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

10.7 Community-based sanctions

Page last updated: 2008

Closely allied to the notion of employing legal sanctions as a deterrent to petrol sniffing is that of employing non-statutory, community-based sanctions, such as flogging, banishment, shaming at public meetings, or denial of access to local facilities. In one Arnhem Land community the names of known petrol sniffers were publicly listed (Eastwell, 1979).

Morice, Swift and Brady (1981) concluded that on the whole community-based sanctions do not have long-term benefits. Public beating of a sniffer at a community meeting in a community in 2000 did not appear to have any effect (Senior & Chenhall, 2007). Indeed it served to increase tensions within the community with the family of the young man involved being resentful of this punishment.

Brady, however, has suggested that the use of community-based sanctions may have some beneficial effects in settings where there are few chronic sniffers and where, as a consequence, most of those who do sniff are experimenters. She has identified four cultural sanctions which, she suggests, could be used effectively as a response to petrol sniffing: shaming, cursing, ceremonial instruction, and the imposition of compensation payments (Brady, 1992). Mosey, in her study of petrol sniffing in Central Australian communities, found that communities experiencing small outbreaks of sniffing were often able to quash the practice through 'publicly shaming, hitting or chastising' the young people involved (Mosey, 1997, p. 21). In Kutjungka, WA, Mosey argued that community interventions such as hitting children or grandchildren, tipping out petrol, taking sniffers for extended stays in other communities or to outstations had limited or stopped petrol sniffing becoming entrenched in the community (Mosey, 2000). Nonetheless, she concludes that sympathetic rather than angry or punitive measures are the most effective.

Morice, Swift and Brady (1981) reviewed several reports of banishment and concluded that, while it may bring about a temporary cessation of sniffing by denying people access to petrol, it was unlikely to have lasting benefits, unless the period in exile was used to bring about a major change in attitudes on the part of former sniffers. For this to be achieved, the authors suggested, close supervision would be needed, both during the period of banishment and subsequently, following return to the home community.

Senior and Chenhall (2007) document how, in 1974, petrol sniffers at one community were banished to an island by senior men of the community. One element in the success of this intervention, they argue, is no involvement or resources were required from non-Aboriginal people or organisations and thus the intervention functioned to reinforce the authority of community leaders.

One situation in which expulsion appears to have beneficial effects—for the community if not for the young person concerned—is when petrol sniffing is introduced by visitors from other communities. According to Brady, quick action to send them back before the practice gains a foothold in the community is essential to prevent its spread (Brady, 1997).
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In Cape York a two step process has been devised by the 'Boys from the Bush' program to control petrol sniffing (James, 2002, James 2004). Firstly, petrol sniffing leaders are identified, removed from the community and placed in the care of others in different communities. Secondly, an inclusive set of community and regional youth development programs are implemented. James argues that transient petrol sniffers remaining in the community will be more easily persuaded to desist through introduction of other activities once these leaders are gone, and so their removal is not necessary. James (2004) recommends that sniffers be placed in environments where supervision is available as well as opportunities for education and employment.

Flogging, apart from its human rights implications, does not seem to be a helpful response. A Review of the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Substance Misuse Program was told that floggings only pushed petrol sniffing further underground (Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services, 1998). Stojanovski (1994) tells of young people flogged at Yuendumu who were sniffing petrol again later the same day. McCoy (2004) adds weight to this view, finding that in the community at Wirrimanu, belting was not considered an effective means of addressing petrol sniffing by either young people or their families.

Strategies involving banishment and/or other punishments run the risk of accentuating one of the key conditions associated with chronic sniffing: social isolation of the sniffer—from their families, kin networks and the community. It is for this reason that a number of workers have preferred a variety of other strategies, all of which are designed to 're-integrate' the sniffer with his/her family, kin and community, both by providing alternative recreational activities and by counselling or attendance at an outstation program (Franks, 1989).