A parliamentary committee review of a proposal to decriminalise drugs in the capital territory tabled its final report last week, and it has recommended the ACT Legislative Assembly should pass laws that would remove criminal sanctions for the personal possession and use of illicit substances.
ACT Labor MLA Michael Pettersson introduced the Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill 2021 back in February, aiming to bring local laws into line with “global trends that seek to treat drug use as a public health problem and not one first and foremost of the criminal justice system”.
In decriminalising small amounts of illegal drugs, the legislation provides that a person found to be in possession of a personal amount will be subject to a fine – a civil offence – rather than a debilitating criminal charge, and this will further facilitate those with problematic use in undergoing treatment.
The legislation contains a section setting out the personal possession limits for the most regularly used illicit substances in the capital territory. And another key recommendation coming from the committee is that there’s an ability to add emerging drugs to the list.
A global trend
The last one hundred years have been marked by global drug prohibition. The intensification of the law enforcement arm of this project commenced in 1971. And experts agree that this system has exacerbated drug use, increased the associated harms and created huge criminal networks.
However, since 2001, the entire nation of Portugal has operated under a system of drug decriminalisation and expanded rehabilitation. This has resulted in less drug related harms and deaths, and it’s seen a significant uptick in people seeking help due to problematic use.
The state of Oregon became the first jurisdiction in the United States to decriminalise the personal possession of all illicit substances in February this year. And lawmakers in other states, such as Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, are proposing similar legislation.
The Uniting Church Synod of NSW/ACT has been calling on the jurisdictions it operates within to decriminalise drug use since late 2018. And there are 60 other organisations behind the campaign, which include the NSW Bar Association and the Law Society of NSW.
A local trend
The fact that Pettersson is leading the call for drug decriminalisation in Canberra bodes well, as the Labor MLA introduced another piece of legislation into territory parliament in late 2018 that resulted in the personal possession and use of cannabis being legalised in the ACT in January last year.
And earlier this year, when it came time to reflect on 12 months of criminal sanctions having been removed, the most noticeable impact was that people had been more willing to come forward and engage in treatment, if needed, as they were no longer admitting to committing a crime.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Michael Pettersson about the reason why this proposal has progressed so far in a jurisdiction like the ACT, his championing of the cause, and when it might be likely we’ll see an updated version of his bill before parliament.
In February, you introduced drug decriminalisation legislation into the ACT Legislative Assembly. Last week, the parliamentary review on the bill tabled its report, with its first recommendation being it should be passed.
Michael, what are your thoughts on this outcome? And what are some of the other key recommendations to come out of the review?
This is an important step in the legislative process. The process of changing the law is not quick or easy. There are many stages, and an important one in a jurisdiction like the ACT is the committee process.
So, to have a committee inquiry into this bill and the related issues is an important step, and I’m very grateful it has come back and endorsed the legislation.
As to the recommendations, they’re well considered and sensible.
Some key ones include revising the possession limits to be more in line with evidence of personal use. That’s important because the thresholds in my bill are derived from what the presumption is under Commonwealth law to be personal possession.
They also recommend that more substances be included, which is sensible. And there’s a range of other recommendations, but those two are the most important to the political discourse.
There was one dissenting voice on the committee, which was Canberra Liberal MLA Peter Cain.
So, what does that mean in terms of support for the bill within parliament? And further, what is the support like out in the community?
This is a private members bill. It’s not official government policy. I don’t think any political party has codified their position on this bill.
Members of the assembly and the political parties that are represented are probably reserving their position until the official government response to this committee inquiry comes out.
However, it is disappointing to see any member of the Legislative Assembly come out and speak against a positive harm reduction measure, like decriminalisation.
The Canberra community is well and truly of the view that drug use should be treated as a public health issue, and that the criminalisation of the people who use these substances has not been beneficial.
The wider war on drugs has not had the effect that many people claim it has.
You’ve just touched on this a bit, but why would you say you’ve prioritised these laws?
Canberra is ready for a sensible conversation about our drug laws. As a member of the Legislative Assembly, I reside in an incredibly progressive jurisdiction with incredibly progressive colleagues. However, these reforms were seemingly not a priority for others.
It’s a real problem for our body politic in general that our elective representatives often speak to their own lived experience and the priorities of people that look and sound like them.
So, an issue like drug law reform has never been a priority for legislatures around the country.
There are many Canberrans who think this is a very important issue. It’s a great honour of mine to speak to this issue and bring forward this solution.
But it’s a small part of my work as a member. I speak to and try to address lots of issues. This is just one that is very prominent due to the different views held about policy.
You’re known nationwide as the politician who saw the personal possession and use of cannabis legalised in the capital territory. It’s been almost two years since those laws came into effect.
How would you describe the impact that making small amounts of cannabis legal for those people using it in Canberra has had?
I would describe it as an important reform with very subtle effects.
Treating drug use as a health issue, first and foremost, is the best way to go about reducing the harm experienced by people who use these drugs. And when it comes to cannabis, it’s important that our laws reflect the evidence of potential harms from using this substance.
I don’t believe that people need to go through the criminal justice system if they are caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis, which is why I brought forward those reforms several years ago.
As for the effect on the ground, I can say it’s been a subtle one.
People in Canberra no longer need to worry about police interactions when caught with small amounts of cannabis.
It’s reduced the stigma. People can come forward and talk about their cannabis use. It’s made it easier for people to access health services. It’s been a very positive thing for the community.
Politicians, church groups, medical experts and ex-police officers have all been lobbying for these sorts of drug law reforms in other Australian jurisdictions for years.
How are you managing to get these sorts of measures across the line in Canberra?
I’m fortunate that Canberra is a very progressive jurisdiction. Thankfully, I don’t really need to convince that many people, which is a good starting place when you’re trying to change the law.
When you have to convince more people, that takes a lot more work, and chances are you’re not going to be able to get something across the line. So, the starting place is a good one.
The other thing I would say that has been very helpful is that I’m not scared to talk about this as an issue.
One of the things that people often offer as unsolicited advice is that I shouldn’t talk about drugs, because it’s not good as a politician to spend your time talking about these issues, and instead, you should focus on x, y or z.
I’ve never really listened to that advice, because at the most fundamental level, this is good public policy and something I believe in. I haven’t been shy about saying it. And a lot of the community has responded to that in a positive way.
A lot of people are frustrated by politicians that don’t speak their mind. So, hopefully, people find it refreshing to see someone come out and speak to this issue in such a way.
And lastly, Michael, the review came back last week. It has endorsed the bill, but it’s also recommended some changes.
So, what’s the next step from here? When will it be likely an updated bill could be back before parliament?
The ACT government has several months to respond to any assembly committee inquiry report.
I expect the government to report in the first few months of the new year. From that point, the assembly chamber can then debate and vote on the legislation.
So, I would expect in the first half of the year sometime for it to potentially come on for debate and vote.
However, it’s a bit early to say what month it will be because it depends on when we get that government response back.