9 June 2022

Decriminalising small amounts of illicit drugs the 'next logical step' in the ACT: Health Minister

| Lottie Twyford
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ice, methamphetamine

A bill to decriminalise small amounts of drugs like cocaine, ice, heroin and MDMA has been amended by the government. Photo: ACT Policing.

The decriminalisation of small amounts of illicit drugs, including cocaine, heroin and MDMA, has taken another step forward, with the government lending its support to the proposal.

Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith today tabled the government’s response to the controversial bill put forward by Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson in late 2020.

She also confirmed the government would make some amendments.

Under the proposed bill, people caught with drugs under a certain threshold (2 grams for most substances including cocaine, heroin and ice, 0.5 grams for MDMA and 0.002 grams for LSD) would be issued a fine of $100 or diverted to a medical or education service rather than receiving a criminal conviction.

It has already attracted concern from police, with Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw saying last year the change could make the Territory a target for organised crime.

Similarly, ACT Policing has argued drug limits proposed in Mr Pettersson’s bill were too high and could inadvertently lead to a rise in drug trafficking.

Michael Pettersson

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson introduced the bill that legalised small amounts of cannabis in the ACT. Photo: Region Media.

Today, Ms Stephen-Smith said the bill had prompted a conversation about the “logical next step in harm minimisation”.

She told the ACT Legislative Assembly it recognised that drug use is fundamentally a health issue, which has long been the ACT Government’s position.

She said the government would propose amendments, including removing methadone from the list of substances that would be decriminalised.

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It would also amend the bill so that a person caught with illicit drugs would be able to attend a health-based diversion program instead of paying a fine.

The government further proposed reviewing the bill three years after its implementation to ensure it did not have any unintended consequences, and included a 12-month implementation period.

Ms Stephen-Smith said the latter would allow for police training, communication and messaging of the changes and a review of administration arrangements.

“The amended Bill will continue our journey to genuinely treat drug use as a public health matter rather than through the criminal justice system,” Ms Stephen-Smith told the Assembly.

“My hope is that this will help to reduce the stigma experienced by people who use illicit drugs, encouraging more people to come forward to receive support.”

The bill will likely be brought forward to the Assembly for debate later this year.

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Mr Pettersson welcomed the government’s response to his proposal.

“The response today vindicates what drug law experts have been saying for many years. All governments must look to a more sensible and measured approach to addressing drug use in the community,” he said.

“As a community, we need to encourage people who use drugs to seek the medical help they need. I want to see people getting help from doctors, not being put in handcuffs.”

The ACT Greens supported the drug decriminalisation bill.

Opposition spokesperson for police and emergency services Jeremy Hanson spoke strongly against the proposed bill.

“The Canberra Liberals stand with our police,” he said.

“It’s going to create a whole bunch of bad outcomes … you’re going to see more drug users.”

Ms Stephen-Smith accused Mr Hanson of running “a scare campaign”.

A pill-testing trial is also expected to begin in the ACT later this month.

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And next we will have decriminalising larger amounts of drugs for those with a more demanding habit .. etc.

Decriminalisation of hard drugs is not the answer, if people want help there is nothing stoping them from coming forward now.

It’s hilarious to see the knee-jerk and ill-informed responses to this around what they think as potential bad outcomes.

Because our current position and enforcement activities have been so successful and stopped people from using and dying from drug use right?

It’s almost like we need to treat this as a health issue, rather than a criminal one.

Chewy, I didn’t realise there was a drug problem currently in Canberra. Is it as bad as the housing “unaffordability crisis”? Hmm, almost seems as though the two are related..

Sam Oak,
Perhaps you’d like to expand on your points.

I don’t know where you’re going but it seems to be a fairly strange tangent.

Maybe Canberra does have a drug problem, Landlords do have plenty of disposable cash to burn I suppose.

Capital Retro11:25 am 10 Jun 22

They will be handing out lots of $100 fines at AMC.

Cheaper than a driver’s licence in ACT!

“Ms Stephen-Smith said the bill had prompted a conversation about the “logical next step in harm minimisation””
I would have thought harm-minimisation would mean preventing people from using harmful substances in the first place, you know, like making it hard to obtain/use, perhaps by banning it?!

Ha, because criminalising these substances has proven so effective over decades and tens of billions of dollars of attempted enforcement activities right?

It’s almost like that position doesn’t work.

Why have any laws at all then? WH&S laws don’t eliminate workplace accidents so should we stop wasting money on enforcement of them? Laws against murder don’t eliminate murder totally so I guess you would respond “it’s almost like that position doesn’t work”, but I would suggest that having tough penalties, and a high likelihood of being penalised, sure acts as a disincentive for most people.

Incorrect. When AIDS hit, the campaign to ensure safe drug use – e.g. clean needles – made people realise that harm minimisation was a much more successful method than the criminal approach. The research since bares that out. Like soft drugs are gateways to hard drugs, treating addiction as a health issue, not criminal, is a gateway to getting off them.

If there was a proven method to reduce murder that wasn’t a criminal approach, you’d take it right? Harm minimisation is proven.

Nice strawmen. No one said anything about stopping drug use entirely. It’s about achieving better overall societal outcomes than the current failed approach.

And we should also recognise that by and large the people hurt the must by drug use is the individual themselves, which is completely different than your examples of crimes that hurt other people. The reason that they are crimes goes beyond an individual health issue.

But regardless, if those other crimes had ways of reducing harm that did not involve the justice system, shouldn’t we explore them?

Capital Retro9:32 am 10 Jun 22

Who voted for this clown?

Capital Retro9:28 am 10 Jun 22

Sounds like a lot of POppyCOK to me.

I’m sure the other guys at the TAB chortled at that gem.

…because our local councillors (MLAs) don’t want to be known as criminals, at least, not because of their drug dependence.

Michael Pettersson‘s green light to all drug use in the ACT will cost lives, how this kid has managed to con his entire party blows my mind.

We already have extremely soft sentencing on minor drug use in the ACT, it does not need further encouragement.

Approving the use of heroin and ice is the single worst decision the Barr government, or any government will ever make.

Haha not surprised this is the first act of a left wing “progressive” government.

First act, Sam? Where have you been the last 20 years – which is how long the ACT has had a ‘left wing “progressive”’ government? You do know the difference between ACT and Federal legislation don’t you?

You don’t think the timing of it after Pocock came into the Senate is coincidental? The ACT gov looked at the federal result and realised Canberra is full of left wing fanatics and will not oppose any progressive bill brought before the Assembly. You are naive to think the levels of government are completely independent. Just look at the WA result. State impacted Federal and now Magowan will get away with more of his extreme border and lockdown controls.

But Sam – does it affect your house prices and rent returns?

Well, Sam, given that the ACT LA had already decriminalised canabis possession and this legislation has been in the wind for some time, I don’t think there’s much coincidence at all. The Feds under ScoMo didn’t override the canabis legislation so I doubt the ACT LA was worried about this legislation being overridden – irrespective of who won the election. You can continue with your QAnon conspiracies for the next 3 years but the reality is that it was the centrists who delivered the election win to Labor – and many independents. Your ultra right views might salve your wounded pride but it doesn’t change the fact that not all who are left of you are fsnatics.

The drug users get a break and the community has to deal with the consequences of the Government softening its approach to drugs.

Does anyone seriously think that softening drug laws will result in a reduction in use, supply, criminal activity, overdoses, etc?

If there is one sensible person; in the ALP or Greens Government who thinks this is bad policy, please stand up and be heard!

“Does anyone seriously think that softening drug laws will result in a reduction in use, supply, criminal activity, overdoses, etc?”

Yes, as has been shown overseas when it’s been treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Does anyone seriously think the current laws don’t actively make the problem worse by driving it underground and hidden?

This is basically an up yours to the front line health workers that have just endured the pandemic. Then you have the cops.
Someone on ice basically isn’t in charge of their actions, so all sorts of violent crimes and the ultimate answer is being shot as those on ICE don’t respond to tasers.

“Come work at our hospitals we have rampant drug use…” and then we have a doctor shortage.

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