Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Rowan Fairbairn and David Murray
In April 2001, the Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee (D&CPC), which is a Committee of the Victorian Parliament, was given a reference to examine the issues associated with the abuse of volatile substances for the purposes of intoxication or ‘chroming’.
In May 2001, Berry Street Victoria (‘BSV’) received a best practice award from the Minister for Community Services for the development of a report and resource kit titled Managing Client Substance Misuse that it had produced after being funded by the Department of Human Services. The report and resource kit were the result of extensive consultation involving Berry Street staff, the Department of Human Services, Victorian Police, the Victorian Youth Substance Abuse Service (‘YSAS’), and staff from other welfare services and alcohol and other drug (‘AOD’) services. The report and resource kit were based on harm minimisation principles, and emphasised the need to reduce net harm for the individual as well as the community.[1 ]
While the report and resource kit supported young people being encouraged to cease their use of drugs, it was recognised that not all of them would wish to modify or change their pattern of drug use. Berry Street staff were encouraged to work with these young people by focussing on developing a strategy that would result in the best health outcome for the individual and others involved, without adopting a legal or moral position on the young person’s use. Workers were encouraged to review and constantly monitor every strategy that was developed and implemented. The report and resource kit were well received by the sector at a workshop attended by staff from the Department of Human Services, Berry Street Victoria, and other AOD and welfare services.
In January 2002, after receiving a number of written submissions and hearing presentations from a variety of individuals and organisations over a number of months, the D&CPC released a Discussion Paper. The Paper raised a number of issues and sought comment on them. Included in the discussion was the plea that ‘someone should do something about young chromers’. On 22 January 2002, a story appeared in the Herald-Sun newspaper that accused Berry Street of operating a network of safe sniffing houses for young chromers, and that residents were being taught how to minimise the risks and side effects associated with sniffing. It was alleged that workers condoned chroming by at-risk children and young people in their care.
When the State Government was confronted with this news on the front page of the State’s highest selling newspaper, it responded immediately. The Premier instructed Berry Street to immediately cease the practice of supervising young people engaged in chroming. The Premier thus proved that he had done something about young chromers. But what were the consequences?
The immediate result of the Government’s policy directive was that young people who had previously used volatile substances on the premises of residential units, where staff were able to actively engage them and monitor their well-being, were now forced out onto the streets into such places as parks and railway stations. One report recounts how a neighbour ‘ran up and down outside a children’s home (she hadn’t known it was one) after seeing a youngster on the street with his head in a plastic bag’. ‘Do something!’, she shouted, ‘for God’s sake, someone do something!’
One of the difficulties facing workers and researchers is the paucity of reliable information about who abuses volatile substances, under what conditions, where and why. The D&CPC Final Report notes that the accurate measure of drug use, in particular the abuse of volatile substances, is limited by:
We know that from data gathered for the 2001 Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey that about 0.4 percent of Australians aged over 14 years, which is about 70,000 people, had used inhalants in the last twelve months. However, given that most volatile substance use is by 10 to 16 year olds, these figures exclude a significant number of users.
Data gathered for the Australian Secondary Student’s Use of Over-the Counter and Illicit Substances in 1999 survey indicates that 23 to 26 percent of 12 to 14 year olds reported inhalant use in the past year, while only 8 percent of 17 year olds reported doing so. Anecdotal experience suggests that most people who use inhalants do so for a short time and then cease. However, a small group of young people go on to inhale volatile substances problematically. The D&CPC Final Report notes that such a young person is likely to:
come from a low socio-economic background
have a background of adverse life events, such as a history of abuse, or neglect, or trauma, and family difficulties or deterioration
lack involvement in the education system or workforce
be isolated from and lack connection to the wider community
have an antisocial or offending background
be ‘in care’ or involved in the juvenile justice system
The case histories of YSAS clients reinforce the research undertaken by Burdekin, Brown, and Rossiter et al, which found a large percentage of homeless young people used a variety of substances as an attempt to dull their awareness of their own circumstances.
Common sense dictates that any practitioner in the human services field would direct their energy towards the minimisation of harm of their clients and others in the community. Strategies that attempt to engage young people in a dialogue about their individual circumstances will put the service provider in an excellent position to explore this behaviour with the young person. In particular, a focus on seeking to understand the function of the drug use will enable the young person and worker to jointly develop strategies to diminish the harm.
Any strategy, plan or intervention developed by the worker should occur within existing legislative frameworks and political constraints, and result in a reduction in net harm for the individual as well as the community. Any strategy, plan or intervention should have a health and wellbeing focus rather than a punitive or law enforcement focus.
The Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 (Vic) has been amended to include legislation dealing with the civil apprehension and detention of persons affected by the inhalation of volatile substances and to allow for the confiscation of paraphernalia. The Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances (Volatile Substances) Act 2003 (Vic) is to become operational by 1 July 2004.
A key aspect of the implementation of the legislation will be the development of appropriate operational guidelines for the key stakeholders. In addition, rolling out appropriate training, education and information in a timely manner that focuses on the needs of a definable number of high-risk children and young people will be important.
YSAS has had considerable practical experience in working with young people who use a wide range of licit and illicit drugs problematically, including volatile substances. As an outcome of this experience, YSAS has developed a practice framework for working with these young people that utilises a harm reduction approach, and has as its prime focus the health and wellbeing of the young person.
The harm reduction approach aims to reduce the level of risk and harm associated with drug use by educating people who use drugs to do so as safely as possible, without necessarily reducing or stopping consumption. A common misinterpretation is that a harm reduction approach encourages or condones AOD use, therefore not catering for people seeking to achieve abstinence. On the contrary, the goal of becoming abstinent is one of a range of strategies that a person might employ to reduce harm.
The YSAS practice framework has a number of key underpinnings:
In relation to ‘chroming’, the following practical steps are followed:
A harm reduction approach to the inhalation of volatile substances by young people addresses a range of associated risks and harms, as well as the function that the substance use performs. Workers do this by providing information and entering into dialogue with the young person about:
This approach to working with young people who present with problematic substance use issues is appropriate because it is consistent with national and state drug policies that advocate a public health approach to all substance use issues. It also attempts to address in a holistic manner the underlying issues behind substance use. We know that many children and adolescents who use volatile substances indicate that they do so for fun and excitement, as an experiment to see what happens, as a cheap alternative to alcohol and cannabis, and because it is easily obtained through theft or purchase. Others however may use volatile substances to assist them in dealing with current or past traumatic events. A ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘just say no’ approach to young people using substances problematically often acts as an impediment to meaningful dialogue, and is therefore not a good basis for establishing therapeutic interventions that address trauma.
The approach utilised by YSAS respects the user and empowers them to increase opportunities to maximise their health, whatever the circumstances they find themselves in. Therefore, it is an appropriate basis for formulating effective responses for young people who are using both licit and illicit substances, not just inhalants.
The challenge for us will be to encourage the police and other frontline workers to adopt an approach that is health-promoting and harm reducing in the context of the current legislative changes. These changes may well encourage an assertive approach to confiscation and detention of young people that will increase harm to both the young person and the community rather than reduce it.
Focussing merely on a legislative response to the abuse of inhalants is problematic, since the provision of extra police powers will not address the real issues that lie behind volatile substance abuse. Indeed, it may merely serve to create further issues. What will happen if the police do not use their new powers? What further harms will occur to individual young people and the wider community if the new legislation is overzealously used?
We hope that the principles of harm reduction outlined in this paper will be able to inform the operational guidelines developed by the Victorian Government before the legislation is proclaimed.
Rowan Fairbairn is a Senior Policy Officer with YSAS and David Murray is the Executive Officer of YSAS.
[1 ]Sheree Limbrick, Managing Client Substance Misuse (2001); Philip Mendes, ‘Setting a Conservative Policy Agenda: The Victorian Print Media, Young People in Care and Chroming’ (2002) 27(1) Children Australia 10; Moira Rainer, ‘Policy at the End of the Line’, Eureka Street, March 2002, 16.
 Limbrick, above n 1, 34-6.
 Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, Inquiry into the Inhalation of Volatile Substances: Discussion Paper (2002).
 Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, ‘Harm Minimisation: Principles and Policy Frameworks’, Occasional Paper No 1 (2002) 84.
 Nikki Protyniak, ‘Safe Houses for Sniffing’, Herald Sun (Melbourne), 22 January 2002, 1.
 Rainer, above n 1, 16.
 Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, Inquiry into the Inhalation of Volatile Substances: Final Report (2002) 72-85.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2001 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, Detailed Findings, Drug Statistics Series No 11 (2002) 77.
 Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care (National Drug Strategy Unit), Australian Secondary Students’ Use of Over-the-Counter and Illicit Substances in 1999, Monograph Series No 46 (2001) 17-18.
 Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, Final Report, above n 7, 128-148.
 Brian Burdekin, Our Homeless Children - Report of the National Inquiry into Homeless Children by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1991).
 Hayden Brown, Report on Services Required for Adolescents with Drug-Related Problems (1991).
 Ben Rossiter et al, Living Well? Homeless Young People in Melbourne (2003).
 Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, National Drug Strategic Framework 1998 – 1999 to 2002 – 2003: Building Partnerships (1998); Eric Single and Timothy Rohl, The National Drug Strategy: Mapping the Future – An Evaluation of the National Drug Strategy (1997).