Cannabis laws again raise the issue of Canberra’s ability to govern ourselves

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA 1 October 2019 75
Marijuana plant.

The ACT is the first jurisdiction to move to legalise the personal use of cannabis. Photo: Supplied.

Last week the ACT Government moved to legalise possessing and growing small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Based on the reaction from some in the Federal Parliament, this might be the latest in a line of federal interventions seeking to curtail the ACT’s aspirations as a progressive jurisdiction.

The cannabis legalisation has received a great deal of national attention. While the ACT is the first jurisdiction to move to legalise the personal use of cannabis, it is one of a number of Australian jurisdictions that have already decriminalised cannabis. There is a clear message from Government that this should be seen as an evolution that is based on evidence and part of a pathway that began with decriminalisation more than a decade ago.

While some have questioned the need to change the current system, there are good reasons the ACT has moved in this direction. There is growing evidence that the war on drugs has done little to stem the use of illicit substances, and significant harms have been caused by repressive approaches to drug use. While decriminalisation has provided the option for fines rather than other sanctions, this is a discretionary power.

Police resources have still been required to deal with cannabis use, and people have still ended up in the courts. There is also evidence that dealing with cannabis use as a criminal issue rather than a health issue creates barriers for users seeking help if they need it. This approach has been grounded in the knowledge that cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in Australia and is reported as easy to obtain. There is also research that seems to counter some of the potential negative outcomes, with recent research finding that there has not been an increase in the use of marijuana in adolescents in US jurisdictions that have introduced legalisation for medical and recreational use.

Despite all this, and the ACT being given the right to self govern, members of Federal Parliament have raised concerns about the ACT law, and it appears the fate of the legislation may be in the hands of crossbenchers from other parts of Australia that have much higher representation than Territories with the two representatives in the Senate (even though the ACT population is now similar to Tasmania with their 12 representatives).

Any state or territory-based legislation that is potentially inconsistent with a Commonwealth law can face the potential of being ruled invalid. This piece of legislation has additional complexity given our police force is the Australian Federal Police that has Federal and jurisdictional responsibilities. The reality is that there are additional ways for the Commonwealth to get involved, given the Australian Capital Territory Self Government Act 1988 enables the Federal Parliament to intervene and overturn Territory legislation.

The ACT has a reputation of being a progressive jurisdiction and has a history of moving before other governments on social and health issues. However, there has also been a history of the Federal Parliament being quite comfortable denying the ACT’s autonomy when it comes to passing laws. The ACT was thwarted in its attempts to legislate on equal marriage ahead of the plebiscite. It hasn’t been able to move on issues around euthanasia following the Commonwealth’s intervention on Northern Territory laws on this issue, and now we face the potential of another intervention on issues that should be the domain of a jurisdictional government.

This once again highlights the fact that the ACT has less autonomy and additional barriers to legislate on issues that potentially challenge traditional notions, even when based on evidence. On top of less representation because of our status as a Territory, this is undemocratic and deeply concerning.

I think it’s time that we see the ACT be empowered to make our own laws by our own representatives, without the prospect of these being overturned if federal politicians don’t agree.

Rebecca is on the Board of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy. She is an active member of the ACT Greens

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75 Responses to Cannabis laws again raise the issue of Canberra’s ability to govern ourselves
noid noid 10:50 pm 06 Oct 19

Here we are spending millions for dollars to get people to stop smoking which only gives you cancer and a slow painful death. To giving the green light to cannabis which can give you mental health issues, cancer and a slow painful death. Hmmmmmm mixed messages here. Would have been better to treat like a parking fine including a mandatory counseling requirement. Or treat like a parking fine suspended if counseling is attended.

2903Tuggers 2903Tuggers 12:15 pm 04 Oct 19

The conflict with Commonwealth laws is a real issue. Katy Gallagher (allegedly a Senator for the ACT) stuck her head above the parapet briefly and said that individual Canberrans could work out the applicable law that applies to them, and then disappeared again.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:10 pm 03 Oct 19

Before deciding whether to pursue Senate agreement to overturn this ACT law, the Commonwealth should consult with the other governments to determine their views, and the strength of those views, on this subject. I note that Daniel Andrews responded with an emphatic “no” when asked if Victoria would take similar action, and the NSW Government is reportedly very unhappy about the ACT law.

My preference would still be that the Commonwealth not intervene – because this dismal ACT Government should be judged on its merits in October 2020, without any distractions and sideshows in the form of confected fights with the “Feds”.

If the Commonwealth leaves this law alone, I fully expect that there will be further, and increasingly provocative, legislation wheeled out by the ACT Government over the coming year.

Matt Flagget Matt Flagget 6:58 pm 03 Oct 19

Not one brass razoo put toward mental health services. Examples overseas saw sharp increases in mental health presentations after cannabis legalization. It’ll be full moon every night for emergency services before long.

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 8:43 am 04 Oct 19

    Because the laws have not actually legalised the sale of marijuana. They've taken away the $100 fine that users would get if caught. That's the extent of the law. Commonwealth law would definitely block the sale of marijuana.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 10:17 am 04 Oct 19

    Justin Watson Justin Watson He didn't say the laws had legalised the sale of marijuana. However, on the subject, you would be naïve to expect that legalising possession of marijuana would not lead to an increase in illicit sales.

Spiral Spiral 5:34 pm 03 Oct 19

Has anyone heard if Zed has made a comment on this?

I wonder if he supports the ACT’s rights to pass such a law or if he would like the Feds to overturn it?

Leo Menssen Leo Menssen 5:11 pm 03 Oct 19

Pot is safer that alcohol.

Mike Maltman Mike Maltman 3:49 pm 03 Oct 19

Just bring the ACT back into NSW where they can be managed by professionals. Save a fortune😂

Mat Barber Mat Barber 3:13 pm 03 Oct 19

The commonwealth barely every provide for the ACT anymore, sending funding everywhere else because everyone in Canberra is 'well off' apparently, yet they suddenly show an interest when we make progressive laws and changes and work to quickly quash them for not following the commonwealths outdated ideologies.

    Fortress Epiphany Fortress Epiphany 8:44 am 04 Oct 19

    Mat Barber the whole self government thing was just about saving the Commonwealth money, not about handing over any real power.

David Brown David Brown 2:29 pm 03 Oct 19

Overturning ACT laws creates an opportunity for interstate politicians to grandstand for their local constituents.

Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 1:38 pm 03 Oct 19

Nnnooooo ACT is not capable of making its own decisions as history shows

    Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 4:54 am 04 Oct 19

    Ian McLeod they weren’t elected by voters greens gave them there preferences

    Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 4:56 am 04 Oct 19

    Ian McLeod ACT was better when it was under commonwealth rule - I think self gov was a huge mistake

Narelle Ford Narelle Ford 12:58 pm 03 Oct 19

We were thwarted in establishing our safe injecting room before the SSM

Aldith Graves Aldith Graves 12:06 pm 03 Oct 19

Yes if you force self government on a jurisdiction it should allow the ACT to make its own laws without Federal interference.

Maybe the answer is full Statehood with 10 senators to look after our interests

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 12:16 pm 03 Oct 19

    Yes, of course, more politicians. Why didn't I think of that?

    Aldith Graves Aldith Graves 12:22 pm 03 Oct 19

    Martin Leonard if our interests are not looked after then it is time

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 8:25 pm 03 Oct 19

    Aldith Graves Good luck with that. That can only be done by Parliament. In addition there's nothing stopping Parliament from bestowing statehood but restricting senatorial representation. That was what they offered Northern Territory in 1998 when they proposed three senators, compared to the 12 that each state has. In effect you'd be a second-rate state and an even bigger laughing stock than we are now.

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 9:22 am 04 Oct 19

    I think the best the ACT could hope for is 6 half term senators. The issue the ACT has right now is we will never ever get anything other than one safe Labor senator and one safe liberal senator. 6 seats, would mean the senators in the ACT would need to be elected with the same quota as the states do in a normal half Senate election. By making them only 3 yr terms as well, it means we elect 6 every election. electing 3 for a full term every 6 years, doesn't really fix much and probably means 2 Labor senators and one Liberal senator, whereas 6 means 2 Lab, 2 Lib and 2 for potential independents and other parties.

Marc Edwards Marc Edwards 12:03 pm 03 Oct 19

So to you all stating that we should go back to being run by the Feds, do you think it would be better, it’s highly unlikely that we would be better off, and in fact we would probably be under valued further.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 12:15 pm 03 Oct 19

    You should probably spend a bit of time interstate, go into a few outback pubs maybe, speak to the locals, and tell them how undervalued you feel as a Canberran. Let us know how you go.

    Brian Hogan Brian Hogan 1:38 pm 03 Oct 19

    Marc Edwards no , you would probably be properly valued!!

    Marc Edwards Marc Edwards 1:54 pm 03 Oct 19

    Brian Hogan we pay tax like the rest of you, yet we don’t have the right to fair representation, we were forced to have self government, yet any decision made that the Feds don’t like they can over turn. our federal reps (all two) have no weight when it comes to making decisions and as such we are the area that has money and personal ripped out just so you LNP voters can feel good about your self.

    And as for the bush. You reap what you sowed. You backed the wrong horse and now feel done by. Canberrans can’t win either way.

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 8:48 am 04 Oct 19

    Nah I feel Canberrans lose perspective of how great Canberra is. We are better off than the vast majority of Australians and we would be much worse off now if we were still being run by a federal department, scrimping dollars here and their as the federal government runs the economy into the ground. Even the whole rates thing can be put into perspective when you look at the fact that the ACT is right on the Australian average for state-based taxation. Ask someone in Regional Qld or Hobart what they get for their rates that are well above the ACT's. Ask people about their electricity, when we enjoy the cheapest in Australia. There are plenty of political idealogues who will try and blame the government and refuse to accept the government we have has built Canberra up to be a great place. I feel for them and their miserable lives, but maybe one day they'll be more positive and embrace how good this city is to live in.

Brian Hogan Brian Hogan 11:18 am 03 Oct 19

They don't have the brains to self government!

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 11:10 am 03 Oct 19

Vicious crowd, these RiotACT readers. For all their faults, give me Barr/Rattenbury anytime, ahead of the terrible Morrison/McCormack.

Including on this issue, where the decrim policy has plenty of evidence behind it. Not even Trump bothers to harangue the US states that have gone decrim.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just got to catch the tram into town, to hug the rainbow roundabout pole.

Emily Carter Emily Carter 10:43 am 03 Oct 19

Time for the dinosaur boomers in government to go. It should never have been illegal in the first place

Peter Major Peter Major 9:34 am 03 Oct 19

It's time this fiasco and farcical local council in the ACT is abolished.

Grimm Grimm 9:31 am 03 Oct 19

Good. I hope the Feds do step in and halt this decline into further degenerate behaviour.

Amazing how the ACT Government want to legislate everything else, yet legalise drugs.

M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 9:04 am 03 Oct 19

"On top of less representation because of our status as a Territory, this is undemocratic and deeply concerning." Actually it was undemocratic that self-government was foisted upon us despite a majority of Canberrans not wanting it. As for "less representation" I shake my head at those who think we need even more politicians. What, like 12 senators for the ACT instead of two? More jobs for careerists and time-servers.

    Danny Fox Danny Fox 9:36 am 03 Oct 19

    Martin Leonard when was self government foisted on Canberra?

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 9:41 am 03 Oct 19

    Danny Fox I'm assuming you're under 30?

    Guy Manton Guy Manton 10:35 am 03 Oct 19

    Martin Leonard does it matter? Democracy is about accountability of us as citizens as much as it is of our representatives.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 10:46 am 03 Oct 19

    Guy Manton Could you elaborate - I'm not sure what it is you're trying to say.

    Ian Edward Ian Edward 11:13 am 03 Oct 19

    Martin Leonard I think he means that his age is irrelevant to democracy and accountability. I think he missed the point that the Canberra community overwhelmingly voted against self-government in the referendums yet, as you correctly pointed out, it was foisted upon us nevertheless. It’s been a three-ring circus with ever increasing taxes ever since.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 12:12 pm 03 Oct 19

    Ian Faulds Yep. Bunch of local government tin-pots masquerading as ministers.

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 2:20 pm 03 Oct 19

    The problem is while Self government was foisted apon us, we'd be in a really bad situation these days without it. We'd have very little infrastructure that we have today as the federal government would have cut expenditure here. back in the 70's and 80's we ran government and business with a focus on delivering a service. These days the focus is on how much money the leeches can make at the expense of society. Self government was a bad idea at the time, but I'm glad we have it the past 15 odd years.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 2:40 pm 03 Oct 19

    Justin Watson Fact is we'll never know. But we should have been given the opportunity to decide for ourselves.

    Eric Sluga Eric Sluga 6:24 pm 03 Oct 19

    Martin Leonard Yep, who can forget the 'Sun-ripened warm tomato' party and the 'Party, party, party' Party.

    M.J. Leonard M.J. Leonard 8:15 pm 03 Oct 19

    Ian McLeod You'd need a constitutional amendment for that - good luck!

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 8:34 am 04 Oct 19

    Scatty Anthony You can throw names around, but other than believing the propaganda that everything a unionist or indeed someone who believes society should come ahead of individual wealth, exactly what are the problems in Canberra. When you put Canberra into perspective with just about anywhere else in the world, we live in one of the best cities in the world. Most of the complaints are actually caused by our federal government or by people who put political ideology ahead of actually doing thing based on facts and evidence.

Steve McLeish Steve McLeish 8:51 am 03 Oct 19

ACT Government is nothing more that a jumped up city council.

    Bek Clark Bek Clark 9:04 am 03 Oct 19

    Steve Mcleish which city council has their own police force, university, hospital, or prison? I’ll wait.

    Steve McLeish Steve McLeish 9:08 am 03 Oct 19

    Bek Clark which city council neeeeeds their own police force, university, hospital or prison. I’ll wait even longer.....

    Guy Manton Guy Manton 10:37 am 03 Oct 19

    Steve Mcleish doesnt that just confirm the need for more than a council?

    Steve McLeish Steve McLeish 11:03 am 03 Oct 19

    Guy Manton no....Newcastle get on ok with a council under the NSW government. They have a University, light rail, a hospital and a jail. Plus primary industry, airport and a fully functioning port.

    Guy Manton Guy Manton 11:57 am 03 Oct 19

    So ACT would just become a city under NSW gov?

    Phillip Scharf Phillip Scharf 11:59 am 03 Oct 19

    Bek Clark with regards to your first post, no City council has their own police force because they have a state government looking after them obviously. The ACT is unorthodox but that is what was intended to remove solution and bias to any one state. Don't try and shore horn an odd ball into the regular answer.

    Phillip Scharf Phillip Scharf 12:05 pm 03 Oct 19

    Guy Manton a city under the state of NSW would deviate from what the capital territory is meant to be in terms of unaffiliated to any state. What you are all missing is that the city of Newcastle would still be imposing a cost on the state of New South Whales who provide their police force and so forth. Yes the ACT Government is a weird little local council but that is because it's nature is to be a weird little territory. And I mean weird in a good way...

    Steve McLeish Steve McLeish 12:36 pm 03 Oct 19

    Guy Manton precisely.

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