The Guardian: As a police commander, I used to ask myself: was drug use really a matter of crime?

by Frank Hanse | A former NSWPF superintendent

Any reform the NSW government considers that leads to less confrontation for the cops will also be the best outcome for the community

Cops on bicycles aren’t the first things that come to mind when discussing tough drug strategies but you’d be surprised how effective they were in Cabramatta two decades ago.

Evidence of drug use was everywhere in the Sydney suburb in the late 90s and early 2000s. Needles, bodies and dealing out in the open.

I was tasked with taking charge of the Cabramatta Local Area Command during two difficult years of 2001 and 2002. The focus was heroin use, trafficking and the impact on the community.

Tough strategies hadn’t worked. Better alternatives were scant. Arrests were occurring but like Medusa’s hair, for every dealer that was taken out of play, another would crop up in their place.

I had never before managed a local command and, truth be known, I was as sceptical as the next person in my ability to make a difference.

I did have some experience however in developing policy needed to support the rollout of the needle and syringe program, and Australia’s first medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross.

To my way of thinking, apart from anything else, the less confrontation between cops and the community is always a good thing. And so I asked myself from very early on: was the possession and use of illicit drugs really a matter of crime?

A crime is usually seen as inflicting some form of physical, financial or other hurt on another.

Drug use is primarily an individual hurting themselves, together with the fallout caused to family, loved ones and, without doubt, the wellbeing of the community in which it occurs.Advertisement

But there’s also fallout from alcohol and even second-hand smoking. Both these legal drugs often have unwanted side effects on the individual who chooses to use them. We deal with alcohol and tobacco in a completely different way than the way we treat illegal drugs. We consider them a health issue – unless someone is assaulted or run over because the offender was drunk – yet still, the offender is not arrested for using alcohol per se but for the consequences of its use.

Somehow we still continue treating illicit drug use as a crime and, I might add, with little success.

Recently it was revealed the NSW government was reconsidering how to deal with this issue. It has looked at recommendations from last year’s ice inquiry. These are unsurprisingly seen by a few former top cops as a sensible way forward.

The word “decriminalisation” has been bandied about a lot over the past week but while the term means slightly different things to different people it is clear the NSW government is reluctant to go there.

They are, however, considering a much humbler but nevertheless worthwhile step towards “diverting” drug users away from the criminal justice system – a “three strikes” policy that would see a person initially given a warning or a fine instead of being charged.

The question I pose is this: apart from the clear benefits to the drug users themselves, would “diversion” make it safer for the cops?


Anything that reduces the antagonism between would-be offenders and the cops is worthwhile. The latter may well then be seen as a catalyst for getting help, therefore making it a far safer situation for all.

Allowing police to focus on diversion instead of arresting and charging is going to make the job of police far safer than what it is today.

It also makes far more sense.

In that respect cannabis cautioning is a model worth considering for other illicit drugs.

Illicit drug use should be seen as a health issue and dealt with the same as alcohol and tobacco.

Apart from drug crime, I saw Cabramatta as a campaign for hearts and minds. The local community was suffering terribly from a proliferation of overdoses and discarded drug paraphernalia and, in particular, adverse media attention as a consequence.

As an adjunct to routine policing I introduced a team of 12 bicycle police.

You can laugh now but the sight of a police officer riding a bicycle on the local streets did several things including: providing a very mobile response to deter those intent on causing problems through their drug use, sending a message of safety and reinforcing the notion that police were keen to help make things better.

Of course I don’t suggest bicycles were or are the answer to all the problems faced by communities across this country. But I believe that unnecessary confrontation makes the job unsafe for both cops and the community.

The bicycles were a simple initiative that helped in reduce the unnecessary confrontation in Cabramatta during those tough years.

Our drug laws might seem like common sense but they can often lead to unnecessary conflict. Any reform that the NSW government considers this week that leads to less confrontation for the cops will also be the best outcome for the community.

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