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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Legislative Options for Cannabis - Australian Government



Diversion programs in Australia (10)


The ACT Drugs of Dependence Act 1989 (as amended in 1992 and 1993) allows as a sentencing option anyone found guilty of a crime to be sent for assessment as to whether they are drug-dependent and therefore suitable to be referred for treatment. Those brought to court usually appear on a combination of charges of different degrees of seriousness. Often a community service order may be the sentence or a conviction on recognisance, which can include a good behaviour bond or a partially or fully suspended sentence. Assessment or treatment orders are rare and are typically given for such offences as unlawful possession, stolen property offences, burglary and motor vehicle theft (where drug dependence is believed to have contributed to the criminal behaviour).11

The DODA (Drugs of Dependence) Referral Program works in the following way: anyone committing an offence requiring a court appearance who seems to defence counsel to have a drug problem (or who claims to have a drug problem) is entitled to have this fact raised before sentencing. If the court issues an assessment order, the client then has to contact the DODA Referral Program where a counsellor takes a case history to be sent to the Treatment Assessment Panel. The panel consists of a legal person (usually a solicitor) and two others with extensive knowledge of drug and alcohol treatment in the ACT, who are appointed for a year. The client is assessed and options for treatment put forward. The client then goes to the chosen treatment centre which reports back to the panel as to whether the client is suitable or not suitable for treatment. The client then goes back to the panel for a second time at which time the panel looks at the information from the treatment centre and listens to what the client has to say, since the client has high input and responsibility throughout the process. If the client fails to come back (or fails to attend at any stage) an arrest warrant may be issued, or the panel may suggest a Breach of Assessment Order. This information goes to the court, where a warrant for arrest may be issued, or the failure to attend may be brought up when the client next comes before the court and the client may lose the right to the alternative to sentencing. This does not happen very often, as the court usually chooses the treatment order when they have the option. The court specifies the length of time at the treatment centre and periodic reviews by the panel, which can be every three months. The program tries to be lenient if the client misses one or two reviews, as the objective is harm minimisation rather than abstinence (unless the client has opted for abstinence). If the client consistently fails to appear for review or is not doing well (this is not the usual outcome) it is possible to breach them. The breach is issued in court but DODA provides the report on behalf of the panel. Then a summons can be issued and the usual court process (arrest warrant issued) is followed.

The magistrate primarily concerned with diversion made the following observations:

  • Most drug-related offences are caused by alcohol, often used in conjunction with cannabis, which is particularly dangerous if the offender is driving. The DODA Program does not cover alcohol.
  • There is concern about the danger posed by offenders combining alcohol and cannabis prior to driving (many alcohol-dependent people coming before the DODA treatment panel are also cannabis-dependent).
  • Clients should not be referred for treatment in the case of cannabis use unless assessed as 'seriously dependent on cannabis', in order to screen out those seeking simply to avoid conviction.
  • A distinct preference was expressed for post-court diversion, as opposed to pre-court diversion, so that the court has the opportunity to assess offenders.
  • Offenders may be diverted more than once. The goal is 'harm reduction', and total rehabilitation is not expected after the first treatment.

It was confirmed by the magistrate and treatment personnel that there have been clients coming to the program who complain of cannabis dependence. Personnel at the DODA Referral Program report that there is very little treatment for cannabis users. It is usually outpatient treatment and 'is not 100 per cent successful'. The treatment they use is adapted from the treatment for tobacco, i.e. a process of slow cessation, while keeping a diary of the situations and times of use, with counselling once a week. Ideally the treatment should be tailored to the individual's needs. Very few cannabis users would be referred to a residential facility such as Karralika, and if so, it would be on the grounds of polydrug use.

The DODA program is the only one of its sort in Australia, and mainly deals with fairly longstanding opiate users with lengthy records. There is a juvenile panel, but this has not been used much. If magistrates send more juveniles in future, the program would be especially relevant for alcohol use. A formal evaluation has not yet been done, but program staff claim the following desirable results: a reduction in criminal activity on the part of its clients; monitoring their progress rather than seeing them go to jail; and reducing their drug use. Very few become drug-free, but there is significant harm reduction from the social, personal and economic viewpoint.


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