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

10.6 Statutory sanctions for VSM

Page last updated: 2008

Since sniffing petrol is not generally illegal, sniffers normally appear before the courts, if at all, only when they are charged with committing an offence related to sniffing, usually breaking-and- entering and/or stealing or arson, and occasionally a more serious offence such as rape, indecent assault or murder (Elsegood, 1986; McFarland, 1999). In fact, most chronic sniffers are involved with the law and its institutions in some way (Stojanovski, 1999). Young inhalant users are also liable to fall within the scope of child protection laws.

In general, statutory sanctions have not proved particularly helpful as a response to VSM. It is widely recognised that imprisonment is often not an effective deterrent with respect to young Aboriginal people, and may even be seen as an attractive alternative to the boredom, family dislocation and lack of purpose of community life, offering as it does companionship, regular food and recreational activities (Elsegood, 1986). Magistrates, uncomfortably aware of this, sometimes cast around for alternative sanctions.

Incarceration also poses a range of risks, not least of which is death in custody. Indeed, Dunlop (1988, p. 85) found that the deleterious effects of spending time in jail was a causal factor in some young people's sniffing. Previously we discussed the use of outstations as respite and rehabilitation services for petrol sniffers. Outstations such as Mt Theo are sometimes used by magistrates as a sentencing option for young people in Central Australia who have been convicted of crimes associated with petrol sniffing. However, outstations are only suitable for the accommodation and care of some young people. They are not, for instance, usually suitable for serious offenders, or seriously ill or brain damaged young people:

We can look after offenders and criminals but not if that person is really bad, like a murderer or sexual assault or too much brain damage. We've got too many young kids here. We've got to think of them too, and our own family. (Cook et al., 1994, p. 53)
Stojanovski (1999) argues that Aboriginal families' beliefs in their children's rights to personal autonomy can make it very difficult for the children to stop sniffing or go to an outstation. Because of this, families sometimes look to outside agencies such as police to control their children. According to Stojanovski, young people are often relieved when police intervene and send them to Mount Theo.

It is sometimes argued that, even if they lack deterrent power, legal sanctions should be used as a means of removing petrol sniffing 'ringleaders' from communities. In this view, whatever the effect or lack of it on ringleaders themselves, their removal from communities reduces the likelihood that other young people will sniff. The 1985 Senate Committee investigating volatile substance misuse recommended that greater use be made of statutory care and custody provisions as a means of removing petrol sniffing ringleaders from communities, claiming that removal of ringleaders 'is paramount to the effective control of sniffing' (Commonwealth of Australia 1985, p. 222). This argument oversimplifies the nature of petrol sniffing gangs. While a number of observers have documented the hierarchical structure of these gangs and the important role played by dominant older youths in recruiting younger sniffers (Craighead, 1976; Nurcombe, Bianchi, Money, & Cawte, 1970), the presence of 'ringleaders' is merely one among several factors which give rise to petrol sniffing. Brady (1989, 1992) studied a community in Arnhem Land where petrol sniffing virtually ceased during the 1988 dry season. She found that the absence of certain individuals had indeed been a factor in the virtual disappearance of sniffing. However, she also found that some of the alleged ringleaders were not absent throughout the entire period, and warned that relationships between peer group leaders and their followers were more complex than the 'ringleader' thesis allowed. The Yuendumu community was surprised when sniffing did not stop after the removal of 'ringleaders' in 1994 (Stojanovski, 1994).
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The use of statutory custody provisions with respect to young Aboriginal people also runs counter to the rationale underlying contemporary Aboriginal child welfare legislation, which emphasises the need to maintain the integrity of Aboriginal family, kinship and community structures. Finally, even if the above objections were to be set aside, and one or more ringleaders removed, a practical problem remains: when they return to their communities, as they must eventually be permitted to do, there is no reason to suppose that they will not resume old habits.

Legal sanctions, in short, offer few keys to the VSM problem. Sanctions currently available can certainly deprive petrol sniffers of access to petrol for a limited period, but offer little prospect of inducing any longer-term behavioural change. Nonetheless, the search for suitable diversionary schemes should continue on the grounds that they are less wasteful and more constructive than incarceration for minor crimes and might, in some circumstances, impart skills and attitudes which lead some young people to reappraise the attractions of sniffing petrol.