australia police
Australian cops have a stubborn tendency to prioritise punitive approaches to drug policy over public health ones. Collage: VICE / Images: Getty Images and Australian Federal Police (Facebook)

Drug Use Isn’t a Moral Issue. Why Do Police Still Treat It As One?

Australian police's ‘Have a Conscience’ campaign is an ironically unconscionable attack on people who use drugs. The damage of such stigma is real.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU

Just after midday on Wednesday, November 3, a public service announcement was beamed out via Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) social media accounts: a split-panel photograph, urging viewers to contemplate a “horrifying” before-and-after image. On the left was a young woman with bright eyes and clear, flawless skin. She could’ve been anywhere between the age of 18 and 25. On the right: a sallow-faced woman who looked twice the other’s age, with sunken cheekbones, cracked teeth and facial scabs. Her eyes were bloodshot and deliriously vacant.


Across the top of the image was a warning: “Scared of monsters under the bed? Imagine thinking bugs are under your skin.” Then, a campaign slogan: “Have a conscience.”

Neither of these women were real. 

As the police clarified in the comments, they were a creation of the AFP’s Forensics Facial Recognition team; an evocative simulacrum of the “health ravages meth physically causes the body.” A caricature, in other words. A deep fake.

“For privacy reasons,” the comment explained, “we have not used the face of one of the real Australians suffering from this destructive drug.”

VICE spoke to multiple real Australians who use methamphetamine after the ad was shared to the AFP’s 586,000 Facebook and Instagram followers. Jemma, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer from Sydney, has smoked crystal meth recreationally since she was in her early 20s.

“I've done it, I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve never had any issues,” she told VICE. “I’ve never felt the bugs crawling under my skin as the AFP post was trying to make out. And I don’t think my face is too bad, either.”

Jemma said there are people in all aspects of her life who know she uses crystal meth, or “ice,” and are accepting of the fact – including in her workplace. She’s comfortable talking about it with people who “understand the reality of taking drugs and the fact that you’re not a monster.” Nonetheless, she asked that she be referred to by a pseudonym in this article to protect her from social stigma.


“It’s demoralising,” she said of the AFP campaign. “It does make it a lot harder to speak up and talk about this openly because it is tied so much to a sense of whether you’re a good person or not.”

It was during her first degree that Jemma smoked ice for the first time: a one-off with a friend that didn’t materialise into anything more regular until later. Eventually, she started using it “quite significantly” while partying during uni breaks, abstaining throughout the semester unless there was a particularly large event or festival and then letting her hair down once school was out. Essentially, she used meth the same way countless other young Australians use drugs like MDMA, cocaine or ketamine: as a party supplement. Now, she estimates that she smokes it about two to three times a year. Never has her relationship bordered on what she would deem problematic.

“Obviously everyone should assess their own limits and everyone will have different tolerances,” she said. “But I know lots and lots of people who do it very recreationally, and very few I would consider have a problem or have ever had a problem.” 

Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that acts on the central nervous system and, at low to moderate doses, can elevate mood and increase energy. At high doses, it can lead to heart failure and brain bleeds – and when used chronically at high quantities, can precipitate mood swings, violent behaviour and typical “stimulant psychosis” symptoms such as delirium, hallucinations and paranoia.


All of which, of course, are health issues.

Meth is a poison, and has the potential to lead to a broad range of physical and mental complications. Drug use and misuse is a matter of public health. And yet Australian police continue to prosecute it as a predominantly criminal, and moral, issue.

“The takeaway [of the AFP campaign] I think for most people is that meth users, or people who use drugs more broadly, are monsters; ugly, disgusting beings that are worthy of disrespect,” said Jemma. “And it’s horrible.”

In the 12 days since it was posted to Facebook, the public service announcement has racked up more than 1,400 comments: many of them condemning police’s insensitive language and blunt-force approach; many others applauding them and lamenting the fact that such “horrifying” people are being let out of prison and “back onto the streets.”

The AFP made a point of rolling out the fearsome, doctored images around Halloween “to highlight the real horror of illicit drug use.” Not content with demonising people who use drugs for the act itself, though, the “Have A Conscience” campaign also seeks to hold them accountable for a litany of evils, wrongdoings and crimes against humanity: from sexual slavery to deforestation.

“It does make it a lot harder to speak up and talk about this openly because it is tied so much to a sense of whether you’re a good person or not.”

According to a media release that the AFP sent VICE, a primary agenda of the campaign is to outline “how Australian drug users could be bankrolling drug syndicates responsible for overseas human trafficking and sexual servitude, plus contributing to significant environmental damage in some of the world's most pristine forests.”


“The AFP is launching this campaign to remind Australians that their actions, whether it is casual drug or repeated drug use, have significant and devastating consequences,” said AFP Eastern Commander of Investigations Kirsty Schofield. 

“We want Australians to think about their health but also want them to have a conscience when it comes to illicit drug use. We want them to think, ‘Is my illicit drug use, no matter how regular, contributing to terrible environmental consequences?’ … We want drug users to ask themselves, 'Is my partying putting other women and children across the globe through horrendous circumstances?’"

It’s a long bow to draw. To suggest that people who use illicit drugs are sinners by proxy, and that they automatically inherit the moral debt of those who may or may not have manufactured the product they’re consuming, is not dissimilar to saying that individuals who use Apple products should be vilified for supporting cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

As Gino Vumbaca, President of Harm Reduction Australia, points out, it’s like saying people who wear Nike are directly supporting slave labour in China.


“Sure you can make that connection,” Vumbaca tells VICE, “but do you think people are actively doing it to do that? That’s the insinuation [police are] making: that people are actively supporting organised crime so that they can use a drug. It’s nothing to do with that.”

“To try and [suggest] that someone smoking dope or doing a line of cocaine is actively supporting Mexican cartels and terrorism somewhere – that’s just an outrageous claim to make.”

The root of the campaign’s problem is more serious, though. By treating illicit drug use as a moral failure, and thereby insinuating that individuals who use drugs are bad people deserving of contempt, police risk actively condemning and alienating members of society who may be in dire need of public health support.

“When people have a dependence on a certain drug, whatever it is, to suggest that somehow it’s their fault just shows no understanding of what the evidence says,” Vumbaca notes. What the evidence does indicate is that most people who drink alcohol or use illegal drugs don’t become dependent on them, and when dependency does occur it’s often linked to underlying issues such as trauma. Crucially, it also shows that demonisation of drug use can deter people from seeking help.


“When you increase the shame and stigma for people and their families, what you do is you make it harder for them to reach out to even seek assistance,” said Vumbaca. “It’s already hard enough for people to reach out and talk about their issues with health professionals – and all [police are] doing is putting further barriers up, by creating this public hate for people who use drugs, as if they’re all supporting organised crime and don’t give a fuck about anyone but themselves.”

Shawnee Rose is a 29-year-old veterinary nurse and health worker from Sydney who’s used methamphetamine regularly since the age of 16. Like Jemma, they’ve never felt the sensation of “bugs under their skin.” But their relationship with the drug has been slightly more intense.

Rose started smoking meth in their teenage years, following a string of traumatic experiences, and by the time they were 18 they were using the drug daily. They were a functioning user – studying, holding down a full-time job, paying rent for themself and their partner – but they were developing a dependence. After a while, they noticed that meth was becoming the main focus of their days. 

“I had problematic drug use,” Rose, who is also an advocate and spokesperson for drug safety organisation Unharm, told VICE. “But that didn’t strip me of a conscience; that didn’t make me a bad person. It just meant that I had a dependence on a substance.”


When they noticed that their relationship with meth had become a problem, Rose tried cutting back. They attempted to limit their drug use to weekends, or to abstain during the day and only use at night. None of it worked. So they reached out for help.

“In the end, for me to stop using, I had to go into rehab,” they explained. “But I found so much value in that. I learned so many things that I never learned growing up, like: What do boundaries look like? What do healthy relationships look like? Those were things that I wasn’t aware of or wasn’t taught.”

“When you increase the shame and stigma for people and their families, what you do is you make it harder for them to reach out to even seek assistance.”

These days, Rose uses meth with a similar frequency to Jemma: sporadically; roughly once every three to four months. They are similarly comfortable speaking about it, and explained that they want to encourage honest, open dialogue around the realities of methamphetamine and the kinds of people who use it.

“There’s already preconceived biases that people have toward meth users, and I think that’s because of the message that people have been delivered about it: that it’s a scary drug; that people who use it become violent or psychotic; that it’s a demoralising drug and it brings out the worst in people,” they said. “But in my experience I’ve not witnessed that. Some of the most compassionate, empathetic and intelligent people I have met in my life have been people who use methamphetamines.”


Rose is comfortable in their skin, and unashamed of the way they’ve chosen to live their life. But when they saw the “fear mongering” AFP posts on Facebook, their immediate response was one of anger and disgust.

“It is really discriminatory, and what that campaign is going to do is make it harder for people to seek help,” they said. “Campaigns like this don’t offer positive solution focuses, they push people who are already having a hard time further to the outskirts so they don’t seek help for themselves when they want to. 

“Campaigns like this aren’t saving lives – they’re killing lives.”

Australian police have a stubborn tendency to prioritise punitive approaches to drug policy over public health ones. A recent report by the Noffs Foundation indicated that more than 60 percent of the federal government’s yearly ​​illicit drug policy budget is spent on law enforcement, despite the fact that rising arrest rates have proven ineffective at reducing drug use. In their most recent report, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission boasted a record 166,321 drug-related arrests for the year ending 2020 – 88 percent of whom were users, rather than dealers or traffickers. 


“Just under every four minutes someone in this country is charged and arrested for possession of a drug,” Vumbaca tells VICE. “Not for selling it, but for personal use.”

Researchers have also noted that media campaigns are not typically effective at deterring people who are either already using drugs or considering using them. A 2015 study found that “in the worst-case scenario, media campaigns can be both ineffective and harmful. Contrary to common belief, anti-drug media campaigns may be damaging and their dissemination is ethically unacceptable without a prior assessment of their effects.”

Perhaps most troubling in light of the AFP’s latest anti-drugs campaign, however, is a 2017 report from the Queensland Mental Health Commission that investigated the impacts of stigma and discrimination on such individuals. Rather than discouraging them from using drugs, researchers found that stigma often made people feel worthless, which in turn drove them towards further substance misuse. Stigma was also found to be a barrier to help-seeking, even in cases where people felt that help was what they really needed. 

“I had problematic drug use … But that didn’t strip me of a conscience; that didn’t make me a bad person.”


Notably, many participants cited police as perpetrators of that stigma.

“There were very few positive examples of non-discriminatory interactions with police across all of the participants’ accounts,” the study found. “Only a few participants could describe a time they had not felt stigmatised in an interaction with police, and these all occurred after participants had engaged in treatment.”

Shawnee Rose echoed this sentiment.

“I’ve not had too many interactions with police regarding drug use, but what interactions I have had have never been positive,” they said. “And I think that’s a shame. I think there’d be a lot more trust in police and a lot more people calling or using them if they were easier and more approachable – or had some sort of understanding regarding harm reduction.”

According to Vumbaca, the cops are unreceptive towards offers of education. Contrasting the issue of drug use against the COVID-19 pandemic, where policing efforts are based on public health advice that aims to protect people and reduce as much harm as possible, Vumbaca claims “there seems to be this concerted ‘attack’ on people who use drugs by the AFP, and we have no idea why”.

“At every move we advocate on the basis of evidence for change or reform to drug laws, and it just seems to be a quest or a thirst for power on their part,” he says.

“To do this on the back of people who are using and in some cases having some serious problems with drug use, and increasing the stigma and the problems for them – it just seems we don’t care what the harm is.”

“These are soft targets that [they] can hit … because who’s gonna stand up and say: ‘You should be more worried about people who use drugs and their families’? That’s a hard argument to win.”

Despite pushback from members of the public and calls from community organisations, the AFP has, at the time of writing, refused to take down the social media posts or wind back its “Have A Conscience” campaign. 

VICE asked AFP Media for a response to suggestions that the posts were insensitive and demonising, but did not receive one. Meanwhile, for as long as they stay online, the police’s interpretation of what the “face of a meth user” ought to look like will continue to stigmatise people who use the drug; an ironically unconscionable attack on hundreds of thousands of people who have done nothing to have their ethics so brazenly called into question.

“We need to remember that having a drug dependence issue is not a moral failing. It’s a public health issue,” said Rose. “That’s what it is. No one wakes up in the morning and decides they want to be a drug addict.”

If you or someone you know would like to talk to someone about drug use that may be getting out of hand, you can contact the national 24/7 alcohol and other drugs hotline on 1800 250 015.

Alternatively, you can get 24 hour support at or by calling Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

If you'd like to just read more on alcohol and drug use in Australia, check out or the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (

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