Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions: monograph series no. 65

10.3 Community by-laws relating to VSM

Page last updated: 2008

A number of Aboriginal communities and organisations have imposed their own legal sanctions on VSM. By-laws under the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 make it an offence to possess or supply petrol for the purpose of inhalation on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia (Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services, 1998, p. 108). Coronial inquests conducted into deaths related to petrol sniffing in the APY Lands in 2002 and 2004, however, exposed the inadequacies of legal sanctions in the absence of effectively supported and enforced sentencing options (South Australia Coroner's Court, 2002; South Australia Corroner's Court, 2005) or of local safe places to which young people intoxicated from inhalants could be taken. The 2002 inquest heard that there were virtually no facilities in place throughout the APY Lands to supervise community service orders, much less to refer chronic sniffers for treatment (South Australia Coroner's Court, 2002). The 2004 inquest was informed by the Department of Correctional Services that additional staff had been appointed in the APY Lands and a new service model developed for case management of inhalant users who had received sentences.

In Western Australia, communities in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands have prohibited petrol sniffing under community by-laws enacted under Section 7, 1(g) of the Aboriginal Communities Act 1979 which enables communities to make by-laws for '... the prohibition, restriction or regulation of the possession, use or supply of alcoholic liquor or deleterious substances' (Gray et al., 2006). For several years persons convicted of sniffing petrol were fined or (in the case of non-juveniles) sentenced to up to three months in custody, the latter option being used not so much to punish or rehabilitate the sniffer but rather to give the community some respite (South Australia Coroner's Court, 2002, para. 10.48). In 1996, however, the Western Australian Sentencing Act abolished custodial sentences of less than six months, effectively removing this option. While available, the imposition of custodial sentences was reported to have led to some reduction, but sniffing continued to cause significant community disruption (McFarland, 1999).

Elsewhere in Western Australia, according to witnesses testifying to a recent Senate inquiry into petrol sniffing, police are hampered in enforcing local by-laws prohibiting VSM by the absence of safe places to which they can refer youths. In other communities, by-laws are rendered meaningless by the absence of local police to enforce them (Commonwealth of Australia Senate Community Affairs References Committee, 2006). The Senate inquiry also heard claims that local community by-laws led to sniffers moving to other communities.

The NT Volatile Substance Prevention Act 2005 empowers communities to develop local management plans relating to managing the possession, supply and use of volatile substances. The NIAT Taskforce report states that, in the period February to May 2006, five communities had requested assistance from the NT Department of Health and Community Services to declare a community management area and plan (National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce, 2006).