Cannabis Legalisation is Coming to Canberra

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Cannabis and the Parliament House

A piece of legislation that would legalise the personal possession of cannabis for recreational use is to be debated in the ACT Legislative Assembly this week. And with the support of both Labor and the Greens, it’s set to be passed. But, a new technicality might just delay the process.

ACT Labor MLA Michael Pettersson introduced the bill into parliament last September. The legislation allows for the personal possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis, as well as permits locals to cultivate up to four plants.

However, a new standing order requires all amendments to bills be sent to the parliament’s scrutiny committee prior to them being moved. And this could lead to a delay in the passing of the cannabis bill, as under previous rules, only government amendments to bills were subject to reviews.

And with quite a number of parliamentarians set to speak on the bill, as well as several amendments by the Greens and the Labor executive that need to be considered, Mr Pettersson believes it might take a few parliamentary sitting periods to see it passed. But, it could still be on track for mid-year.

Not whether, but when

“Recent changes to the standing orders of the ACT Legislative Assembly require all amendments to legislation to be reviewed for human rights compliance before they can be debated,” Mr Pettersson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

The Labor backbencher explained that several publicly flagged amendments are yet to be examined, so it will take the scrutiny committee a further two weeks to review them, prior to their debate in parliament.

Mr Pettersson has previously pointed out that 60 percent of drug-related arrests in the ACT are for cannabis use. And with the current cannabis decriminalisation system in the territory, those who fall short of the law can still end up with a criminal record for small amounts of the plant.

While the four plant cultivation allowance will reduce the contact that people who use cannabis in the ACT have with drug dealers, according to Pettersson. And possession and consumption of the drug would remain illegal for minors.

“In short, the bill will be adjourned while we wait for various members’ amendments to be drafted, scrutinised and released,” Mr Pettersson continued. He added that he understands the Labor executive amendments will emerge shortly, while the Greens have already released theirs.

Artificial cultivation may be permitted

“The war on drugs has failed,” said ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury. “Allowing adults to possess and use cannabis would acknowledge the modern reality that many adults choose to use cannabis, and criminalising it is causing more harm than good.”

The former speaker of the ACT Legislative Assembly outlined that while personal use does remain an offence in the capital, those who need help are driven away from getting any. And it also leaves them open to the “social and financial harms” of the criminal justice system.

“We support the intent of the bill,” Mr Rattenbury explained. And he added that his party has proposed “a number of amendments to make it more workable in practice,” These include the removal of restrictions on the artificial means of growing cannabis plants indoors.

As Rattenbury understands it, most cannabis that is being used in the ACT has been grown via artificial means. “And growing through more ‘natural’ means is not viable for a significant portion of the year in the ACT’s climate.”

Further amendments put forth by the Greens include an increased possession amount for those who take cannabis medicinally, “the establishment of an independent cannabis advisory council to provide expertise”, as well as an overhaul of local drug laws with a focus on harm reduction.

A global trend

Moves to legalise the personal possession and use of recreational cannabis will bring the ACT more into line with developments that are happening globally. Canada legalised pot for pleasurable use nationally last October and initially the market couldn’t keep up with demand.

Michigan became the tenth US state – along with the District of Columbia – to legalise recreational pot on 6 November last year. This is within the country that led the way with the drug war. And it includes the fifth largest economy in the world, California.

In South Africa, it was the judiciary that brought about a nationwide change to the legality of the plant, when the country’s highest court upheld a lower court ruling last September, which effectively legalised the home use and cultivation of cannabis.

Decriminalisation is not enough

Currently, in the ACT, the Simple Cannabis Offence Notice scheme means that the personal use and possession of cannabis is decriminalised. So, since 1992, police have had the discretion to issue an individual with a fine for personal possession. And this also applies for growing up to two plants.

And while this cannabis caution scheme was updated in 2005 from the initially permitted 25 grams to 50 grams, to reflect that most people buy an ounce – around 28 grams – 54 percent of locals now support the scrapping of any sort of legal sanctions for small amounts of cannabis and its use.

Towards nationwide reform

“A change to ACT cannabis law will also hopefully help people suffering serious illnesses to have easier access to cannabis for medicinal use,” Mr Rattenbury continued. He said that as in other jurisdictions across Australia the red tape around cannabis medicines is still “overly restrictive”.

And it seems that once recreational cannabis use is legalised in the socially-progressive ACT, it’s more than likely to lead to developments elsewhere in Australia.

Whether that’s similar to what Mr Pettersson has dubbed the Vermont model with no commercial market that will soon exist in the territory or something more like a retail system that has reaped benefits in Colorado is yet to be seen.

“My federal Greens colleagues are also continuing to campaign for legalisation at a national level to allow for the supply and sale of cannabis in a nationally regulated market,” Mr Rattenbury concluded, “something the ACT is unable to do on our own.”

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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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