Pubdate: Tue 7 July, 1998 Source: Age, The (Australia) Contact: http://www.theage.com.au/ Author: Nicole Brady AGENCIES SUPPORT NEW POLICE APPROACH Welfare agencies yesterday applauded the joint bid by police and the State Government to divert drug users out of the courts and into health and rehabilitation networks. Workers said it was sensible to keep those dabbling in small amounts of cannabis away from the criminal justice system, thus avoiding the social stigma of a possible conviction. They also congratulated the police for initiating a trial in the Broadmeadows district that would channel first-time offenders caught with small quantities of hard drugs _ such as heroin _ into treatment and support programs. Mr Paul McDonald, executive officer of the State Government's recently established Youth Substance Abuse Service for users aged 12 to 21, said the ``tremendous'' new approach by the police was leading the way towards a new strategy to counter drug abuse. ``We are now for the first time starting to see the use of illicit drugs by young people and young adults and adults in a light that is more relevant to their needs rather than to the failing concepts of a drug law enforcement approach,'' he said. Mr Bernie Geary, of Jesuit Social Services, said the initiative would involve police as positive agents. Mr Geary, who was a member of the Premier's Drug Advisory Council, said the idea was gratifying. Many of the recommendations in the Drug Advisory Council's 1996 report were adopted, but the Government refused to implement calls to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of marijuana and to issue police cautions to first-time users of other drugs. Mr Geary said the new system would give young people experimenting with drugs a chance to think about what they were doing. ``It runs against the dynamics of some of the fairly negative stuff that's been coming from church leaders and politicians over the past month or so,'' Mr Geary said. ``This, in fact, is giving the community the right message, saying that these young people who are dabblers are not criminals, and we need to be setting something positive up around them that needs to revolve around concern for their health and giving information to them.'' Mr Geary believed the Broadmeadows pilot program for those caught with small quantities of harder drugs would be equally successful. He hoped it would be extended across the state. A spokesman for the Salvation Army, Mr John Dalziel, said the corps was happy to endorse the extension of the cannabis trial and supported the pilot program. ``We see it as an extension of harm minimisation that we've been endorsing for decades,'' Mr Dalziel said. But he stressed that the Salvation Army maintained its opposition to decriminalisation of any drugs and did not consider the new approach to be a step in that direction. ``We see it as a way of informing victims of drug abuse when they start (taking drugs) rather than further down the track.'' A youth worker with Open Family, Mr Les Twentyman, said the move was the first step in combating the social and economic costs of drug abuse. He said the pilot initiative would lead to a safer community. ``Once people realise we're losing more than 700 kids a year in Australia through this drug (heroin) and spending billions of dollars on crime and policing and the cost of violence, this will be seen as the only approach,'' Mr Twentyman said. - --- Checked-by: "Rolf Ernst"