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Australian Report Assesses Diversion for Cannabis Offenses

August 9, 2017

Have you ever been cautioned or warned for a minor cannabis possession instead of being hauled into court on a formal charge? Chances are that both you and society are better off for it, at least according to a new report from the Australian National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund.

So-called diversion programs for minor cannabis offenses—including warnings and cautions issued by police as well as the replacement criminal penalites with civil fines and drug treatment—have been in place in Australian states for between 15 and 30 years. In most states, police who catch someone with a small amount of cannabis are unlikely to issue a formal charge to appear in court, but will instead warn, caution, or “expiate” the offense.

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The policy is often based on the idea that employing less punitive measures will reduce drug use and future offending. Another common policy justification was to protect “experimental users,” (such as former US President Bill Clinton or former Aussie Prime Minister Tony Abbott) from facing serious criminal consequences for simply trying the drug.

The report found that “those who were diverted report fewer barriers to attaining or retaining employment, less conflict with family, partners and friends, and improved perceptions of legitimacy of the police.”

In terms of cost, the sheer amount of time and paperwork involved with charging someone for a minor offense means a diversionary approach tends to cost far less.

“Included are the costs of police time on the street with the offender, in the police station, in court and for necessary recordkeeping; court costs; costs of penalties; costs of assessment, educational sessions and treatment when it occurred, plus any subsequent costs related to follow-up for those respondents who reported non-compliance and subsequent penalties,” the report says.

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Paying all these costs results in no actual improvement of outcomes, the report found. From a policy perspective, the data provided strong support for the police diversion of minor cannabis offenders.

“By considering impacts on drug use, offending and social domains, it shows that diversion does not necessarily reduce drug use. However, it is associated with reductions in offending and a reduction in adverse social outcomes, such as impact on employment. It also reinforces that cannabis diversion is much less expensive than a traditional criminal justice response.”

Discretion Still an Issue

If diversion is cheaper, just as effective at meeting policy goals, and results in better social outcomes for the individuals affected, what are the downsides?

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One concern could be discretion. The report found that offenders in urban areas were more likely to be diverted with a caution only than were those in rural, more remote areas. That could also translate to racial disparities in enforcement, as 89% of Australians live in urban areas but the majority of indigenous people live in rural and remote regions.

In Australian states like New South Wales and Tasmania, diversion is at the discretion of individual police officers. Placing that decision-making power into the hands of an individual allows for human bias to enter the equation.

In a country where indigenous people represent just 3% of the population but 27% of the prison population, addressing selective criminalization of harmless cannabis offenses should be a priority.