By Simon Lenton, Jodie Grigg, John Scott, Monica Barratt and Dina Eleftheriadis – Australian Institute of Criminology, December 2015.

Conclusions and implications

The overwhelming experience of the cannabis market by most participants in this study, whether they were involved in obtaining or supplying cannabis, could be captured by the broad notion of social supply. The findings have implications for the policing of social supply drug markets, public education of participants in the social supply market, and how social supply offences are dealt with in law.

The findings reinforce the view that social supply markets possess a number of attributes that make them a challenge for drug law enforcement. Participants described a closed market, characterised by high levels of trust among consumers and suppliers already known to each other at the level of adjacent pairs or small group networks, typically selling in private. Deals made in public places were usually the result of prearranged buys. Indeed, the social supply markets described by participants in this study look to be less harmful than more open, street-based drug markets. This raises questions about whether increasing detection of participants in social supply markets should be a major focus of policing efforts.

Although most people who engaged in supply understood that their activities would be regarded as such in law, most did not consider themselves to be ‘a dealer’ and many had ways of thinking about their own cannabis supply activities that reinforced their belief that they were not ‘true dealers’. Although most, when posed the question, acknowledged that what they were doing did constitute cannabis supply in legal terms, many did not seem to engage with the fact that they were potentially exposing themselves to a serious criminal charge. They did not consider themselves to be ‘dealers’ because they often saw their cannabis supply as ‘helping out friends’, often in reciprocal relationships, and mostly involving no or minimal profit.

There may be some benefit in considering a potentially targeted public education campaign about how even low-level social supply is considered and dealt with in law.

In other countries there has been consideration given as to whether, and how, low-level supply offences should be dealt with in law, however, as noted above, there have been problems identified in using ‘social supply’ as a legal term. Given that there appeared to be few differences between participants in this study who were engaged in cannabis consumption and those engaged in cannabis supply, and noting the high level of dependence in this sample, there may be some merit in considering expanding current Australian drug diversion options—which typically include drug information and a brief intervention—beyond simple possession offences to include low-level supply of cannabis and perhaps other drugs. While what constitutes low-level supply would need to be defined and legislative change may be needed to allow the diversion schemes to apply to even this level of supply offences, the operational detail of how the schemes would deal with such offences would likely be primarily a regulatory rather than a legislative matter.

There is not scope here to consider in detail how this might work in practice; however, aspects of how diversion for drug possession offences currently operates in all states and territories would provide some possible way forward: 1) if one or more Australian jurisdictions were to implement diversion for low-level supply offences, this could be done through regulation, rather than legislative change; 2) the intervention could include information on drugs and the law, especially the consequences of a further supply charge, along with assessment of dependence and targeted intervention for those individuals assessed as needing it; 3) limiting the diversion option to those charged with their first or second low-level supply offence, consistent with the possession scheme operating in the jurisdiction, would seem appropriate; 4) specifying weight limits on eligibility for diversion for supply could provide a working legal definition of low-level supply for the purpose of diversion; and 5) any such program should be subject to evaluation to determine its viability and effectiveness in terms of the individuals apprehended, the workability from a policing point of view, the effects on other stakeholders, such as the drug treatment agencies, and the views of the wider community.

If there is interest in pursuing this option in one or more Australian jurisdictions, an advisory group could be formed to consider the merits and costs of such an idea, and a discussion document could be commissioned to scope how such a proposal could work in practice.

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