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The Law Society of NSW has urgently called on the NSW Government to tackle the war on drugs and increase diversionary support, saying “we can’t arrest our way out” of the scourge of addiction.

NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman last week put forward a proposal whereby people caught with illicit drugs for personal use would get a $400 fine or undergo health treatment, instead of entering the court system. His proposal has not yet been decided upon by the NSW Cabinet.

In a media statement, the Law Society of NSW urged the government to act without further delay in implementing some of the 109 recommendations put forward by the landmark Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’, which will “tackle the drug problem in earnest.”

“The Law Society agrees with the experts called to give evidence during the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice that the current prohibitionist approach is not working. We agree with law enforcement authorities who have said we can’t arrest our way out of drug problems,” Law Society President Joanne van der Plaat said.

In June 2021, the NSW Government expanded the successfully-evaluated drug court into Dubbo, a region that has been ravaged by ice addiction, but the Law Society says expanding other programs like the Magistrate’s Early Referral Into Treament [MERIT] program and Indigenous-specific initiatives like Circle Sentencing and the Youth Koori Court can no longer ignored.

“Any further delay on a meaningful response to the Ice Inquiry risks further criminalisation and demonisation of drug users who need rehabilitation, not incarceration,” van der Plaat said.

“As a lawyer who has long practised in regional NSW, I am convinced it is vital that diversion and support be extended to regional communities. Many regional communities have been ravaged by illicit drug use, and drug law reform that reduces the chance of offenders possessing very small amounts of drugs being criminalised should be actively implemented across the state.

“Furthermore, given that the Government established the Ice Inquiry in November 2018 in large part to respond to growing use of Ice in our regional and rural towns, their exclusion from justice reforms and rehabilitation services would be absurd.”

The state government has ruled out decriminalising drugs for personal use or increasing medically supervised injecting rooms.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows illicit drug offences were the third most common principal offence among defendants finalised in magistrate’s and local courts across Australia between 2019-20.

Almost 45,000 defendants faced courts on drugs charges during that timeframe. Of those, more than two thirds of defendants were charged with possession or use offences; relatively small amounts of drugs in their possession that are not enough to be supplying other users or trafficking drugs.

The war on drugs goes hand-in-glove with a ‘tough on crime’ approach; a style of penal populist policy making frequently bemoaned by lawyers and academics but often relied upon by politicians who see it as an election-winning strategy. NSW will go to the polls in March 2023.

This is despite research demonstrating public attitudes to addiction often favour a more health-based approach. A survey conducted by Uniting Church in September 2021 polled five traditionally conservative electorates held by state government MPs who have previously rejected calls to decriminalise or “de-penalise” possession of drugs.

Those seats were Willoughby (former Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s seat, now held by Liberal Time James), Monaro (then held by former Nationals leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro, now held by Nationals MP Nichole Overall), Baulkham Hills (the seat of then Police Minister David Elliott, now responsible for the Transport portfolio), Parramatta and Coffs Harbour. The phone survey polled more than 3200 people, finding the majority – more than 78 per cent of respondents – were opposed to criminal sanctions being applied to defendants caught with small quantities of drugs.

Of his proposal, Speakman said “Such a scheme would not be ‘soft’ on drug use.”

“This is hardly radical — we already have an infringement notice scheme in place for drugs at music festivals … $400 is more than the average penalty which a drug user will receive in court on a first offence.”

The full media statement from the Law Society of NSW can be viewed here.