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Contact with the criminal justice system

NOTE: Quotes are presented word for word apart from minor editing for readability and clarity. Identifying details have been removed. Square brackets show text that has been added, e.g. ‘I want to maintain [my current level of drug use]’. Ellipses within square brackets […] show where text has been removed, e.g. ‘Counselling was good but […] I would have liked more information about other treatment options’.

Most of the people interviewed for this website have not had contact with the criminal justice system. Those who have describe coming into contact with police, the court system and the prison system in a range of ways. Some have seen police operations such as roadside alcohol and other drug testing or sniffer dog searches, or been searched by police on suspicion of possessing an illegal drug. They talk about their experiences of policing and the measures they take to avoid police detection. A few have been charged with criminal offences such as drug possession, cultivation or trafficking, or other offences that are considered to be alcohol or other drug related such as offences committed after consuming alcohol or another drug, or to fund consumption. These could include traffic offences, assault and offences involving damage to property. Among those arrested or convicted for minor offences, most have participated in diversion programs. These refer people into treatment or education programs. Some of those who have served custodial sentences talk about the difficulty they had accessing treatment and harm reduction services while in custody. Several of the people interviewed lost custody of their children due to their contact with the criminal justice system. They describe this as a traumatic experience, one that prompted changes including participation in drug treatment.

While some say they have had positive experiences of contact with the criminal justice system, several say they’ve been judged negatively or discriminated against by police officers, lawyers and others working in the criminal justice system (see also Dealing with stigma & discrimination). Some also condemn police operations in relation to illicit-drug offences as excessive or unnecessarily invasive. Contact with the criminal justice system has led some to think that they may have a dependence or addiction (see also Identifying or being diagnosed), or to change their patterns of consumption (see also Changing patterns of consumption). It has led others to question the effectiveness of law enforcement approaches to drug use and to call for drug law reform (see also Messages to health professionals & policymakers).

Here our participants talk about their experiences of diversion programs, policing, discrimination in the criminal justice system, the need for drug law reform, the availability of drug treatment and harm reduction services in custody, and experiences with child custody issues.

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Police: searches, sniffer dogs & roadside drug testing

The threat of being caught by police with illegal drugs is a concern for many of the people interviewed. Some have had contact with police during sniffer dog operations or roadside drug testing, and others have been searched or caught with illegal drugs. They talk about their experiences and the measures they take to avoid police detection. Some see police operations in relation to drug offences as unnecessarily invasive.

Jim (M, 21, studying, cannabis) was strip searched by police when smoking cannabis with friends in a park. (Played by an actor)

We got in trouble once because we were stoned and kicking a soccer ball at a park. Like, we were just kicking a soccer ball and having a fun time, having a laugh and we got in trouble. [We] got strip searched and everything in front of these cops because we were kicking a soccer ball and smoking weed. Like silly things like that. Yeah […] it’s ridiculous […] One of the cops even said, ‘I know you are not really doing anything wrong but this is the law and this is what we’ve got to do’. And it’s like, that just sucks.

Some of our participants who regularly attend music festivals and parties say that police operations with sniffer dogs are a particular concern for them. While only a few have been searched by police with sniffer dogs, several find their presence at festivals and parties worrying as being arrested for a drug-related offence has potentially serious consequences. As Jim (M, 21, studying, cannabis) says, ‘All my friends, we all go to uni […] and a lot of people are applying to be doctors and lawyers […] and if you get a criminal record you can’t be in that profession, almost […Your] whole uni degree […would be] down the drain’.

Ted (M, 26, works in the arts, party drugs and cannabis) has seen sniffer dogs in the past but has avoided being searched. (Played by an actor)

I had one instance where I was already on drugs and had drugs on me, and had a sniffer dog come up to me. And I, like, turned and bolted […] I just tried to get as far away as I could and sit down and breathe […] And I guess I got lucky because I never had any issue […So like] if you’re going to something like [Pride or a big New Year’s Eve] party then, I mean, that’s the focus. That’s what everyone’s talking about: how they’re […going to get their drugs into the venue…] That’s all we’re talking about [even] when we’re in the cab […] everyone is like, ‘We’ve just got to get in the door […] and then we’ll feel like we can have a good time’.

After a close call with a sniffer dog, Artemis (M, 28, works in education, cannabis and party drugs) educated himself about his legal rights if he is stopped and searched by police. (Played by an actor)

[This one time at a festival] I had, like, maybe two ecstasy tablets in my pocket, and the police were coming towards me [with sniffer dogs…] and I turned right around as I saw them and started to walk away […] I was very lucky to get to the edge of the crowd and drop the pills that I had […]

But after that, I became much more interested and engaged with these issues and questions around, you know, police conduct and the use of dogs as an excuse to search people. And, you know, part of it [is] about educating myself around my rights and the things I should and shouldn’t do in the event that I’m stopped.

Dee Jay (M, 24, studying, party drugs and cannabis) was caught by police with two pills at a music festival and he now takes measures to conceal any drugs if he expects to see sniffer dogs.

I have had a lot of contact with the police in terms of when I go to festivals. I have been caught before as well at a festival with […] two pills in my pocket […] That was also the turning point actually because I was so lazy by not concealing the drug. And I just walked in thinking it was a breeze and after I got caught, that was a big wake-up call for me. So in a way it was kind of good. It was like the catalyst. But in another way, I don’t really like the police and the way they interfere […] I only ended up getting […] a one-year good behaviour bond actually and then after that, it’s not on my record […] So if […I’m going to] a festival or any event where I think they will have sniffer dogs, I would […] conceal [any drugs I have on me…] but if it’s like a club, I would just carry it in my pocket, because more often than not I don’t think there are sniffer dogs around a club.

A few express concern about roadside drug testing. While they say they don’t normally smoke cannabis before driving, they are aware that a person may test positive for cannabis some time after they last consumed it, even when they are no longer experiencing its effects. The length of time after consumption can be detected in a drug test varies depending on the amount consumed and the individual’s metabolism. Several participants who smoke cannabis regularly say they are concerned about the possibility of testing positive even when they are careful to avoid driving under the influence of cannabis.

Lala (F, 35, works in health services, cannabis) worries about the consequences of getting a positive reading for cannabis in a roadside drug test even though she avoids smoking it before driving. (Played by an actor)

[Cannabis is] illegal so the consequences could be really big [if I get caught]. Like, they’ve just started all this random drug testing and, like, I get around by bicycle but I need to drive, and I also drive for work. What if I get a positive reading? I don’t smoke before work. I never do, but […] I’m a daily smoker. So, you know [I’m always] just, like, checking, worried that I’ll get pulled over and get a positive test.

Pauline (F, 51, works in administration, cannabis) takes a long detour to avoid roads where police are known to do roadside drug testing as she’s aware that the test can detect cannabis even if it was consumed some time earlier. (Played by an actor)

There’s a big police operation on in the area […] They’re rolling [out] this new dual testing and we’re hearing stories on a weekly basis: ‘Oh, did you hear so-and-so got done?’ So, you know, I just don’t need this extra stress. I’ve just moved [here, near a major road and…] a friend visiting from [the city] two weeks ago got picked up on that road and tested positive for marijuana in her system […] So, you know, there’s me never driving on that road again. So instead of driving from there to there, I now do a big loop, which probably almost doubles the distance so I avoid the bit where the police are known to sit.

Andrew (M, 41, works in education, cannabis and alcohol) stopped driving partly because he wants to avoid roadside drug testing as he regularly smokes cannabis.

[I have] stopped driving, yeah. I gave it away. Just for financial reasons, the price of fuel went up dramatically and now they’re doing the swabs for the cannabis, they never used to do that, so it’s all very off-putting to me. There’s no real point getting my licence again, getting a car again and then getting put off the road with a big fine because I drive under the influence of cannabis, which I may have smoked close to a month ago.* It’s ridiculous to me. I can’t just go a month without [cannabis] because I need to know I [can] drive tomorrow, in a month’s time, you know. I can’t just go without my medicine. [Cannabis is] like my medicine, you know, to me it is.

* A person may test positive for cannabis some time after they last consumed it. The length of time varies, depending on the amount consumed and the individual’s metabolism.

Diversion programs

Diversion programs refer people who have been arrested or convicted for minor drug-related offences into treatment or education. There are three main types of diversion: police or pre-court diversion (including a caution, fine or education program), court diversion (including drug courts, bail-based programs or pre- and post-sentence programs), and custodial diversion (including treatment prior to release from custody or as a condition of parole). Diversion can include assessment, withdrawal management, counselling, information and education programs, case management, rehabilitation programs or pharmacotherapy (see also Formal & informal detox; Pharmacotherapy/Medication treatment; Residential treatmentTalking therapies). Treatment, drug testing and supervision may be mandated for a period of time as a condition of the diversion program.

Several of the people interviewed for this website have been ordered to undertake residential rehabilitation treatment, and a few have attended alcohol and other drug counselling or education courses, or been prescribed opioid pharmacotherapy treatment as part of a diversion program.

After serving a custodial sentence for a drug offence, Tiffany (F, 33, works in hospitality, ice) breached her parole conditions and went into residential treatment as part of a diversion program. At the time of the interview, she was in treatment. (Played by an actor)

[When I was on parole] I relapsed […and] straight away I had a warrant for my arrest […] So that’s why I had to be careful, because of parole […I mean, like four or five times, I tested negative for drugs, but then I tested positive] so my parole got revoked straight away. I had a warrant for my arrest and […then] I was back in jail. You know, I was devastated, I was really devastated […] fearing that I’d be in for another year and a half […But then the parole board] ordered a residential rehab […and I] thought the idea was better for me. I know I needed rehab in many ways. Like, I know it’ll be [better] for me than spending my time in jail. Yeah, it’s the best option.

When a drug court gave Renee (F, 35, works in hospitality, ice) the option of residential treatment she decided to take it in an effort to stop drug use altogether.

Whilst I was incarcerated the court had offered [to refer me to] drug court, and from drug court I could have an outside address or go to a rehab. I chose the rehab because I guess I needed to know how to deal with my mental health on the outside so I don’t, like, get triggered again, and when I am triggered I know how to deal with it […] From jail, I was thinking that rehab’s bad, rehab’s bad, you know […] I’ve been here for nearly two months now, and it’s been great […] There’s little rewards, you know, that keep coming in rehab. I mean, at first I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, I can’t do this’. It’s not the fact that I can’t walk away from drugs. It’s the fact that when my head mucks up, I don’t want to [start taking ice] again. That’s my drama, you know. I’ve been clean nine months. I’ve been clean 14 months. I’ve been clean like all these other […times] but always relapsed on my mental health side of things. Always, whether it was a bong or whether it was ice, you know. So in that respect, that’s why I chose to come to rehab.

Some say that the treatment or education they received as part of diversion programs helped them to change their patterns of consumption, while others say the program they attended was not helpful or relevant to them.

After being charged with assault, Scott (M, 25, studying and working in hospitality, alcohol) was court mandated to complete an anger management course, which prompted him to cut down on drinking.

I think when I probably realised [my drinking] was a problem was when I got into an incident with someone just on the street in the city. I got, like, an assault charge. Like, I had to go to court, which was pretty full on. I’d never been to court before. Like, [I] got arrested and everything […] It was sort of a wake-up call […] I got […] a diversion […] I did anger management and paid a fine. The anger management I thought was interesting […but] I felt like it wasn’t catered for me […] There was a lot of people in there that were in there for like road rage and, I don’t know, I felt like my problem was that I was just drunk and stupid […] I wanted to hear what [the facilitator] had to say but it was sort of irrelevant, I guess […] It was more of an eye-opener […] That was, like, the real reason, when I was, like, all right maybe [I should] drink less.

When Callum (M, 36, studying, cannabis) was charged with cannabis use, he was court ordered to attend alcohol and other drug counselling.

I was smoking [cannabis in] a peace pipe at my friend’s birthday party and the cops come around for a noise complaint. Of course, hello, there you go, so I was busted with that. I had to go to court and I just pleaded guilty, which means I had to do the drug diversion program. […I] basically just went in [to counselling and] talked about my habits, talked about use […] had about three or four sessions, came out and it was pretty much the end of it. [The counsellor] said, ‘Look, I can’t tell you not to [smoke cannabis] […] I’m not going to tell you what to do. You seem comfortable. You seem quite functional. You seem to know what you’re doing, so I’m not going to sit here and say don’t do it. I’m not going to be that big pointy finger’.

Discrimination in the criminal justice system

While some describe positive experiences of contact with the criminal justice system, several say they’ve been judged unfairly or discriminated against by police officers, lawyers and others working in the criminal justice system (see also Dealing with stigma & discrimination). As Zoe (F, 30, studying, ice) says of her experience in court after being charged with drug trafficking, ‘Most of them, the judge especially, she gave me a really horrible look that made me feel like tiny little inferior little insect or something […] I rationalised that in my head as, well, she’s never used, she possibly doesn’t understand the addiction so therefore, it’s a bit of ignorance’. Since serving a custodial sentence for drug trafficking, Tiffany (F, 33, works in hospitality, ice) says, ‘Every time I see [police] I still get traumatised […When I was in court] they were really hard on ice […] especially [on] the suppliers. They were very harsh on it […] some of them were very judgmental’.

Peter (M, 41, unemployed, heroin) says police officers have discriminated against him and, on one occasion, police strip searched him because they took his appearance to mean he was carrying drugs.

That’s one of the marks there from using [shows interviewer a mark on his forearm].

[…]

And yeah, as soon as the police see that just, they know and they do treat you different. They treat you with such little respect. I’ve had them drag me into an alley before and fully strip search me in an alley, just because they thought I had drugs on me, they thought I was dealing, and I had nothing on me. And anyone could’ve walked down that alley. And just little things like that, and your lack of dignity really. They really do take away [that] from you.

When Dawn (F, 38, works in manufacturing, alcohol) was facing assault charges, she says she felt like her lawyer judged her conduct and thought she was ‘a drunk’.

I think a lot of [people working in the legal system] are understanding [but] the guy that represented me […] I really felt that he was judging me for what I’d done. He was also a lawyer for kids and so when he was representing me, maybe I just felt that he […] really felt that I didn’t deserve to go to rehab […] I know that he was being very honest […] but I really felt that he thought that I should just be thrown into jail, and [that] I was a drunk. But that’s not the whole legal system […] How they’ve dealt with me is all I can say really.

Drug law reform

Contact with the criminal justice system has led some of our participants to question the effectiveness of prohibitionist drug laws and to call for drug law reform (see also Messages to health professionals & policymakers). As Andrew (M, 41, works in education, cannabis) puts it in advocating for the legalisation of cannabis, ‘I think it’s just really the worst law in the world to make cannabis illegal […] It’s stupid, it’s self-defeating […] I’d be happy to see it legalised, not just decriminalised, but legalised. And if I had to buy it over the counter […] then I guess I’d probably settle for that. You know, at this point it’s all about baby steps. So yeah, I’d probably settle for that’.

Jacob (M, 33, works in hospitality, cannabis) comments that smoking cannabis regularly doesn’t impair his ability to function, adding that he hopes in the future cannabis will be legalised.

I do think, especially if this website is going to go to lawmakers and stuff, I do want people to know that living with weed dependency (or habit) is not that bad. You can still function like a normal person in society, and go to work, and pay your taxes, and have a family, and do everything perfect.

[…]

People that think [cannabis] is like the devil and all that stuff, it’s not [like that]: it’s okay. Cigarettes are heaps worse than marijuana, and they are fully legal and taxed, and being stuffed in everybody’s face, so it’s really important to me [that cannabis be legalised], especially as a smoker, especially because what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis is illegal and I don’t want to break the law. I’m not out there, you know, to cause trouble and stuff. Like, I just want to smoke my joint and be left alone so it is very important for me the whole legalisation thing, which I’ve been into for lots and lots of years. [I’ve been] trying to sign whatever petition I can and go to meetings, and go to gatherings. But again, I will never go to a four twenty gathering [a pro-cannabis event] in the city and smoke a joint because it’s still illegal, and I don’t want to get into trouble. But I do want it to be legal because I think it’s not such a bad thing.

Zac (M, 53, works in health services, party drugs) suggests that law enforcement resources would be better spent on drug education to teach ‘people […] to use drugs […] in a sensible and smart way’.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to criminalise drugs. I don’t think it helps that police run around with sniffer dogs. [They’re] spending all those resources at big parties or at Mardi Gras, or whatever, to find someone carrying a few ecstasy tablets […] or people […] using a bit of cocaine […] I don’t think that helps anyone […] I think you need to decriminalise [drugs] for users, and you need to then take the resources that exist there and put them into education […] and try and teach people if they’re going to use drugs, to use them in a sensible and smart way.

Jason (M, 34, studying, ice) calls for drug law reform and harm reduction approaches to drug use.

The war on drugs – that whole thing in Australia and across the world – is not working and I’d like to see that change. Rather than have a war on it, why not have a harm minimisation approach? At dance parties, for instance, have drug testing so people know what they’re taking, so they’re not taking them all before the sniffer dogs come along. So that’s where I would like to see [drug policy and law] go, yeah.

Alcohol and other drug treatment & harm reduction services in custody

Trouble accessing alcohol and other drug treatment and harm reduction services while in custody was a concern for some. Zadie (F, 33, works in the health sector, heroin), for example, says, ‘I [was on buprenorphine] for two weeks and then I went to jail and I had no other option but just to [stop my treatment…] There’s no pharmacotherapy available for people in [that] jail’. The lack of sterile injecting equipment in prison led some to avoid injecting while in custody, while others felt they had little option but to share injecting equipment. As Misja (M, 40, not working due to illness, cannabis) says, ‘I’ve seen some pretty nasty things in jail […] like ten people using the same needle, not even cleaning it [after] the last person, and there’s blood. It’s not a nice thing […] I just wouldn’t do it. Maybe I would have if I had my own needle or something in there’. In contrast, Peter (M, 41, unemployed, heroin) says, ‘I [injected] buprenorphine twice when I was in [prison] and I really regretted that because I actually shared a fit, and one of those really tiny jail fits, which are totally shortened down and well used’.

Tiffany (F, 33, works in hospitality, ice) was unable to begin treatment for ten months while on remand. (Played by an actor)

I couldn’t do anything [for, like, 10 months, while I was on remand] I couldn’t get myself into a program because I was still unsentenced, so it was really hard […] It is an issue, you know, because we don’t have any options. Like [women] are sitting on remand for two years even, and they can’t get into a program because they’re not sentenced. And, yeah, I don’t understand that.

It’s a real inconvenience […] because when you’re trying to address something and you’re going before the judge, and then the judge asks you, ‘Have you sought treatment?’ And you know, it’s like, ‘No I haven’t admitted myself to a program because I’m still on remand’, but you want to say something like, ‘Oh yes, I’ve been going to see a drug and alcohol [counsellor]’.

Child custody

Several people interviewed have lost custody of their children due to their contact with the criminal justice system. Among the parents interviewed, this was more commonly talked about by women than men, although a few men note they had lost custody for other reasons and had difficulty regaining it due to their alcohol or other drug use. They all say they found the experience traumatic and took steps to regain custody of their children, often by beginning drug treatment (see also Relationships, confidentiality & telling others). As Zoe (F, 30, studying, ice) explains, ‘I started dealing [ice] again, then I got busted again […] I had my kids taken off me and I went, ‘No, I need to pull my head in, I need to get my life back on track, I want my kids back’ […] so I went into detox […] With my children being taken off me […] that just absolutely tore my apart inside’.

When Melanie (F, 26, primary carer for her children, ice) lost custody of her children, she began to think her consumption was no longer manageable and had become ‘problematic’. (Played by an actor)

I thought I had [my ice use] all under control. And the majority of the time I’d just stay awake until I had to do what needed to be done. Like, take the kids to school and stuff like that, and then rest while they were at school […] But yeah, it wasn’t manageable […I realised that] when my kids were taken off me.

[…So yeah, I’d been taking ice on and off] since I was 22 […] but I guess it became problematic within the last year […] After my kids were taken, I […] pretty much lost it. And that’s when I started using pretty much every day for about two weeks. Me and my partner were fighting a lot because we were blaming each other. And then yeah, after, like, two weeks of just abusing the drugs […] we realised that we did have to do something about it.

When Kate (F, 36, works in the health sector, prescription drugs and ice) was arrested for a driving offence, her child was removed from her care so she sought drug treatment help her regain custody.

[I was arrested for a driving offence] and then, yeah, a week after withdrawing [from heroin] and actually nearly receiving a sentence in jail I received the notification from [the court] or something that my [child] had been removed. And [then later Community Services] came in and said, ‘He doesn’t speak.’ Well, yeah, you’ve just taken him away from everything he knows and he’s only just starting to use his words. Of course he’s not speaking. He’s shut down. You are traumatising him […] So I sort of had a bit of a think about [it] and got in touch with the rehab […] and went on a waiting list to go on a program that I could take my [child] into as well [as a step towards regaining custody].

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