In a development described as “an evolution, not a revolution”, possessing and growing small amounts of cannabis for personal use has now been legalised in the ACT, allowing Canberrans over 18 years of age to possess 50 grams of cannabis.
The ACT Legislative Assembly passed Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson’s bill on Wednesday afternoon (25 September) after a long day of debating amendments.
Individual possession of up to 50 grams of dry cannabis, 150 grams of fresh cannabis and two plants has now been legalised. Each household can grow a maximum of four plants.
However, possession of more than 50 grams of cannabis; the cultivation of more than four plants; artificial cultivation and selling or providing cannabis will all remain illegal. It remains illegal to smoke cannabis in a public place, or within 20 metres of a child.
“Right now in the ACT, most people caught with small amounts cannabis will receive a fine but some people receive a criminal charge,” Mr Petterson said. “This bill is just taking the next sensible step and removing the criminal charge”.
Mr Pettersson said the legislation’s passage was a victory for the community and reformers.
“This legislation will work to reduce the harm of drugs in our community by reducing the stigma of drug use and encouraging people to seek help without fear of arrest,” Mr Petterson said. “I don’t think anyone should have their life ruined by a criminal conviction for possessing small amounts of cannabis.
“Canada, South Africa, Uruguay and 11 US states have legalised cannabis, while New Zealand is expected to hold a referendum next year on the issue.
“Today, the ACT joins these progressive parts of the world in recognising the benefits brought by a harm minimisation approach and begins a new chapter in drug law reform in Australia.”
Despite cannabis possession now being legalised in the ACT, it still remains a criminal offence to cultivate or possess cannabis under Commonwealth legislation but Mr Pettersson said he does not expect people to face court on drug charges under Commonwealth law.
“Right now, police can choose to prosecute people underneath the Territory law or Commonwealth law,” he said. “That is a problem that exists right now.
“By removing possession offences under ACT law, we are evoking defences under Commonwealth law, which means possession excused or justified under territory law is provided with a complete defence.”
ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said his party supported the bill because it was a significant step in a long journey of drug law reforms.
“The Greens believe that allowing adults in the ACT to possess and use cannabis would acknowledge the modern reality that many adults choose to use cannabis, and criminalising it causes more harm than good”, Mr Rattenbury said.
“Keeping cannabis use as an offence drives people away from getting help when they need it and can expose them to social and financial harms through the criminal justice system.
“While today’s Bill is an important step forward, there’s still work to be done to ensure that cannabis use is treated as a health issue, not a criminal issue.”
The Canberra Liberals did not support the bill, saying it would lead to “perverse outcomes” and will encourage more people to use cannabis.
Mr Petterson disagreed. “I don’t think more people will start using cannabis as a result of this bill,” he said. “Individuals right now can grow small amounts of cannabis under the decriminalisation model. This will change to legalisation. Most people are not going to see a real change.
“I want to be very clear: this bill does not legalise driving under the influence of drugs. It does not legalise supply. It legalises the possession of small amounts of cannabis.”
The new laws will come into effect on 31 January 2020 and will be reviewed within three years.