Exploring the harm and societal impact caused by Illicit Drugs

21 Dec 2017

In 2016, the Paul Ramsay Foundation began a sector-led collaboration, in partnership with Collaboration for Impact, to examine the multiple systems involved in and affected by the harm caused by illicit drugs, and investigate potential systems interventions.


Collaboration for Impact facilitators, Liz Skelton and Kerry Graham


The three to four year venture involves six phases: scoping and mapping gaps, opportunities and constraints; convening stakeholders to analyse findings; co-design of interventions; ideation; trialling; and scaling.

CEO Simon Freeman said the project reflects the Foundation’s ambition to redress health disadvantage in Australia, and a willingness to tackle complex and enduring social problems.

Latest reports suggests that illicit drug activity cost Australia $4.4 billion in 2013/14 including money lost to the economy through international payments for illicit drug importations and costs associated with the health impacts of illicit drug use including injury, treatment costs, lost output of drug users while in treatment, and deaths. (Australian Crime Commission: The costs of serious and organised crime in Australia 2013–14).

“There is an urgency, and an appetite for action from within and outside the sector, which presents an opportunity for the Foundation to explore different ways of thinking about and approaching this challenge.”

The project is taking a systems change approach, borrowing from models such as adaptive leadership, collective impact, co-design and various systems change theories to create and drive the process.

Mr Freeman said “Our intent is to uncover and build a new understanding of the systems involved in illicit drug use and harm, the networks of cause and effect, and to find ways to reduce the harms from illicit drugs”.

“Complex problems like this involve a diverse and large number of structures, organisations, levers, and societal and cultural influencers.”

“We are acting as a convenor, catalyst, investor and champion. We are bringing a range of perspectives, experience and expertise to the table, represented by service providers, researchers and other key influencers within and beyond the illicit drug field. It’s an absolute pleasure to work with leaders who are ready to take a risk and to work differently. We know people are exceptionally busy and we really appreciate everyone’s time and commitment to try new approaches.”

“This is an emergent approach. We have no preconceptions of the outcomes, we are cultivating an environment in which learning and adaptation can occur, and where collective solutions can be built.”

Completed in 2016, phase one of the project revealed how fragmented existing responses to illicit drugs are, and that no one solution can adequately overcome the problems.

Project lead Althea Mackenzie said this scoping phase had reinforced the importance of the collaborative, systems-change approach.

“The co-design process places people who are directly affected at the centre of the initiative. By embedding ownership of the process with the systems and people involved, we have a better chance of ensuring solutions are co-created, committed to and implemented together.”

Phase two of the project recently convened eighteen experts and key stakeholders to analyse a systems map and discuss and agree on a desired future system that prevents and minimises the harms caused by illicit drugs.

Ms Mackenzie said the group brought multiple perspectives to illicit drugs systems, and had the readiness and capacity to think systemically, work collaboratively and challenge the way things have been done in the past.

“In identifying the leadership group, it was important that we looked to the ‘unusual suspects’ in the broader system, as well the renowned players,” she said.

The key outcome of the successful two-day meeting was the production of a set of agreed propositions relating to potential interventions and solutions.

The next phase of IDAC will involve deeper learning and wider consultation and engagement. The leadership group and other identified players will be involved in supporting and co-designing strategic interventions for further development.