“This will enable police to direct people to a tailored, intensive health intervention to better address the underlying cause of offending and harmful drug use. Under the scheme, police will retain discretion to determine to send an offender straight to court.”
The NSW Government has finally issued its response to a landmark report on ice addiction more than two years since it was handed down, and less than a month after the state’s peak legal organisations condemned cabinet’s failure to implement urgent reforms.
On 21 September, Premier Dominic Perrottet announced a half-a-billion-dollar investment to deliver health and justice reforms as part of the Government’s final response to the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice.
The announcement is the largest single investment in evidence-based alcohol and drug services in the state’s history, with $358 million to address treatment gaps and more than $141 million to prioritise offenders with intensive health intervention and better address underlying causes of offending.
“Ice can ruin lives and have devastating impacts on families and communities. This funding will provide relief, help and hope for thousands of people across NSW,” Perrottet said.
“We want to see real change in the community – especially vulnerable communities – when it comes to drugs and drug addiction. Our state needs a health response and a criminal justice response, and the announcement captures both.”
Earlier this month, Presidents of the NSW Law Society and NSW Bar Association, Joanne van der Plaat and Gaby Bashir, addressed the media, alleging they had received no response to “numerous correspondence” detailing how the delay is clogging up courts and impacting communities across the state.
The pair backed similar claims from the report’s Commissioner, Professor Dan Howard, who said he was still waiting for cabinet to act on the “overwhelming majority” of the more than 100 recommendations supported by the legal and medical professions, addiction specialists and academics.
Perrottet said his Government will not decriminalise low-level personal drug use, rejecting a key recommendation of the inquiry. But he said the investment is aimed at breaking the cycle of drug use.
However, cabinet supports in principle a pre-court diversion program, where low-level drug offenders will be issued a criminal infringement notice instead of going to court. But this is contingent on advice from the NSW Chief Health Officer and Police Commissioner, who have been given until 30 June 2023 to decide whether it will go ahead, which is later than the date of the State Election (March 2023).
This crucial reform has been pushed by the Law Society of NSW for more than two and a half years since it was first recommended by Howard.
Under the scheme, a maximum of two criminal infringement notices will be issued at the discretion of police. An offender would also be able to avoid the fine if they undergo a specific health intervention provided via NSW Health.
President of the Law Society of NSW, Joanne van der Plaat welcomed the long-awaited response, but is concerned a potential delay beyond the state election could endanger the proposed pre-court drug diversion.
“It’s pleasing that the Government appears to have listened to the Law Society, Bar Association, the Aboriginal Legal Service and former Commissioner Dan Howard’s demands at the beginning of this month to at last take action to respond to the Inquiry, two and a half years after its publication,” van der Plaat said.
“The response appears to have at least partially addressed the ‘no-brainer recommendations’ endorsed by the representatives of the NSW legal profession and Mr Howard as being the bare minimum needed to meet the challenges of illicit drug addiction in the community.
“The expansion of the Sydney Drug Court from one to five days a week will also assist more serious drug related offenders tackle the root causes of their offending. We note new funding to expand the Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) program, but are disappointed the program is not being made available at all Local Courts and will not apply to young offenders.”
Van der Plaat also expressed concern that the pre-court drug diversion scheme is in danger of being politicised through a bruising election campaign.
“It’s almost incomprehensible that after two and a half years, the Government needs another nine months to nut out the details of a simple scheme to get small time users the health assistance they need. The final implementation date of 30 June 2023 will likely push this scheme beyond the state election and potentially into oblivion,” she said.
“We welcome the Attorney General’s indication that the scheme, when or if it is implemented, will operate state-wide and not exclude any illicit drug. The Law Society urges the Chief Health Officer and Commissioner of Police to work urgently towards implementing this scheme before the next election.”
Attorney General Mark Speakman said tackling harmful drug use across NSW communities requires a comprehensive health response, not just a criminal justice response.
“The proposed pre-court diversion scheme would see an expansion of the current Criminal Infringement Notice Scheme state-wide and include low level drug offences only,” Speakman said.
“This would enable police to direct people to a tailored, intensive health intervention to better address the underlying cause of offending and harmful drug use. Under the scheme, police will retain discretion to determine to send an offender straight to court.
“Cannabis possession will continue to be addressed through the Cannabis Cautioning scheme, as we believe ice and other prohibited drugs should be treated differently to cannabis, through a separate, more serious, scheme.”
The Government supports, or supports in principle, 86 of the Inquiry’s 109 recommendations, and notes 14. It has previously rejected recommendations regarding the introduction of pill testing, expansion of the medically supervised injecting centre, removal of drug detection dogs and the trialling of a needle and syringe program in prisons.
The Law Society of NSW also pushed for the Government to partner with Aboriginal communities to urgently develop and significantly increase the availability of local specialist drug treatment services that are culturally respectful, culturally competent and culturally safe.
“Aboriginal people are a priority population in relation to the investment that the NSW Government is making in a range of new programs and activities to increase the availability of specialist drug treatment,” the Government’s response read.
“Funding will support new treatment services, including withdrawal management, substance use in pregnancy and parenting services, rehabilitation and community-based support. There will also be targeted workforce development activities such as increasing the Aboriginal Health/Nursing Workforce, introducing traineeships, and skills development.”