There was outrage and confected outrage, but mostly there was mirth. ''Joel Madden proves that in Australia the grass really is greener!,'' tweeted one wag. ''I think it's pretty obvious the weed belonged to Joel Madden's hairdresser,'' quipped another.
Not even the police could summon much enthusiasm over the discovery of a small amount of cannabis in Madden's hotel room when they were alerted to it on Sunday afternoon. They took six hours to turn up and then let The Voice judge off with a caution. Among Madden's co-judges and the public at large, more scorn was heaped on the media for sensationalism than it was upon the Good Charlotte frontman.
It was a far cry from the drug scandals of the 1970s, when the rock'n'roll stars who were busted got really busted - arrested, deported, banned from venues and gloriously disgraced.
But the trivial treatment of the nadir in Madden's criminal history was a sign of the times. Though it is not politic to say so, a gentle trend towards the decriminalisation of marijuana has been creeping across Australia for the past 15 years.
The process has been uncontroversial and gone largely unnoticed, partly due to broader public acceptance of drug use and also to the way various jurisdictions have sold their drug policies to the public.
The Howard government dubbed its harm minimisation strategy the ''tough on drugs'' policy. One by one, the states fell into step, introducing programs that allowed them to caution or fine people for minor possession offences, rather than send them careening into the court system.
''It was clever policy,'' says Professor Alison Ritter, deputy director of the national drug and alcohol research centre at the University of NSW, of the Howard initiative. ''You badge it as 'tough on drugs' but you introduce programs that reduce the significant legal consequences for people who deal with drugs.''
In NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, police have the discretion to caution people caught with a small amount of cannabis without pressing formal charges. In South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory, people caught with a small amount of cannabis are fined.
''This is decriminalisation, and that's one of the ironies I suppose,'' Ritter says.
''There is this big debate about decriminalisation, when in fact Australia has led the world in all these decriminalisation programs.''
Madden was caught in possession of less than 5 grams of cannabis. His warning was issued under the Cannabis Cautioning Program - the diversionary program that exists in NSW. It is a stricter program than exists in most other states in that people of interest can possess no more than 15 grams of marijuana and receive a maximum of two cautions. They are also given a number to call for drug-related information or referral.
The program has been so successful from the local court's perspective that some magistrates would like to see it extended to other drugs. One early study indicated that the program saved $1 million and 18,000 police hours in the first three years of operation, because police no longer had to charge offenders at the time of detection, prepare matters for court or attend hearings.
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data reveals police apprehended 13,796 people for cannabis possession in the year to March this year, an increase of nearly 37 per cent over 10 years. But only half were going to court. If the cautioning system did not exist, most of those extra cases would be foisted upon a heaving criminal justice system.
Queensland is the only other state that does not already have a similar diversionary program in place for people caught with small amounts of other drugs, including cocaine, amphetamines and heroin. The idea might be anathema to parents who remember Anna Wood, the 15-year-old girl who died from a single ecstasy tablet in 1995. Though the economic savings of a diversionary system are indisputable, the medical benefits are less clear. Few people take up the referrals encouraged under the cannabis cautionary scheme. But the failure by NSW to roll out cautioning programs for other drugs is surprising to many people who work in drug policy.
Simon Lenton, deputy director of the National Drug Research Institute in Western Australia, says the social and economic benefits of the cannabis diversionary programs are equally true for other drugs. "When you compare it to the cost of putting people in prison for minor drug offences, it is far, far better to have people out in the community," he says.
Ritter is equally perplexed, especially given the cannabis scheme has been so uncontroversial. "I don't think that many people know that NSW is out of step with the rest of the nation," she says. "The community understands the difference between someone who uses a substance on an occasional basis and somebody who deals and sells an illegal substance," she says. "The law should treat those people differently and that's what diversionary schemes do."
To Gino Vumbaca, executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs, the value of diversionary programs is a no-brainer. Apart from the savings in court and police costs, it is a fairer way to deal with misdemeanours by young people, who are disproportionately apprehended by police for cannabis use because they don't have their own homes.
"The punishment is so disproportionate, because even if you end up having no real penalty but you have a charge, the impact on employment opportunities and family can be lifelong," he says.
As for Madden, Channel Nine has ducked pressure from some quarters to have him kicked of the show as penance. The grand finale of The Voice screens on Monday.
June 15, 2013
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