When attending a drug overdose, preservation of life is a law enforcement priority. NSW Police Force has guidelines to encourage police officers to exercise their discretion not to charge people present at drug overdoses for minor drug matters. This is designed to remove any reluctance that people may have to call an ambulance due to fear of police prosecution.

Police drug diversion strategies

Research indicates that there is a significant link between drug use and crime. Some drug users engage in crime to pay for the drugs they use, for example property theft.

Drug diversion initiatives give offenders who use drugs the chance to undertake education and/or treatment aimed at helping them to stop using drugs and committing further crimes.

Drug diversion initiatives do not change the legal status of drugs. Possession and use of illegal drugs remain criminal offences.  Drug and alcohol diversion programs that NSW Police Force operates or is involved with include:

1. Cannabis Cautioning Scheme

The Cannabis Cautioning Scheme provides for formal cautioning of adult offenders detected for minor cannabis offences. The Scheme uses police intervention to assist offenders to consider the legal and health ramifications of their cannabis use and seek treatment and support.

The Scheme has been in place since 2000, and is operated by NSW Police Force.  The Scheme was developed in response to a NSW Drug Summit finding that arresting people for minor drug offences is not always an effective response.

Police can exercise their discretion in appropriate cases and issue a caution. Police are still able to decide instead to formally charge offenders. 

A person can only be cautioned twice and cannot be cautioned at all if they have prior convictions for drug offences or offences of violence or sexual assault. 

The Scheme does not apply to those caught supplying cannabis.  Drug dealers continue to be arrested and prosecuted under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985.

The Caution

The formal NSW Police Force caution warns of the health and legal consequences of cannabis use. The caution notice provides contact telephone numbers for the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS). ADIS provides a dedicated, confidential service to a cautioned offender that includes information about treatment, counselling and support services.

People who receive a second and final caution are required to contact ADIS for a mandatory education session about their cannabis use.

2. Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT)

The Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) program is designed for offenders with drug problems who are eligible for bail and who may benefit from treatment and rehabilitation. MERIT aims to reduce drug-related crime by assisting eligible offenders to address drug problems that may be contributing to criminal behaviour.

MERIT is voluntary and provides the offender with an opportunity to engage in treatment prior to their hearing. The offender's progress in treatment may be considered during the final hearing and sentence.

MERIT accepts referrals for assessment from multiple sources, including police. Formal endorsement of participation in MERIT sits with magistrates.

Offenders deemed appropriate for MERIT can generally commence treatment soon after referral.

Participants are closely case-managed throughout their bail period by trained health professionals. The magistrate receives regular reports on their progress until the court case is finalised at the end of the court bail period, which is usually three months. If the defendant fails to attend treatment, commits further offences, or does not comply with bail conditions, the magistrate is notified.

Offenders charged with strictly indictable drug offences or sexual assault offences are not eligible for MERIT. Find out more about MERIT

3. Diversion under the Young Offenders Act 1997

Under the NSW Young Offenders Act 1997 young people (under 18 years of age) who commit minor drug offences (such as possession of small quantities) may be eligible for a warning, a caution or a conference, in place of being charged for the offence.

4. Adult Drug Court

The NSW Adult Drug Court aims to help adult offenders with serious drug problems to break the drug-crime cycle by providing a supervised program of treatment and rehabilitation.