Drug decriminalization in Australian capital draws mixed response

(Xinhua) 13:12, October 31, 2023

CANBERRA, Oct. 31 (Xinhua) -- The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has become the nation's first jurisdiction to decriminalize small quantities of illicit drugs, arousing mixed responses.

From Oct. 28, 2023, the personal possession of small amounts of the most common illicit drugs became decriminalized in the ACT, which consists of Canberra and its surrounding suburbs.

It means that people caught in possession of less than 1.5 grams of cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and MDMA and under 1 gram of heroin will be issued with a fine of 100 Australian dollars (63.7 U.S. dollars) or referred to a Canberra Health Services education or information session rather than face criminal charges.

The major reforms, which were passed by the ACT's parliament in October 2022, have proven controversial, with drug harm-minimization advocates welcoming the move while law enforcement authorities have warned they could increase illicit drug use.

Rachel Stephen-Smith, the ACT Health Minister, has described the changes as a shift to a health-based approach to drug use.

In a statement issued on Friday one day before the laws came into effect, Stephen-Smith said the new approach will encourage more people who use illicit drugs to seek support and result in better outcomes.

"By treating drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one, we are providing pathways for people to access the health services and support they need," she said.

However, authorities have expressed concerns over the impact of the legislation.

ACT Policing, a subsidiary of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), expressed opposition to the laws when they were before parliament but promised to help implement the changes.

In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the country's illicit drug problem, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) said the new laws would allow Canberrans to possess up to 15 street deals worth of methamphetamine, seven deals worth of cocaine and five deals worth of MDMA and heroin without risking criminal charges.

The submission to the inquiry earlier in October warned that effective drug policy reform required all Australian jurisdictions to work together to prevent organized crime groups from exploiting inconsistencies.

It echoed the sentiment of the Australian Border Force (ABF), whose spokesperson told News Corp Australia newspapers in September that the agency had concerns over the risks associated with the ACT laws and would have preferred a national approach to such significant policy.

Those concerns prompted Michaelia Cash, a senator who served as the Attorney-General of Australia in the previous conservative Coalition government, to attempt to quash the ACT legislation.

Because of its status as one of Australia's two territories, the parliament has the power to override any ACT law at any time through a vote.

Cash, who represents Western Australia (WA), introduced a bill to the Senate that would have repealed the laws, arguing they would make Canberra "the drug capital" of Australia and send a message to organized criminals to do business in the national capital.

The bill was defeated by the governing Labor Party, Greens Party and independents who argued that the ACT has a right to self-govern.

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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