Some of the most common drug offences are for possession, use and supply of prohibited drugs.
Each drug offence has specific legal ‘elements’ which the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt.
In this section, we examine the necessary legal elements for these offences.
These elements are established by the terms of the legislation, as interpreted by precedent court decisions.
Possession of a prohibited drug is an offence under section 10 of the NSW Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW). To prove possession, the prosecution must show beyond reasonable doubt that:
- an illegal drug was in a person’s ‘custody’ or ‘control’, and
- the person knew that they had custody or control of a prohibited drug.
What is custody or control?
Custody means immediate physical possession, such as a person having something in their pockets. Control refers to the right to do something with the drug—for example, to keep, consume or share it.
Proving custody or control
The police must prove that the person actually had control over drugs found, for example, in their car or house. The fact that a person owns a car, or owns or rents a house, does not necessarily mean that they own things in it. If a person knows that there are drugs in their house, but someone else has control of them (that is, the person does not own the drugs or have any right to use them), they are not guilty of possession.
Momentary custody and control
A person can be found guilty even if their custody and control was only momentary: for example, by taking a joint passed to them.
The prosecution must prove that the person knew they had something in their physical custody and control that was, or was likely to be, a prohibited drug.
The legal test for the prosecution is not ‘what a reasonable person might or should think in the circumstances’. The actual knowledge of the accused person must be proved. Knowledge can be inferred from the circumstances in which the drugs were discovered.
If someone is apprehended with drugs on them, a court would probably reasonably infer that they had knowledge and control of those drugs. It is difficult for someone in this situation to escape the inference that they knew what was in their bag or sock or pockets. Similarly, where drugs are stored in a part of a house that is private (say, in a person’s bedroom) it is open to be inferred that they had possession of those drugs.
Charges against several persons
If a number of people are charged with possession in this situation, the prosecution must prove in each case that the person charged had possession of the drugs.
This can be difficult. Courts are not allowed to presume that all the people must have shared possession—each individual accused is presumed innocent. Without admissions (‘Yeah, I knew the weed was in the cupboard…’), it may be difficult to prove that any one of the accused is guilty of possession.
Cannabis used for medicinal reasons remains prohibited.
It is not a defence to a charge of possession of cannabis (or self-administration or cultivation of cannabis) that the person used the cannabis for a legitimate medical reason. However, evidence of a significant illness or medical condition can be a relevant issue to be taken into account in sentencing.
Many cannabis preparations designed for medicinal applications will have a higher proportion of cannabidinol (CBD) and less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than other cannabis. These preparations are still defined as ‘cannabis’ under the NSW law so it remains an offence to possess or supply or cultivate such products.
The NSW Government is conducting a trial of medicinal applications of cannabis for a range of conditions with the intention of considering legal reform when the results are known.
Terminal Illness Cannabis Scheme
People with terminal illnesses and their carers can register on the Terminal Illness Cannabis Scheme. The register is maintained by the NSW Police. The registration process requires a doctor to certify that the person has a terminal illness, which is defined to mean an illness which in reasonable medical judgement, in the normal course and in the absence of extraordinary measures, will likely result in the person’s death.
A person listed on the register or their carer will not be prosecuted for possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis or 2.5 grams of cannabis resin (hashish). Being on the register is not a defence to a charge of cultivation or supply or driving under the influence of a drug or driving with the presence of THC in saliva.
‘Synthetic’ drugs are, or are at least marketed as, chemically different from but with similar effects to better known illicit drugs.
The possession, manufacture, production or supply of ‘synthetic’ drugs is criminalised by a combination of the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1966 (NSW) and the Drugs Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).
A number of synthetic drugs are listed by their market names on Schedule 9 of the Poisons Standard. The Poisons Standard is a list of poisons and other substances, gazetted by the Poisons Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed under the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1966 (NSW).
It is an offence under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW) to possess, manufacture, produce or supply a substance listed on Schedule 9 of the Poisons Standard.
The maximum penalty for possession of a Schedule 9 substance is a $2200 fine or 12 months’ imprisonment or both.
The maximum penalty for the manufacture, production or supply of a Schedule 9 substance is a $2200 fine or two years’ imprisonment, or both.
The maximum penalties are generally less than for comparable offences involving prohibited drugs. And there are no categories of offence based on quantity, so the maximum penalty is the same whether the offence involves a substantial amount or a smaller amount.
In addition, Part 2C of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act creates offences for dealings with ‘psychoactive substances’, which may include synthetic drugs not included on Schedule 9 of the Poisons List.
A psychoactive substance is defined in the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act as a substance that, when ‘consumed’, has the capacity to induce a psychoactive effect. ‘Psychoactive effect’ is broadly defined to include any stimulation or depression of the central nervous system, hallucination or significant disturbance or change to perception.
There is obviously room for considerable overlap between substances which are psychoactive substances and which are also prohibited drugs or otherwise controlled or criminalised by other legislation. Part 2C of the Act does not apply to a substance which is a prohibited drug or plant under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW).
It is an offence to manufacture or supply a psychoactive substance for human consumption, either knowingly or recklessly in relation to the intended supply.
There is no offence of possession of a psychoactive substance.
It is an offence to publish or display any form of advertising which, knowingly or recklessly, promotes the consumption, sale or supply of a substance for its psychoactive effect, or provides information on how or where a psychoactive substance may be acquired.
Again, as for Schedule 9 Poisons List substances, there are no categories of offence based on quantity.
Using an illegal drug (also known as ‘self-administration’) is an offence under section 12 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act. The police must prove that the substance consumed was a prohibited drug. Obviously they cannot analyse the substance if it has been completely consumed, and blood tests can only be taken by a doctor after arrest. So for most convictions they must rely on admissions made by the accused.
Intoxication as a defence to criminal charges
Self-induced intoxication with illegal drugs does not generally provide defence to criminal charges.
It is legal to possess and use some drugs, like methadone and the benzodiazepines (such as Serapax and Valium), if they have been prescribed by a doctor. It is only an offence to possess or use these drugs without a prescription.
It is an offence to inject methadone, even by someone on a methadone program. Methadone is legally prescribed subject to conditions on quantity and the ‘purpose’ of the prescription, which must be according to ‘recognised therapeutic standards’ (NSW Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Regulation 2002). The ‘purpose’ specified in methadone prescriptions is oral dose. Administration by any other method means the methadone is not lawfully prescribed and is illegal.
Administering drugs to others
It is also an offence to administer a drug to someone else, for example by injecting them, or to allow someone to administer drugs. It is an offence even if the person consents to the drug being administered to them.
The offence of administering a prohibited drug includes drink spiking, where a prohibited drug is added to someone’s alcoholic drink, and the person is not aware and does not consent to the administration of the drug.
If someone dies
A person who injects someone else with a drug that causes their death may be charged with manslaughter. Manslaughter means causing an unlawful death where the intention was not to kill or inflict a serious injury, but to inflict a minor injury or commit some other criminal offence.
Getting medical help
If an overdose or other emergency situation involving drug use occurs, you should call an ambulance or seek other suitable medical help. It is obviously the best medical option for the person who has overdosed.
The ambulance service does not notify the police when it attends a drug overdose. Hospitals and doctors also do not notify the police if you go to them requesting medical attention.
Police sometimes do attend overdose scenes. But police guidelines are designed to encourage people to seek medical help when necessary. So police are directed not to arrest an overdose victim or their friends, or any other people who are present at an overdose and may have also consumed drugs or be in possession of drugs.
The NSW government has licensed one medically supervised injecting centre, in Kings Cross. The injecting centre's licence is issued under the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act.
It is lawful for a person to use or possess a small quantity of a prohibited drug while in the injecting centre. Police guidelines also encourage the exercise of discretion to not arrest or charge a person who is on their way to or from, or in the vicinity of, the injecting centre with possession offences. Supply offences in or near the injecting centre are policed.
It is an offence for anyone except the operators of the licensed injecting centre to ‘advertise or hold out in any way’ that their premises are available for the administration of a prohibited drug.
Supply is very broadly defined to include not only selling or giving away drugs but also simply agreeing to supply them.
Supply also includes ‘deemed supply’—possessing certain quantities of drugs which are deemed to be for the purpose of supply.
A person can be charged with supply if they tell police they intended to sell even a small quantity of drugs found in their possession, or if they deliver drugs to a friend.
They are also guilty of supply if they simply offer to supply a drug, even if they have no hope, or no intention, of fulfilling the offer.
A person will be presumed to be supplying a drug if they are simply in possession of a particular quantity of the drug, known as the traffickable quantity. This amount varies from one drug to another, and in many cases is not especially large.
If the police can prove that a person is in possession of a traffickable quantity of a drug, the person then has the onus of proving that the possession was not for the purpose of supply. A traffickable quantity of a drug is an amount deemed in law to be in a person’s possession for the purpose of supply.
Purity does not matter—only weight. Under NSW law, one gram of a powder that is 10% heroin and 90% glucose is treated as one gram of pure heroin. Anybody found in possession of a traffickable quantity is presumed to be a supplier unless they can prove otherwise—for example, that the drug was intended for personal use, or disposal.
Ongoing dealing involves the supply of a prohibited drug (except cannabis) on three separate occasions within a 30-day period. The acts of supply must be for some financial or other material reward. They do not all have to involve the same drug.
A charge of ongoing dealing could be laid where an undercover police officer buys drugs from the same street dealer on three different days. The police are not obliged to arrest the dealer immediately after the first sale.
Large scale supply
Higher penalties apply for charges involving the supply of larger amounts of drugs. The Act divides trafficking offences into:
- indictable quantities
- commercial quantities
- large commercial quantities.
As with deemed supply, proof of possession of the relevant quantity is sufficient to establish that a person is guilty of that particular trafficking offence, unless the person can prove that the possession was for a reason other than supply (which is obviously more difficult the larger the quantity).