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Decriminalizing Marijuana Proposed in Australia


August 1997

In July, the New South Wales (NSW) Government in Australia announced proposals that would decriminalize minor marijuana offenses. Under the reform, possession of up to five marijuana plants, 30 grams of cannabis leaf, two grams of cannabis oil or five grams of cannabis resin would incur either fines or no penalties at all (Mark Riley, "Marijuana users to escape jail as reforms face test," Sydney Morning Herald, July 12, 1997).

The marijuana reform plan was presented as a way to reduce the number of minor offenders in the State's prisons, and as a way to test the waters for more controversial drug law reform, specifically heroin. The NSW Government under Premiere Carr has been under pressure recently to reform its hard-line stance on heroin, and to embrace the proposed Australian Capital Territory (ACT) heroin trial (see article in this issue of NewsBriefs), and the establishment of safe houses for injection drug users. The safe houses were recommended by the Wood Royal Commission, led by Police Royal Commissioner James Wood. NSW, with a population of 5.1 million, is the most populous of Australia's states with it's largest city, Sydney (Australia's total population is 18.2 million).

The education officer for the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Paul Dillon, said that the reforms will discourage teen drug use, not encourage it. He said that he expects the debate of the issue to be based on health grounds, not legal grounds. "And the health argument will be more persuasive in encouraging youths not to use marijuana than the threat of jail," he said.

Upper House MP Elisabeth Kirkby welcomed the marijuana reform proposal, saying the quickest way to turn minor offenders into hardened criminals is to put them in jail. She said she will continue to push for "real" decriminalization of marijuana, which she said is used at all levels of society, including "some members of the NSW Parliament." According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the marijuana decriminalization proposal appears to be assured of passage through the Upper House.

A survey of 4,865 constituents by the Liberal MP, Chris Hatcher (Gosford), showed support for the marijuana reforms. More than 80% of the traditionally conservative electorate who responded to the survey said they did not believe the use or possession of personal amounts of marijuana should continue to be a criminal offense (Mark Riley, "Survey reveals strong support for decriminalising marijuana," Sydney Morning Herald, July 21, 1997).