Canberra Has Legalised the Possession of Cannabis

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Cannabis leaf

As of 31 January next year, it will be legal to smoke cannabis for recreational purposes in the ACT. The territory Legislative Assembly passed laws on 25 September that make using cannabis, possessing up to 50 grams of it and the cultivation of two plants completely lawful.

The capital territory is the first jurisdiction in the country to bring about an end to the decades-old prohibition on using the herb, which many feel is unwarranted, considering it’s a relatively harmless substance.

And while some Australians have performed a double take on hearing the news that cannabis will soon be legal in Canberra, the move is actually bringing the territory into line with a growing a global trend that’s seen eleven US states, and the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay legalise pot.

The Drugs of Dependence (Personal Cannabis Use) Amendment Bill was passed at around 11 am on Wednesday, with a vote of 10 in favour and 7 against. Labor members and the Greens backed the legislation, while Liberal MPs were against it.

ACT Labor MLA Michael Pettersson is the man who brought the legalisation of the adult use of cannabis across the line in Australia. And many pro-cannabis advocates see this as an historic moment that will have repercussions in other jurisdictions for years to come.

Taking a stand

“It’s a really good policy,” said Mr Pettersson on the morning following the passing of the bill. “It was frustrating that seemingly no one was prepared to take the charge. So, I figured if no one else was going to do it, then I should step up.”

The Labor backbencher introduced the private member’s bill into ACT parliament on 28 November last year, with the aim of removing the remaining criminal sanctions around the personal use and possession of cannabis, which is already decriminalised in the territory.

Since 1992, the Simple Cannabis Offence Notice scheme has meant that police can issue a fine for personal possession. However, Pettersson saw that 60 percent of drug-related arrests were still due to cannabis use and he didn’t believe that small amounts should lead to a criminal record.

“In the ACT, at the moment, most people receive a fine. A certain number, however, do go through the criminal justice system,” Pettersson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. He added that about a third of those coming into contact with police for small cannabis offences are arrested.

The cannabis laws

“You can grow two plants to a household limit of four,” Pettersson continued. However, artificial or hydroponic growing of the plants will be illegal. And cannabis plants must be grown on a residential property, not in an area accessible to the public, such as a community garden.

As well, individuals over the age of 18 can possess up to 50 grams of cannabis and use it. Although, the bill makes it an offence to use weed in public or expose a child to its “smoke or vapours”. And it will also be an offence if stored cannabis is not “out of reach of children”.

“One of the interesting things that has been added to the bill,” the Labor MLA emphasised, “is they’ve introduced a new wet limit of 150 grams to allow for offcuts from the plant. Under the previous scheme, that did not exist.”

The bill as passed now allows for the possession of 150 grams of fresh or wet cannabis “to account for cannabis that has been cultivated but not yet dried”. This provision can relate to “a mixture of dried cannabis and cannabis that is not dried”.

The federal red herring

ACT chief police officer Ray Johnson has long raised questions about whether local police will be required to enforce federal drugs laws. And Australian attorney general Christian Porter has recently explained that it will be a matter for the ACT, but the Commonwealth laws will remain enforceable.

Mr Pettersson said that what the police and the attorney general are saying is correct, and it’s a “proper and official” message that they’re required to put across at present. But, in a practical sense, they’re failing to mention the defence that lies in federal law.

“Under Commonwealth law, if you are charged with a cannabis possession offence, there’s a defence you are allowed to cite that says your use is excused or justified by a state or territory law,” the politician outlined. And he added that the cannabis legislation empowers this defence.

The failing war on drugs

The passing of the Personal Cannabis Use Bill comes on the back of a rising awareness within the community that the current heavy-handed law enforcement approach to illicit drug use isn’t working. Indeed, the war on drugs is actually escalating the harms associated with their use.

Cannabis legalisation in the ACT is a step in the right direction in regard to treating drug use as a health issue, and not a crime. And the drug that’s been sanctioned for use is, as noted, relatively harmless, especially when compared to the harms associated with regulated alcohol and tobacco.

Australian HEMP Party president Michael Balderstone said, “It’s good to have a start: a first cab off the rank. It’s an example for everyone else. And it will get the conversation happening in the other states.”

The Nimbin HEMP Embassy head stressed that “the war on drugs has done so much damage to so many people, and we now realise it’s a health issue”. He added that he looks forward to a time when policy makers and police admit that they got in wrong with cannabis prohibition.

And as for Mr Pettersson and his cannabis bill, Balderstone remarked, “I feel totally grateful to him and anyone else who has put in time in Canberra, because there are a lot of issues: politicians have piles in their in-trays. So, for someone to have put the focus into this is fantastic.”

“To get any change happening, you really have to keep at things,” the long-time cannabis advocate concluded, “and clearly, he’s done that.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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