Northern Territory To 'Explore' Decriminalising Marijuana

"We're probably behind the conversation in some respects around how you deal with drugs in this country", the NT chief minister said.

What you need to know
  • NT chief minister opens the door to decriminalising marijuana, saying overseas models relaxing restrictions on the drug "could be explored"
  • 'I recognise we're probably behind the conversation in some respects around how you deal with drugs in this country,' Michael Gunner said on Monday
  • 'There are lots of models out there that could be explored'

Northern Territory chief minister Michael Gunner appears to have opened the door on  marijuana decriminalization, saying overseas models relaxing restrictions on the drug "could be explored".

The NT government announced it will soon introduce legislation allowing for the cultivation of industrial hemp and will explore options around growing medical cannabis.

While a government spokesperson denied over the weekend that the reforms would include a push to decriminalise recreational use of marijuana, as has been called for by assistant minister Jeff Collins, chief minister Michael Gunner appeared to float the possibility in a news conference on Monday.

"No-one in Australia has done it yet. Quite a few American states have. I do think it's going to become a more common topic in Australia, and at the moment, we have shown we're not always as progressive as other parts of the world," Gunner said.

"I recognise we're probably behind the conversation in some respects around how you deal with drugs in this country."

In another press conference on Monday, Gunner referenced international approaches that prioritise health outcomes such as treatment or rehabilitation for drug users, instead of legal prosecution.

"There seems to have been some good outcomes in having a health-based approach in other parts of the world that I am interested in", he said

Former NT chief minister Adam Giles said in 2015 that marijuana had been "largely decriminalised now in the Northern Territory", speaking about territory laws that see citizens with less than 50 grams of the drug avoid a criminal conviction if they pay an infringement notice.

Gunner flagged on Monday that a government inquiry into marijuana could look at how other jurisdictions overseas -- specifically, the Dutch city of Amsterdam, where cannabis usage is legal and an infamous tourist attraction -- deal with marijuana.

"You've got to look at the Territory context. I don't think you can immediately take something that's happening in another country and apply it to the Territory, but as someone mentioned before, potentially the tourist aspect, can you do something Amsterdam-style as well?" he said

"There are lots of models out there that could be explored."

The NT would be the first Australian state or territory to decriminalise marijuana. However, the federal government does have the power to override legislation passed in the territory, if it chooses to do so.

In a Facebook post following the news conference on Monday, Gunner did not mention decriminalising marijuana, but in supporting the push for industrial hemp, said the NT had "perfect" conditions for growing the plant.

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

"We have completed industrial hemp trials in Katherine and have perfect environmental conditions to create business opportunities and jobs for CannabTerritorians," he wrote.

"There is draft legislation and new laws could be in place this year!  I am also open to commercial cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes - we are actively exploring this big opportunity too."

NT assistant minister for police, fire and emergency services, Jeff Collins, took a trip to Portugal last year to investigate the country's approach to decriminalising drug use.

"The prohibition model hasn't worked, people still use [drugs]," Collins said last year, throwing his weight behind a push to decriminalise marijuana in the NT.

"I'm not suggesting in any way that using the drug is a good thing to do, or that we should encourage it, but what we do need to do is look at those people who do use that drug as having a health issue, not necessarily a criminal issue."