Drug Decriminalisation for the ACT: An Interview With Labor MLA Michael Pettersson

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Labor MLA Michael Pettersson

Led by the Uniting Church Synod of NSW/ACT, Fair Treatment has been calling on the jurisdictions of NSW and the ACT to decriminalise drug use and personal possession since late 2018. This health-based campaign has the backing of over 60 legal, medical and civil society organisations.

And now, ACT MLA Michael Pettersson is acting on the very same issue.

The Labor backbencher last week released the draft consultation of his Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill 2021, which seeks to remove criminal sanctions for those in the capital territory found to be in possession of an amount of an illegal drug deemed personal.

The private member’s bill contains a table of illicit substances with a corresponding amount listed as personal.

MDMA carries a 0.5 gram quantity. A 2 gram limit pertains to cocaine, amphetamines and heroin. While 2 grams also relates to the psychoactive ingredient within magic mushrooms.

Much like the Simple Cannabis Offence Notice scheme that saw possession of that substance decriminalised in the ACT from 1992, the new scheme sees a person found with a personal amount of a listed drug issued with a fine – a civil sanction – rather than charged with a criminal offence.

A seasoned reformer

One might consider that in taking on the international edifice of drug prohibition, Pettersson has bitten off more than he can chew. But the Labour MLA is these days something of a seasoned drug law reformer.

Since 31 January this year, the use and personal possession of cannabis has been legal in the ACT. The legislation allowing for this was passed by the capital’s Legislative Assembly in September 2019. And that was based on a private members bill released by Pettersson back in late 2018.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with Labor MP Michael Pettersson about how his drug decriminalisation proposal will work, the positive support the idea has received from all three major parties in the capital and how the sky hasn’t fallen since cannabis use became legal in Canberra.

Last week, you released the consultation draft of the Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill 2021. It basically decriminalises the use and personal possession of a range of illicit substances.

Michael, why is drug decriminalisation the way forward?

Right around the world, we’ve seen people’s attitudes towards drug use have changed.

The old ideas based in punitive justice are, quite frankly, out of step with most modern Australian views on how to deal with drug use in the community.

The prohibition on the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use doesn’t help anyone.

It doesn’t cure addiction and ultimately, for those who do receive a criminal conviction, that can ruin their life much more than the individual substance can in and of itself.

So, the bill alters the Drugs of Dependence Act 1989 (ACT) with the aim of decriminalising personal possession. How does it work?

What this does is it creates a personal possession limit, in line with the previous Simple Cannabis Offence Notice scheme. And it retitles it a Simple Drug Offence Notice.

In a sense, this isn’t actually a new enforcement mechanism, we’re just adding more substances to that previous framework.

There is a question of the different thresholds. You have these substances that are tabled with their personal possession limits, and under that amount would attract the civil penalty.

But if you had someone who was found in possession of an amount above the thresholds for a civil penalty, that would still be a criminal offence.

The table of personal possession limits lists eleven types of drugs. How did you settle upon these? And what if a person is caught in possession of a small amount of an illicit substance not on the list?

That list is not exhaustive. There are quite literally hundreds of controlled substances that are outlined in our laws. And there’s an argument for including far more of those substances.

But the reason those eleven substances have been included in this proposal is that overwhelmingly those are the substances that actually put people in the criminal justice system.

So, whilst your controlled medicines are far more dangerous and harmful to the wider community – as they cause more overdoses than your common street recreational drugs – the majority of people aren’t ending up in the criminal justice system for abusing prescription medication.

You initiated the legislation that led to the legalisation of the use and personal possession of cannabis in the ACT. That was a private member’s bill just like the new one.

The personal use of cannabis has been legal in Canberra since 31 January this year. How has that been going?

I would say it’s been quite unremarkable. Recent data released by ACT Policing has shown no noticeable change in relation to drug driving in the ACT.

It’s still quite early, but anecdotally, I’ve heard reports of increased uptake in people seeking help for their cannabis use.

It’s a pretty good outcome so far. But, as you said it was January, so we’ve still got a little way to go until we’ve got broad and comprehensive data.

Again, anecdotally, I’d say that people who were already using cannabis under the previous decriminalisation regime are probably still using it.

But I don’t think cannabis use in the ACT is particularly different to what it was previously.

And lastly, Michael, you’ve just released the consultation draft. What’s the reaction been like?

Overwhelmingly positive. In August of this year, there was a debate in the Legislative Assembly that I instigated about introducing a scheme like this.

At that time, it received tripartisan support. The Greens political party was in favour. And Canberra Liberals were also in favour of decriminalisation of some substances.

Since I’ve released the consultation draft on the same idea, the response has been positive. This is usually a very emotive topic and I understand it brings out strong reactions. And that’s okay.

But I’d say for the most part, people are ready to take the next step in having a sensible legislative framework when it comes to drugs in our society.

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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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