Source: Age, The (Australia)
Pubdate: Wed, 8 Jul 1998


All of Australia will be watching Victoria's new approach to first offenders.

TWO years after the report of the Premier's Advisory Council on Drugs,
Victoria is beginning to implement the spirit, if not the letter, of the
council's most contentious recommendation. In his report, the council's
chairman, Professor David Penington, proposed that personal possession and
use of cannabis be decriminalised. The recommendation proved politically
impossible to implement, as it probably still would. But, after the
successful trial in the Broadmeadows police district of a scheme in which
first-time cannabis users are cautioned rather than charged, the scheme
will be extended to the rest of the state. Also, Broadmeadows police now
will begin a trial of the scheme for other illicit drugs, including heroin.

These changes do not only reflect the results of the scheme itself _ only
eight of the 97 people cautioned reoffended _ but a growing community
recognition that the thrust of Professor Penington's argument was correct.
Simply, the prohibitionist approach to the problem generated by drugs of
dependence has failed.

There are many who fear that the consequence of lifting the prohibitions
will be a tacit endorsement of drug use, but the prohibitions will not be
lifted when the statewide cannabis scheme and the Broadmeadows scheme for
other drugs come into effect on 1 September. The effect of the new
approach, however, will be a radical change in emphasis _ from one that
treats the problem as essentially a matter of law enforcement to one that
recognises that the primary issue is one of caring for the health of the
community. This approach does not, however, ignore the need to deal with
the criminal consequences of illicit drug buse. Indeed, the chief
commissioner of police, Mr Neil Comrie, has urged the new approach
precisely because of the need to break the nexus between drug use and
crime. Mr Comrie estimates that up to 70 per cent of crimes committed in
the state may be drug-related, which, apart the direct harm caused, means
that a sizeable chunk of what Victorians pay in taxes is spent on the
consequences of people's drug habits. The Broadmeadows pilot scheme for
heroin and other drugs, like the pilot scheme for cannabis that has just
ended, will try to help first offenders avoid becoming enmeshed in the
subculture that sanctions drug use and the crimes that subsidise it.

The need to help users of heroin and other illicit drugs in this way is a
reminder that there is no simple link between the supply of such drugs and
the demand for them. A report prepared for the federal Department of Health
and Family Services, Victorian Drug Trends 1997, reveals that heroin use in
this state is increasing, that there is an increasing number of younger
users, and that an increasing number of users are female. In part, these
figures reflect the amount, the purity and the price of the heroin now
available on the streets; but those who work with drug users point out that
the demand for some drugs varies in ways that do not directly depend on
their supply. There was an earlier rise in heroin use, in the early 1980s,
although later in the decade and in the early 1990s amphetamine use became
fashionable in drug subcultures. Now heroin is resurgent. In the market for
illicit drugs, as in any other market, the relationship between supply and
demand is a complex one: the growth of the market cannot be restrained by
simply detecting and arresting suppliers or solely by trying to modify

In the new pilot scheme at Broadmeadows, first offenders will be formally
cautioned at a police station and then referred to a drug treatment centre
for mandatory counselling. If the scheme has sufficient local success to be
extended statewide like the cannabis scheme, the practical question will
arise of whether Victoria has sufficient treatment centres and other
resources to cope with the referrals. The State Government must ensure that
the answer to this question is satisfactory, because the experiment that
begins in September will have a significance that goes beyond the borders
of one police district, or of the state.

Previous attempts to forge a national drug strategy based on minimising
harm have failed because the measures proposed, such as the supply of
heroin on prescription or the provision of safe-injection rooms, could not
win the necessary broad base of support. The more modest and cautious
approach associated with these new policing measures in Victoria might well
win such support, however, provided their effectiveness is demonstrated. By
deciding to proceed with a statewide trial of the first-offenders scheme
for cannabis possession, and a local trial of the scheme for all illicit
drugs, Victoria has taken up a position of national leadership. All
Australians who recognise the need to rethink existing official drug
strategies will hope what has begun here will become a turning point for
the nation.

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Checked-by: (Joel W. Johnson)