Minister to visit Katherine to seek views on decriminalisation of drugs

A committee is examining legislation which would see possession of small amounts of drugs decriminalised.
A committee is examining legislation which would see possession of small amounts of drugs decriminalised.

A NT Government committee considering the decriminalisation of drugs will be in Katherine in December to hear from the community. 

Pushing for the new legislation, committee chair and assistant minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services Jeff Collins said, “statistics across the world underline the fact that criminalisation does not work.”

He stressed the proposed legislation would only affect personal use quantities of drugs.

“We’re not talking about decriminalising the assaults or the associated criminal activity that sometimes goes hand in hand with drug abuse,” Mr Collins said.

“What we are talking about is when it is a simple possession and drug use charge. We take these people out of the system and put them into a more therapeutic system, a health care system so we can try and provide them with the best opportunity to make better decisions for themselves, for their families and their communities.

“Decriminalisation in isolation is about really trying to access users of illicit drugs and being able to get to them more effectively to provide education and treatment pathways.

“If somebody gets themselves into drugs they often find themselves in the criminal justice system, that impinges their ability to go out and get a job, it stigmatises them, it marginalises them, it makes performing as a normal member of the community very difficult,” Mr Collins said. 

Currently, it is an offence in the NT to possess, supply or manufacture prohibited drugs such as cannabis or amphetamines. 

If someone is caught in possession of less than a traffickable amount of cannabis – 50 grams – they will be issued with an infringement notice, so in a sense the NT already implements a form of drug decriminalisation, Mr Collins said. 

However, possession of  illicit drugs such as amphetamines pose far more serious consequences. 

The committee will be holding the first public forum in Darwin on September 27.

Meetings will also be held in Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Katherine over the next few months. 

​In Katherine, Mr Collins said he would like to hear from local people, service providers, health practitioners, police and families about their thoughts on what might work.

When this decriminalisation approach was first taken up, Lisbon was considered one of the most crime ridden capitals in Europe and the change over that period has been astonishing really

Jeff Collins

Katherine MLA Sandra Nelson, deputy chair of the committee, said she is “looking forward to hearing the views of stakeholders and community members in regards to minimising harm related to addictive behaviours”. 

Ahead of Mr Collin’s visit to Katherine in December he is heading to Canada where legislation has been passed to legalise recreational cannabis use.

According to Mr Collins, Canada reflects Australia and the Northern Territory better than anywhere else in the world and could provide answers on how best to implement harm reduction strategies in remote communities. 

“[Canada has] remote Indigenous communities not dissimilar to ours with problems not dissimilar to ours,” he said. 

“I will be spending time in Canada talking to the committee members who recommended the changes in legislation and what they have done about providing services for those remote Indigenous communities.

“Because it is a challenge.  A real challenge for those communities that surround Katherine… we just simply don’t have the money to build a treatment facility.

“But the answer might not necessarily be a treatment facility. The answer might possibly be providing local communities with support to work on re-engagement, and it might be setting up sport clubs.

“We have a small budget here in the Territory, we don’t have the luxury of having money to build bricks and mortar, treatment facilities everywhere we would like.”

The committee was established in May, following Mr Collin’s visit to Portugal to assess their successful drug decriminalisation program, which has been running since 2001.

Assistant minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services Jeff Collins.

Assistant minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services Jeff Collins.

“When this decriminalisation approach was first taken up, Lisbon (Portugal) was considered one of the most crime ridden capitals in Europe and the change over that period has been astonishing really,” Mr Collins said. 

“The decriminalisation process that was adopted in Portugal does not effect those traffickable or commercial quantities. They stay exactly as they are… all you are doing is taking [personal use quantities] and applying a new legislative scheme that provides these people with education and treatment.

“Deaths from overdoses have dropped from about about 400 per year to about 40 per year and their usage rates of opioids have dropped.

“There has been a slight increase in the use of cannabis use, but in the scheme of things, that is probably not, in terms of a trade-off between opioid use and cannabis use, it is probably a better thing.

“Their associated crime has dropped dramatically as well.”

According to the committee on a Northern Territory Harm Reduction Strategy for Addictive Behaviours, the NT has the highest rates in Australia of use for illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco. 

Mr Collins said he is hoping the NT Government will consider the committee’s recommendations when completed. 

“This is a process. Both the NT Government and the assembly have both supported setting up the committee to at least have a look at it, to at least see what alternatives there might be.

“Once we have come to the end of the process and we have a report and we have our recommendations we might be able to talk more about where the government might stand on it.

“It is consistent with government policy in terms of harm reduction, which is where we are going with our alcohol reforms and the like.

The committee will look into the current scale and trends of illicit drug-use in the Territory and its impacts upon health, justice, drug and alcohol and law enforcement activities.

The committee will look into the current scale and trends of illicit drug-use in the Territory and its impacts upon health, justice, drug and alcohol and law enforcement activities.

“Harm reduction goes beyond the simple harm reduction of the user, it is really about trying to help families as well who often face horrible situations with drug affected members.

“The community pays for it in terms of incarceration if it gets that far. It pays for it in the associated crime around the community,” Mr Collins said. 

Under the new approach, Mr Collins said all drugs should be decriminalised.

“This isn’t about that problematic associated crime, if someone is beating up their mother or stealing, nobody is excusing that behavior, this isn’t excusing that behavior, they are going to be treated in the criminal court the same way they are now.

“It is only the person the police pick up who has what is deemed to be that personal use level of possession of the drug.

“They will get referred off for treatment, for education and information and hopefully they will make a better decision and continue on and not become a problematic user.

“Some people balk at that, but it is that therapeutic approach,” he said. 

Katherine has seen success in trialing a plot of medicinal marijuana. 

And the NT Government is expected to approve the creation of a commercial hemp industry by the end of the year.

According to the terms of reference, the committee will be reviewing the available evidence on effective harm reduction strategies used to address health problems associated with illicit drug-use and other addictive behaviours such as alcohol, tobacco and gambling. 

The committee also hopes to provide strategies for reducing the impact of these behaviours on families and the broader community.