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    FIRST-TIME DRUG OFFENDERS AVOID JAIL

    MORE than 600 people caught with illicit drugs including heroin,
    ecstasy and cocaine escaped conviction in Queensland last year after
    agreeing to attend education and treatment programs.

    Forty were minors who were sent to drug rehabilitation by magistrates
    after being caught with small amounts of cannabis or drug equipment
    like syringes and bongs.

    The Illicit Drugs Court Diversion Program, a 12-month trial that began
    in March, aims to keep small-time drug users who are first-time
    offenders out of jail and reduce drug-related crime through early
    intervention.

    A conviction is recorded if the person fails to complete the
    rehabilitation program.

    Under a separate trial, Queensland police also have the power to
    direct first-time offenders caught with cannabis to rehabilitation
    while Drug Courts are also operating in parts of the state.

    Figures released by the State Government show in the first nine months
    of the trial, 654 people agreed to have counselling and other
    treatment, an average of 16 a week.

    More than 80 per cent were males and nearly half were aged between 19
    and 25.

    Cannabis was the drug of choice for 400 offenders although 107 people
    were found with amphetamines, 56 with ecstasy, 31 with heroin and five
    with cocaine.

    About 50 of the 654 offenders failed to attend the treatment program
    and were sent back to the courts to be sentenced.

    Drug agencies yesterday called for the trial, which is largely
    Commonwealth funded and has been centred on Brisbane, to be expanded
    around the state.

    A spokeswoman for Drug Arm, which runs some of the treatment programs,
    said the trial was proving successful.

    Alcohol and Drug Foundation chief executive Bob Aldred said the
    diversion program needed to be established in other parts of the state
    to help battle drug use.

    "There's no point putting these people in prison where they could just
    mix with more serious drug users," he said.

    Attorney-General Rod Welford said any expansion of the program was
    dependent on extra federal funding.

    "We've done an evaluation which has shown there is a 93 per cent
    compliance with the diversion orders which indicates outstanding
    success," Mr Welford said.

    "The real benefits are longer term because people who undertake the
    rehabilitation at this early stage in drug use are more likely to
    avoid slipping into the cycle of crime to fund future drug habits.
    "Rather than wait for people to become seriously addicted and then
    punishing them in some way, we're heading it off early while saving
    taxpayers the cost of simply giving people with an addiction a holiday
    in prison."

    Under previous laws, first offenders would have faced fines of up to
    $1200 or community service.

    The program is not available for people with previous convictions for
    serious drug, violent or sex offences.

    It applies if the person is caught with one gram or less of ecstasy,
    heroin, cocaine or amphetamines, 50g of cannabis or the equivalent of
    three "trips" of LSD.

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