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article imageAustralia PM makes drug concession to woo Pacific islands

By AFP     Jan 16, 2019 in World

Australia's conservative prime minister took the uncharacteristic step of advocating looser drug laws on Wednesday, backing greater imports of narcotic kava root in a symbolic gesture to court Pacific Island neighbours.

Visiting Vanuatu on the first day of a landmark regional charm offensive, Morrison endorsed a pilot program allowing Pacific Islanders to bring more of the ceremonial and culturally significant root into Australia.

Kava is a sedating narcotic that is usually made into a brownish brew and used in traditional "bula" toasts and seances.

Morrison -- who has long campaigned on an uncompromising tough-on-crime message -- said he had agreed to the new pilot programme with Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai to help trade and cultural links.

"That is for personal use, I should stress," said Morrison, vowing to "make sure that is properly managed".

Kava is currently listed as a controlled substance in Australia, but is becoming more accepted -- thanks to use by Pacific Island communities and the likes of Prince Harry, who sipped the narcotic drink at a traditional welcoming ceremony in Fiji last year.

Pacific Islanders visiting Australia can already carry two kilograms of the substance into the country, which Morrison in Sydney admitted was a "modest amount" and not enough for "one family gathering".

The step was hailed as a victory for cultural diplomacy and as an effort to smooth sometimes bumpy relations between Canberra and what Morrison dubbed the "family region".

He is the first Australian leader in decades to visit Vanuatu and later this week will become the first ever to make a bilateral visit to Fiji.

"If you step up you've got to show up!" Morrison said.

But there are still deep differences between Australia and its smaller Pacific neighbours over issues like security and climate change.

Morrison vowed to continue funding climate mitigation efforts, but Australia continues to dig up coal and pump out emissions that could help bury Pacific Islands underwater.

Salwai warmly welcomed the visit but stressed the need for "mutual respect and equal partnership".

There were also few signs of progress toward a bilateral security treaty, amid Australian concern about growing Chinese influence and reported efforts to develop a military base in Vanuatu.

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