While it is now widely accepted, at least throughout all Australian jurisdictions, that VSM is primarily a health and welfare rather than a criminal justice issue, it still poses challenges for law enforcement agencies, including police, courts, and custodial facilities. This is so because inhalant users are at high risk of harming themselves and others, damaging property and threatening family and community wellbeing. Further, in the absence of adequate law enforcement capacity, health and welfare agencies may find it difficult to intervene in VSM.

At the same time, VSM poses a number of difficulties for law enforcement agencies. Many inhalants are cheap and readily available, and possession of them is not in itself an offence. Legal sanctions are therefore limited, particularly as many inhalant users are legally minors. Petrol sniffing tends to occur in remote Indigenous communities where police services are often inadequate and referral options virtually non-existent. VSM also tends to occur sporadically. It is not uncommon for media reports to focus attention on VSM in a particular locality, leading to some sort of (usually stop-gap) resources being made available, only to find that by the time this happens the problem has all but disappeared or moved elsewhere. Finally, for all the anguish generated by episodes of VSM, the number of persons involved in the practice is invariably small and, as an issue competing with other demands on limited law enforcement resources, it usually ranks low on local priority lists (Gray et al., 2006).

In recent years, several Australian jurisdictions have attempted to improve the capacity of law enforcement agencies to respond to VSM by amending police powers and other laws and regulations and, in some instances, making additional resources available for law enforcement. With the exception of one jurisdiction—Queensland—no evidence of the effectiveness or otherwise of these changes has been published, although some anecdotal reports have been tabled, most of them at coronial inquests or parliamentary inquiries. In this chapter we document the current status of law enforcement responses to VSM and review the limited evidence regarding implementation and outcomes.

10.1 Legislation governing police powers to intervene in VSM

10.2 Places of safety

10.3 Community by-laws relating to VSM

10.4 Aboriginal community-based police officers

10.5 Community patrols

10.6 Statutory sanctions for VSM

10.7 Community-based sanctions

10.8 Preventive policing

10.9 Preconditions for effective law enforcement

10.10 Summary