Furthermore, the ACT Government’s claim that the reform will ensure that people who use drugs get diverted from the criminal system to the health system so that they can get the help and treatment they need, is completely disingenuous.
Before outlining why it is disingenuous, it is important to explain that the concept of diverting people who use drugs away from the criminal system to the health system is not new. In fact, it has long been part of Australian police and criminal justice practice, especially relating to young people. In fact there is a large evidence base showing the benefits of diversion, which include reductions in recidivism, increased treatment uptake and improved social outcomes.
There is also reduced burden on police and the courts. Pre-arrest diversion, for example, may involve an individual being diverted by the police, at the time the drug use or possession is discovered, into counselling or some other type of education or treatment program.
Pre-sentence diversion may involve a magistrate or judge delaying sentencing and releasing the individual into a treatment program. The individual’s success or otherwise with treatment is then taken into account when the sentence is handed down.
There are, of course, different levels of coercion attached to diversion programs. Sometimes it is entirely voluntary and with the consent of the person found to be in possession of the drugs. Or there is compulsion attached to the diversion as indicated above.
The concept of diversion, as it relates to illicit drug offences, is so familiar to our way of doing criminal justice, that for some years, the Australian government’s own National Drug Strategy 2017-2026 has advocated the use of drug-diversion programs. It lists “diversion from the criminal justice system to treatment services” as a priority. It commits to “enhancing systems to facilitate greater diversion into health interventions from the criminal justice system, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, young people and other at-risk populations who may be experiencing disproportionate harm”.
But here is the catch. Sensible, well-thinking people are compelled to ask, are there enough “on the ground” drug education, counselling, treatment and rehabilitation services to actually divert people to?
Surely there are, you might say! Could a government really come up with a reform such as this, if a dire shortage of services makes the reform impossible to practise on the ground?
Unbelievably, yes, this is exactly how it is. A National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre UNSW 2019 study, “Criminal justice responses relating to personal use and possession of illicit drugs: the reach of Australian drug-diversion programs and barriers and facilitators to expansion”, found that there is indeed a shortage of drug-related health services to which police and courts can divert and refer people.
Although the experts involved in the study (police, justice, health, non-government organisations and peak bodies from all over Australia) unanimously supported the use of drug diversion, they noted that shortages of health and treatment services impede a diversionary response.
The experts also noted a pattern across several jurisdictions of declining rates of diversion because of the lack of services to which people can be diverted. It is important to note that this study was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health.
Another study undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology (a government-funded entity) in 2021, “Sentencing for social supply of illicit drugs in Australia”, reported very similar findings.
The study found that judges, who had many years of experience on the bench, agreed that diversion was a desirable goal for many of those who appeared in their courts. The problem, the judges said, is that “there just aren’t the programs available to respond to the needs of offenders”.
The report concluded:
“Judges made a case for a much-expanded range of options, including education and treatment, which is needed for effective sentencing and diversion, but, importantly, this required a considerable and credible (re)investment of resources.”
It is remarkable, isn’t it? Government-funded research reveals the truth about governments themselves. The truth is that many government ministers, such as those in the ACT, wave the virtue flag as they look us straight in the eye and tell us they don’t want to stigmatise people who use drugs. They tell us they want to help people who use drugs by offering them the health services and support they need.
But they are playing a massive con job on us. And they are actually setting us up for failure. They are rolling out the red carpet for drug use, all the while knowing that there are not nearly enough services to help the increasing number of people, mostly young people, who will develop a substance use disorder in the face of increased availability of harmful drugs.
In many areas, particularly in regional and rural areas, the services and help these government ministers love to talk about, simply do not exist.
Please support the Drug Advisory Council of Australia (DACA) as we continue to push back against:
- The international push to normalise drug use.
- The half-truths (more-like “eighth-truths”) that modern left-wing governments use to back up their push for legalisation and decriminalisation of illicit drugs.
- The notion that there is a safe use of illicit drugs for so called “recreational use”.
Please like us on Facebook/Meta, consider attending one of our fundraising events, and consider donating to the cause.
Karen Broadley (PhD) is an executive member of DACA.
Originally published in News Weekly. Photo by Mart Production.