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Is Australia Ready to Legalize Marijuana? Not Yet, It Seems.
“Quite simply, the war on drugs is really a war on people,” Richard Di Natale, the party’s leader, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We need to get real about cannabis use in Australia.”
What’s the current situation in Australia?
Possession of marijuana for recreational purposes is illegal in Australia. It’s the most widely used illicit drug in the country. According to a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in 10 Australians have used cannabis in the last 12 months.
In some states, like the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and the Northern Territory, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been effectively decriminalized, with offenders facing civil penalties like fines and being ordered to undergo counseling.
In other states, like New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, police officers often issue warnings to those facing minor drug charges, with offenders diverted to education programs.
Cultivating, selling or transporting marijuana, however, can incur criminal charges anywhere in the country.
“If somebody is found with small amounts of cannabis for personal use, the primary response for me isn’t a law enforcement response, it’s a public response,” says Professor Steve Allsop of the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University. “Putting people into the criminal justice system creates harm.”
In 2016, Australia legalized marijuana for medicinal use. But patients say that they face steep challenges trying to obtain the drug, including limited supply, uninformed doctors and high costs.
Worldwide, where is marijuana legal?
Currently, marijuana is only fully legal in a few places: Uruguay and parts of the United States. In Uruguay, which became the first country to legalize marijuana in 2013, it’s even sold in pharmacies.
But dozens of other countries have relaxed their marijuana laws over the years, legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing recreational use or easing the enforcement of possession laws. Argentina, Cambodia, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Peru and (somewhat surprisingly) North Korea are just some of the countries that don’t criminalize marijuana use.
One notable example is Portugal, where the use of all illicit drugs was decriminalized in 2001 and drug users are mainly sent to treatment programs or fined. Since then, the country’s prevalence of HIV infection, drug-related imprisonment and overdoses have dropped.
Jamaica, a country long associated with marijuana and Rastafarianism, also recently relaxed its laws around marijuana possession in 2015.
So will Australia’s marijuana laws change?
For now, Australia’s government says no.
And being careful and conservative in legalizing marijuana might not be such a bad thing, Professor Allsop said.
“If you legalize a form of drug use — once you’ve done that it’s very hard to go backwards,” he said. “There should be carefully evaluated steps to change rather than a great leap into the unknown.”
It’s unlikely the issue will go away, particularly since legalization has the support of a major political party like the Greens. Professor Allsop, who supports a model like that of Portugal’s, says the push to see drugs as a public health issue seems to be gaining momentum over the long term.
“I think there is an appetite to do that,” he said.
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