In 1926, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became Australia’s first jurisdiction to outlaw cannabis, following the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs. Fast forward seven war-on-drugs-soaked decades and the state began to undo the damage caused by prohibition, starting with decriminalization.
Michael Moore, an independent member of the local Legislative Assembly, introduced the Simple Cannabis Offence Notice in 1992. This meant you’d be given a $100 fine if the police caught you with small amounts of weed, and if you paid the fine on time you would have no criminal record. So, for more than 30 years, cannabis was essentially decriminalized in Australia’s seat of power.
Next Gen Activation
In February 2019, the gauntlet was picked up by the next generation of progressive policymakers; this time, it was the calling of Labour MP (member of parliament), Michael Pettersson. He introduced a private member’s bill, the Personal Cannabis Use Bill. Following the state of Vermont’s model, ACT passed legalization legislation in January 2020, instead of holding a popular vote. Thanks to this “new attitude” politician, residents can now possess 50 grams of dry plant material, 150 grams of wet plant material and cultivate two plants per person and up to four plants per household.
Here’s a fun fact: Like Washington DC, recreational cannabis is legal in Canberra, the capital city of Australia. Here’s a not-so-fun fact: Because it remains federally illegal, like DC, there are no brick-and-mortar dispensaries to buy your bud. In fact, the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located, is the only place in Australia to enjoy legalized recreational cannabis.
So, what’s the story? Is it merely a coincidence that cannabis is legal to consume yet unavailable to purchase in the capital cities of these two nations? Are there similar stories as the two capitals fight back against the damage the war on drugs caused?
The 30-year-old politician told me that his interest in the war on drugs came from his years as an angsty teen watching YouTube videos after school.
“I found this series of videos, I think the group’s called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,” Pettersson says. “They had this former cop who had long black hair and a ponytail, a big buff guy. And they go on the American talk shows, and he talks about the war on drugs. He was so articulate and conveyed the failings of it. As a teenager I was really interested in politics, I thought he was the coolest dude ever. So, I’ve always kind of approached the war on drugs from a highly skeptical position.”
One is the Loneliest Number
When I ask Pettersson why no other Australian politician has been as progressive with cannabis law reform, he says, smiling, “Good question! It just hit me one day: No one else is going to do this. If no one else does this, then it’s not going to happen. So, I’m going to have to do it. A lot of people assume I have some deep personal interest or maybe some past associations with cannabis use. I’m a young guy, I’ve experimented with recreational drugs in a very limited way. But I don’t really use cannabis. I used it a handful of times when I was younger. My interest in this topic doesn’t come from my own personal use, it comes from good public policy.”
With cannabis decriminalized in the region for more than 30 years, the local community was pretty open to full legalization, Pettersson says. “Polling showed 54 percent of the community supported legalizing cannabis for personal use with only 27 percent opposed. So, the debate was pretty easy.”
Pettersson also future-proofed his policy by including a cannabis reform caveat to silence the opposition.
“The naysayers said that when the ACT changed its laws, the Commonwealth laws would then be the laws in effect and would send people into the Commonwealth criminal justice system where they’d get harsh penalties,” he said. “The ACT amended its laws in such a way that we empowered a defense that says if your use is excused or justified by a state or territory law, then it provides a complete defense to the Commonwealth charge.”
Not content with legalizing cannabis alone, earlier this year Pettersson put forward another private member’s bill to decriminalize small amounts of certain illicit substances in the ACT. Yet another parallel with DC, where the Drug Policy Reform Act of 2021 that would decriminalize all drugs for personal use was introduced. Under Pettersson’s proposed policy, drugs would remain a crime, but the penalties for those caught with up to 2g of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines, and 0.5g of MDMA would be reduced from jail time to a $100 fine. Police would confiscate the drugs and the person would be referred to a health program, taking the emphasis from punishment to treatment.
Pettersson says the response from the local community has been positive and they’re ready to have this conversation. However, there has been a certain amount of top-tier pushback.
The Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, recently appeared before the Commonwealth Parliament and strongly condemned the proposed change, saying it could potentially lead to what he referred to as narco-tourism.
“The conservative elements are far more organized to argue and push back against the decriminalization of these
substances. But for the most part, they didn’t fight too hard on cannabis legalization,” Petterson says.
Canberra, Washington, DC Twinning
When asked about the similarities with Canberra and DC regarding drug policy reform, Petterson was quick to respond. “If I had to try and distill it down, there are certain things that you can only understand when you live in a capital jurisdiction,” he says. “You have to contend with federal legislators who don’t represent your values telling you what to do. I imagine that similar politics would probably exist in Washington, DC, where residents also don’t like their central government telling them what to do.”
Pettersson maintains the well-being of his community remains his top priority. And while he contends that it’s a “balancing act,” for him, drug law reform is about harm reduction. It’s heartening to see that around the world, prohibitionists are losing the war on drugs. Progressive politicians listening to the voice of the people is what will bring about real change, keep people out of jail and end outdated legislation.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.