The introduction of new powers to allow police to issue reversible fines for people caught with small amounts of illicit substances is a welcome move and shows that the so-called war on drugs has not been working, a prominent Hunter lawyer says.
The NSW government announced on Tuesday it would introduce legislation so police could issue up to two on-the-spot $400 fines to people who would otherwise be sent before the courts.
Under the new arrangement, expected to begin in early 2024, a fine could be withdrawn if that person participated in tailored drug intervention program.
The government said in its announcement it would not apply to those accused of drug supply or manufacture - only those caught with a small amount intended for personal use.
Treasurer of Criminal Defence Lawyers NSW and Hunter criminal lawyer Drew Hamilton said the proposed changes were being welcomed by his colleagues "in what must be a recognition that the war on drugs simply isn't working".
"However any reform that promotes and facilitates a therapeutic approach to minor drug matters must be supported by further funding into rehabilitation and treatment services both locally and across the state," Mr Hamilton told the Newcastle Herald.
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The government said the proposal was designed to divert people away from the criminal justice system and towards health and education services.
NSW Police Minister and Swansea MP Yasmin Catley said the scheme would provide better outcomes without compromising the safety of the community.
"It is not mandatory for the police to issue an on-the-spot fine - this is another tool in their kit and police retain their discretion to deal with the matter as appropriate, including proceeding to court," she said.
"Providing the police with more options to manage drug offences allows a proportionate response to the offending behaviour and health issues that officers are seeing in the community.
"It brings NSW in line with other Australian states and territories, which all currently operate drug diversion schemes for illicit drugs."
Robert Taylor, spokesperson for The Alcohol and Drug Foundation, said the initiative was a move towards a sensible and health-based approach to illicit drug use.
"Whilst we would prefer fines were removed altogether, this is a move in the right direction," Mr Taylor said.
"The criminalisation of drugs causes negative stigma and stops people who use drugs from reaching out for help and support when they need it most.
"A health-based approach to drug use benefits the whole of community by helping to reduce drug-related deaths and disease, reduce stigma and problematic drug use, and see more people reaching out for help and support. Diverting people to the health system also frees up police time, so they can focus on the supply and trafficking of drugs."