‘Better to be caught with drugs than spray paint’
NSW cabinet considered doubling the penalties for graffiti during the same meeting where a mere "warning" system for illicit drug use was supported - with some ministers stunned by the inconsistency.
Backbenchers are threatening to revolt over the government's softer stance on drug use, which would result in users given three strikes before criminal penalties, but only if the fourth strike occurs within a year, otherwise they get a reset and begin again.
Multiple cabinet Ministers have revealed that Deputy Premier John Barilaro pointed out to Monday's meeting that under the framework before cabinet, "you'd be better off to be caught with drugs than with a can of spray paint".
A final decision on the new drugs plan will be made on December 14. It proposes people in possession of a smaller quantity of drugs would first get a warning, before receiving infringement notices on the second and third occasion. A criminal penalty would be given on the fourth occasion.
The Daily Telegraph understands one suggestion proposed was $220 for the first fine and $440 for the second, although this detail has not been finalised. In the same meeting, cabinet ministers were told the maximum penalty for graffiti crimes should be increased from four penalty units to eight - a doubling from $440 to $880.
The two policies were unrelated, but Ministers pointed out the inconsistency.
A poll of Daily Telegraph readers showed 60 per cent did not agree with a plan to give warnings to drug users.
A swath of backbenchers also expressed anger at the plan directly to senior figures in the government. Mr Barilaro told radio 2GB "the last thing I would want to see is a softening on anything to do with drugs in this state".
But Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her allies called for calm, insisting the government would not "decriminalise" drug possession.
She did not, however, dispute moving to a warning system. When asked directly if she would rule out letting someone off on a warning, Ms Berejiklian replied: "When you're dealing with those issues they are very complex … but I want to make very clear the assertion's been made we are decriminalising drugs (and) that is not the case at all."
Asked if she was considering "diversion strategies'' she said: "I think for children … for young people, there are options there. But I want to be clear … we will maintain our tough stance on drugs."
Ministers who are opposed to the policy say the government is just making an argument based on semantics. They say whatever way it is described, shifting to a system where people caught with illicit drugs simply get a warning is effectively a softening of drug policy.
Two cabinet ministers made the point that a warning system may work if it was accompanied by a requirement to dob in a supplier, but that it did not work in isolation. One angry minister accused Attorney-General Mark Speakman of treating drug users like "victims''.
"The victim is not the drug user, the victim is the old lady who gets her door kicked in by a drug user because they want to steal money," the minister said.
There was some conversation in the cabinet meeting as to whether fines could be reduced if a person undertook a diversionary course, and one minister scoffed that a one-hour online course would be the next step.
When this was put to cabinet, a concerned minister said there were not sufficient diversionary programs in the bush. No resolution was reached on this aspect.
When Health Minister Brad Hazzard was asked if he supported changes to drug possession laws, he said he supported that the cabinet had "24 very good ministers who represent a broad range of community views".
"They have those discussions and they have them in confidence … so they can come out with a sensible resolution. From my point of view as a cabinet minister who is sworn to secrecy in those discussions, I will leave those matters for the cabinet to resolve."
Asked if he was worried the split could "go the same way as the koala problem," Mr Hazzard said "we work very well together".
The plan has predictably been hailed by the Greens.
Some in the legal community are also supportive.
Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman Greg Barns said: "The penny has at last begun to drop in NSW.
"Drugs are a health and lifestyle issue,'' he added.
"The tentative steps by the NSW government to move away from a discredited approach is welcome but it needs to go further and decriminalise drug use."'
Originally published as 'Better to be caught with drugs than spray paint'