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Knowledge of substance abuse in Indigenous communities and good practice in policing and other responses

During the workshop, a range of presentations were given by researchers and practitioners. These provided information on the extent of problems, changes in substance abuse patterns and some of the ways in which police are responding, often in partnership or cooperation with other agencies and community groups. Presentations covered the issues and responses both at broad levels and in the form of case studies. A summary of each presentation is provided below. For reasons of privacy and confidentiality, certain data and other information from the original presentations has been excluded from these summaries.

Key findings from research into policing responses to illicit drugs problems in rural and remote Indigenous communities

Presentation by Brendan Delahunty

Mr Brendan Delahunty (formerly from Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) provided an overview of the key finding of the research that formed the basis of:

Delahunty B & Putt J 2006. The policing implications of cannabis, amphetamine and other illicit drug use in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. NDLERF Monograph no. 15. Adelaide: Australasian Centre for Policing Research

Delahunty B & Putt J 2006. Good practice framework—policing illicit drugs in rural and remote local communities. NDLERF Monograph no. 15A. Adelaide: Australasian Centre for Policing Research

The funding for the project was provided by NDLERF. Its aim was to improve the law enforcement sector's understanding of illicit drug use by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to identify good policing practices that will help prevent and minimise harm from illicit drug use in rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The project was conducted between April 2004 and June 2005.

The research involved community consultations via meetings, forums and interviews as well as access to local data from Indigenous communities in Western Australia (Kalgoorlie, Laverton, Warburton), Queensland (Rockhampton, Woorabinda, Mount Morgan), South Australia (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands) and the Northern Territory (The Tiwi Islands). It also involved consultations with representatives of key stakeholder groups in government and non-government organisations, a review of relevant literature and legislation and a survey of 792 police (most based in regional, rural and remote locations) from the four jurisdictions involved.

Key findings

While some information is available on illicit drug use by Indigenous people in urban locations, much less is known about drug use by Indigenous people in rural and remote regions. What data is available suggests that compared with non-Indigenous people, Indigenous people in urban areas report higher rates of recent cannabis and other illicit drug use.

Police surveyed for the project reported that various illicit drugs were commonly or very commonly used by Aboriginal people in their region. The same percentage of police (88%) in both urban and non-urban areas reported that cannabis was commonly or very commonly used in their region. There were important differences however in amphetamine use, with common or very common use reported by 57 percent of urban police and 25 percent of non-urban police.

The researchers also asked police 'how much of a problem' various substances were among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their local area. Alcohol was seen by many as a problem (with 93% of urban police and 93% of non-urban police identifying it as a 'serious' or 'moderate' problem), followed by cannabis (77% of urban police, 77% of non-urban police), inhalants (57% of urban police, 47% of non-urban police) and amphetamines (53% of urban police, 29% of non-urban police).

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the availability and use of cannabis in many remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander settlements. This new wave of cannabis use is occurring in addition to, not instead of, the use of alcohol and other substances.

At the time of the study, up to two-thirds of males and one in five females in some Arnhem Land communities were regularly using cannabis. Some users were spending between one-third and two-thirds of their income on cannabis. The age of first-time use was falling to around 10 or 11 years of age in some areas. Patterns of use were also problematic, as evidenced by the wide use of 'bucket bongs', home-made devices which allow users to smoke the equivalent of up to 20 joints in a single session.

Police reported that heavy cannabis use exacerbates many existing problems among local Indigenous residents, particularly family violence and mental health problems. This was the same for both urban and non-urban areas.

The supply of cannabis is facilitated through drug distribution networks. In some areas, these are run by Indigenous people with positions of power or influence. The growth in demand for drugs in remote areas appears to have attracted the interest of profiteers from outside those communities, accelerating the flow of money from remote communities to urban areas. The research found that these networks can generate very high profits, with cannabis bought in a capital city able to be quickly and easily sold for four to five times the price in remote areas. The success of the cannabis trade and the establishment of trafficking routes will potentially provide avenues for the distribution of other drugs, notably amphetamines, in the future.

In terms of harm, the increased use of cannabis is having a range of impacts on some Aboriginal communities. Where large amounts are spent on cannabis, there may not be enough money for basic necessities. There are indications of high levels of violence, injuries, accidents, psychosis and self harm. Use can also impact on education and employment, levels of crime (which may increase to obtain money for drugs) and participation in community and cultural life. There is also evidence of the use of sexual favours to obtain drugs.

Policing illicit drug use in remote communities creates unique challenges and requires different techniques from those used in urban areas. In small and close-knit communities, commonly used police practices such as surveillance and intelligence gathering can be very hard to achieve. Successful strategies involve working much more closely with the community than typically occurs in urban settings, including:

  • asking the communities to define the harms that are of concern to them and to outline their expectations of police
  • introducing policing measures that provide respite and build confidence
  • providing strategic support to sustain and extend local initiatives
  • prevention, leadership and capacity building.

Effective drug law enforcement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities requires:

  • close cooperation and support of community leaders
  • high quality intelligence
  • sensitivity to local issues
  • strong logistical support from police organisations
  • enhanced use of police information systems
  • building partnerships with other government agencies, non-government organisations and communities.

Training, recruitment and support are very important aspects of ensuring an effective policing response in Indigenous communities. It is important for police organisations to identify and reward the skills needed to police effectively in sparsely populated but high-need locations. Appropriate training, induction and support to enable members to respond to community concerns about drug use, crime and other problems are also critical. A further challenge lies in recruiting, supporting and developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff at all levels of the organisation and encouraging other employers to do the same.

Police play an important role in reducing drug-related harm through managing drug-affected people in public and in custody. This can be made difficult in rural and remote areas because of the long distances involved in custody transfers, outdated or unsafe police facilities, inadequate staffing and a lack of 'sobering-up' facilities. In this regard, promising community and police initiatives include:

  • night patrols
  • the involvement of community leaders in determining responses to drug-affected behaviour
  • focusing police resources on offences that are of greatest concern to the community
  • a permanent police presence in more remote locations
  • capital works to improve facilities.

Good practice examples

The report identified strategic responses adopted to improve policing responses in Indigenous communities.

Multi-function police facilities in remote areas (Western Australia)

New police facilities in remote areas improve safety in the community, help victims and provide a strong visible police presence. Staff from other agencies share police facilities, which fosters a more collaborative and coordinated response to child abuse and family violence. Specific police training for positions in border settlements includes cultural familiarisation, acclimatisation, additional legal education and information sharing. This training and preparation takes account of the need to maintain continuity and minimise disruption when personnel change.

Integrated approach to community consultation (Queensland)

This approach consists of a series of programs and strategies designed to strengthen police links with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Elements include:

  • a network of community consultation and liaison
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment strategies
  • cross-cultural training for officers
  • a part-time cell visitors scheme
  • Police Citizens Youth Club activity centres
  • the development of indicators to better identify data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims and offenders
  • revised oral and written licence testing programs and the provision of practical tests in local areas to reduce the number of unlicensed drivers
  • the return of ancestral remains and other sacred objects to ancestral lands.

Remote Communities Drug Strategy (Northern Territory)

The Remote Communities Drug Desk is staffed by specialist drug intelligence officers. The Strategy was developed from a workshop involving police, other government and non-government organisations, a parliamentary committee and representatives from various remote Aboriginal communities. This facility takes information and intelligence from local level policing initiatives and uses it to contribute to a broader understanding of drug issues across rural and remote areas. This intelligence complements other measures, such as the introduction of drug detection dogs and drug house legislation.

Indigenous drug action teams (South Australia)

Drug Action Teams (DATs) are locally-based committees made up of representatives from a number of agencies which meet to reduce legal and illegal drug-related harm. Indigenous DATs respond to the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They provide a liaison point for Aboriginal services and the DAT program to improve their understanding of community resources and programs which could assist in reducing alcohol and other drug misuse in Aboriginal communities. They can also:

  • assist in identifying and implementing projects or actions that are relevant to Aboriginal communities
  • encourage Aboriginal people to access prevention, diversion and treatment programs
  • increase the capacity of DATs to respond to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander alcohol and other drug issues.

The strategies employed by individual teams are determined by the nature of the local drug problem.

Jurisdictional overviews. Environmental scan, New South Wales

Presentation by Pat Ward, Drug and Alcohol Coordination Unit, NSWPF

This presentation provided background information on the New South Wales Indigenous population and the question of their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. In 2006, the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) looked at the higher rates of imprisonment of Indigenous offenders and found no evidence of systemic or institutional bias in the criminal justice system's response to Indigenous offenders in New South Wales. Instead, they identified that the overrepresentation was a reflection of Indigenous offenders having longer records, being more likely to have been convicted of a serious violent offence, having committed multiple offences, being more likely to have breached a justice order and/or having re-offended after being given an alternative sentence to full-time imprisonment. More importantly, however, was the BOCSAR (2006) finding that when looking at the economic and social determinants of Indigenous contact with the justice system, other than being male, the most powerful predictor of being either charged or imprisoned was substance use. High risk alcohol consumption was also found to be a significant factor which led the researchers to suggest that 'one of the key ways to reduce Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system is to reduce Indigenous drug and alcohol abuse' (BOCSAR 2006).

An examination of the available data sources on drug and alcohol prevalence rates such as National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS) and the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) reveals that, when compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous individuals:

  • are almost three times as likely to smoke, although they consume less
  • are less likely to report having consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months but, when they do, are more likely to have consumed alcohol at risky or highly risky levels
  • are almost twice as likely to report recent illicit drug use, with those who do use illicit substances being more likely to do so at a younger age.

As for non-Indigenous populations, cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in Indigenous populations. However, while there is evidence that cannabis use is declining in the general community, there is no indication that the same trend is being observed in Indigenous communities.

Consistent with the NDSHS, NSWPF drug detection data indicate that across the state between 2000 and 2007, cannabis remained by far the most commonly detected drug, with the number of seizures showing a slight decline over the period. Again, in keeping with the NDSHS findings, police detection data for the same period identified increases in amphetamine and ecstasy detections. There was a decrease in heroin detections, while cocaine seizures fluctuated.

Police data in relation to Indigenous offenders involved in drug detection incidents reaffirms that cannabis is the most commonly detected drug and that, compared with non-Indigenous drug offenders, cannabis detections make up a higher proportion of all drug detections. Drug detection data involving Indigenous offenders shows similar trends to those involving non-Indigenous offenders. The data shows increases in amphetamine and ecstasy drug detections, decreases in heroin drug detection incidents and a fluctuating number of cocaine seizures. Preliminary analyses suggest a slight upward trend in the total proportion of drug detection incidents involving Indigenous offenders. While these findings may be linked to police activity, they may also be indicative of sustained cannabis use against a declining use rate in the general community and a greater uptake of the 'other drugs' category (thought to be comprised mainly of illicit prescription drugs, primarily analgesics and anti-anxiety medications).

Police data, the NDSHS and NATSIHS provide useful information on the incidence or prevalence of alcohol and drug use in Indigenous populations. Additional data on the patterns of use including frequency, quantity and poly-drug use are also important to better understand and quantify the social, health and criminal impact of drug use on Indigenous communities. Of particular concern are the potential mental health consequences, given the high levels of cannabis use in Indigenous populations and the increase in methamphetamine use. In response, NSWPF will more closely analyse its data on the involvement of Indigenous offenders in drug detection incidents. NSWPF will also seek to facilitate and support a replication of the NDLERF study which examined illicit substance misuse among, and its impact on, remote and rural Indigenous communities within an urban context.

On a more practical front, NSWPF will continue its volatile substance misuse (VSM) initiative which seeks to improve the capacity of police to appropriately respond to VSM when the issue arises. Finally, in keeping with the BOCSAR (2006) suggestion that 'one of the key ways to reduce Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system is to reduce Indigenous drug and alcohol abuse', NSWPF will continue to promote and monitor the involvement of Indigenous offenders in police drug diversion schemes. NSWPF will work collaboratively with other partner agencies to modify and/or develop diversion initiatives with the aim of enhancing offender participation and outcomes for Indigenous individuals.

Jurisdictional overviews. Environmental scan part 2, Victoria

Presentation by Annette Vickery, Victoria Police

The Victorian environmental scan showed that alcohol continues to be the major substance abuse problem for Victoria Police. Most police strategies in the drug and alcohol area therefore focus on alcohol misuse. Major strategies include alcohol management plans, partnerships with local councils, night patrols and sobering-up centres.

Victoria Police recognise that illicit substances are becoming an increasingly significant issue among Indigenous people as well as the general population. There are indications of increased use of ice, with associated problems in managing the violent behaviour of affected users. Chroming, or the inhalation of solvent-based substances such as paint, petrol or adhesives is also an increasing issue for police.

While police make widespread use of diversion to health service providers, data on the numbers being processed and diverted was not able to be made available at the workshop. Aboriginal cultural healing centres are being used as an alternative to diversion into health services, though they are not presently recognised as an official diversion option. In a similar way, there are a range of community initiatives in place that appear to be having positive outcomes and assisting many Aboriginal people, but are not officially recognised. Victoria is moving to recognise more of these initiatives and the way in which they help the Aboriginal community to manage its own issues.

The Victorian environmental scan highlighted the way in which failure to address the underlying causal factors of offending can lead to very high numbers of convictions among some young people. These causal factors and convictions tend to have detrimental impacts across the offenders' life course, contributing to mental health problems, homelessness, addition, co-morbidity and dysfunctional family arrangements.

Last updated
3 November 2017