroin Shortage” Six Years On: What, if any, are the Implications for Drug Policy?

During the mid to late 1990s in Australia heroin and heroin related deaths increased steeply, peaking at over 1000 deaths in 1999. In January 2001, there was an abrupt, unpredicted and unprecedented reduction in heroin supply with nearly simultaneous onset in all Australian jurisdictions. The shortage was most marked in New South Wales, the State with the largest heroin market. There were large increases in price, dramatic decreases in purity at the street level, and marked reductions in the ease with which injecting drug users reported that they could obtain heroin. The abrupt onset of the shortage and an immediate and dramatic reduction in fatal and nonfatal overdoses prompted national (and later international) debate about the causes and policy signifi cance of the shortage. This briefi ng paper summarises the results of research into the consequences of the “heroin shortage” and reviews the continuing debate about its causes and policy signifi cance. As such, in light of an increased understanding of the “heroin shortage”, it revisits some of the issues discussed in BFDPP briefi ng paper number 4, Upheavals in the Australian drug market: heroin drought, stimulant flood, released in 2004.

During the mid to late 1990s in Australia heroin and heroin related deaths increased steeply, peaking at over 1000 deaths in 1999. In January 2001, there was an abrupt, unpredicted and unprecedented reduction in heroin supply with nearly simultaneous onset in all Australian jurisdictions. The shortage was most marked in New South Wales, the State with the largest heroin market. There were large increases in price, dramatic decreases in purity at the street level, and marked reductions in the ease with which injecting drug users reported that they could obtain heroin.