New East Coast laws around intoxication and drug possession

November 29, 2023
Clyde Mooney

Victoria and NSW have furthered their goals toward a “health-based approach” for people in need of support, with critical reforms around decriminalisation of public intoxication and drug use.

Beginning this month, being intoxicated in public in Victoria will be treated as a health issue, not a crime. A new evidence-driven, health-based service model will replace the current criminal justice approach.

Intoxication will no longer be the threshold for intervention, meaning people will not be placed in a police cell or arrested solely for being drunk in public. It’s said the former laws on public intoxication have disproportionately impacted Aboriginal people and other diverse communities across Victoria.

To ensure affected people get access to culturally appropriate and effective support, prioritising their health, safety and wellbeing, the government will deliver services for all people across Melbourne and for Aboriginal people in locations across regional and metropolitan areas.

Victoria Police and Ambulance Victoria will continue to respond where there are community safety or emergency health risks.

Liquor Control Victoria says licensees’ obligations “will not change” and it will still be an offence to allow intoxicated people on licensed premises or to serve alcohol to an intoxicated person.  

Hospitality staff are reminded to stay aware of the key principles for serving alcohol responsibly, and how to recognise signs of intoxication.

Licensees should ensure staff have current RSA certificates, and consider displaying signage reminding customers of ways to minimise alcohol-related harm, such as drinking water, provided for free, or asking staff to arrange safe transport for patrons.

Venues can also display a DirectLine poster, offering access to 24/7 alcohol counselling.

To the north, a spokesperson for the Department of Communities and Justice in NSW confirmed that public intoxication is already not an offence in the state.

“People who are intoxicated in public can be detained by police in limited circumstances for their own safety and the safety of others.”

However, NSW has last month introduced new laws related to the treatment of addiction issues in ways other than the historic criminal system approach – bringing the state in line with all other Australian states and territories.

The ‘expanded and strengthened’ drug diversion program in NSW gives police the ability to issue up to two on-the-spot Criminal Infringement Notices (CINs) for personal drug use and small quantity drug possession offences.

Importantly, the scheme will encourage those receiving a CIN to complete a tailored drug and alcohol intervention program. If they complete this, their $400 CIN fine will be treated as though paid. If they do not, the penalty will be enforced.

It remains an offence to possess and use illicit drugs.

Utilising the existing CIN framework already used by police simply “adds another tool” to the kit of police, who retain their discretion in all cases to charge a person and proceed to court.

Reportedly, the majority of low-level drug offenders attending court receive a fine, but are not provided any incentive to take up health advice.

The Department conceded that formal contact with the criminal justice system can actually increase the likelihood of reoffending, and it’s hoped the “commonsense, evidence-based approach” will both reduce contact with the system for first- and second-time offenders, while diverting them to health and education services, making them less likely to reoffend.

Ultimately, the revised approach is about preventing crime, and it’s anticipated the scheme will divert thousands of people away from the court system each year, simultaneously easing the burden on police and courts, and allowing resources to be better allocated to more serious offenses.

The changes stem from a report by the Special Commission of Inquiry into the drug ice, producing expert evidence and recommendations.

The new drug diversion program will not apply to serious drug offences, such as supply, dealing, trafficking, production or manufacture, or to previously convicted drug dealers, people possessing large quantities, or those who have already received two CINs for drug possession.

The Justice Miscellaneous Provisions Bill finalised the change, supported by the Commissioner of Police and Chief Health Officer, who have advised the government of their operational readiness to implement the scheme – slated to commence early 2024.

“Drug use and dependence are very much health issues and ones that are far better addressed through health support outside the courts and criminal justice systems,” explains Minister for Health Ryan Park.  

All other Australian states and territories already operate drug diversion programs for low level illicit drug offences, and the Minister believes the “evidence-based approach” is in line with community expectations and will help reduce long-term drug use.

“The safety of the community is our top priority and this scheme provides better outcomes for low-level drug offending without compromising safety,” furthers Minister for Police and Counter-terrorism Yasmin Catley.

“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.”


drug possession, how to recognise intoxication, Liquor Control Victoria, NSW Department of Communities and Justice, Public intoxication, RSA

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