The government of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has passed new legislation to decriminalize low-level possession of illicit drugs, making the federal district the first jurisdiction in the nation to make such a move. Under the law approved late last month, those caught with small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine would be subject to a fine rather than punishment by the criminal justice system. The ACT, which includes the Australian capital city of Canberra and the surrounding area, decriminalized cannabis in 2020. Under those rules, adults aged 18 and older are permitted to possess up to 50 grams (nearly two ounces) of dried cannabis and grow up to two plants
The new drug decriminalization law, which will go into effect after 12 months, penalizes possession of small amounts of drugs considered consistent with personal use with a fine of up to $100, which can be waived if the individual chooses to attend a drug diversion program. The law does not apply to trafficable quantities of illicit drugs, and police will still be permitted to target the illegal drug trade in Canberra. The new policy follows recommendations of a Legislative Assembly inquiry into the proposal from Labor Party member Michael Pettersson, who also spearheaded the drive to decriminalize cannabis in the ACT, making the territory the first and only government in Australia to do so.
The new law also reduces the maximum penalty for possession of several other controlled substances not decriminalized by the measure to six months behind bars. Prior to the passage of the reforms, the maximum penalty for drug possession convictions was two years in prison. Civil fines and diversion programs were not available for those charged with drug possession offenses.
The inclusion of methamphetamine in the ACT’s drug decriminalization law was controversial, with some lawmakers objecting to the proposal. But Pettersson argued that people who use the drug are often most in need of support from the health system.
“People that use recreational drugs are taking a risk, and certain drugs cause more harm than others,” he said. “If people are using a substance like methamphetamine, we need to make sure that we do not continue to criminalize them and make it even easier for them to come forward and access the support that they might need.”
New Drug Decriminalization Law Supports Harm Reduction
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said that the goal of the reforms is harm reduction and that the changes were developed with input from the advocacy group Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, the substance abuse treatment community and those with lived experience as people who use drugs.
“We know that the ACT has a progressive community and supports evidence-based changes, and the evidence to support decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of a range of drugs is there,” Stephen-Smith said.
The health minister said that treating drug abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal offense reduces harm for people who use drugs and builds stronger communities.
“It both reduces harm associated with engagement with the criminal justice system – which is a harm in itself – [and] reduces the stigma associated with drug use and encourages people to come forward for the support and treatment that is going to help them recover from their dependence,” she said.
Stephen-Smith noted that the new decriminalization policy will not take effect until October of next year to give police a 12-month transition period to prepare for the change and allow the community to learn the scope of the new rules, saying that this “is responsible, progressive change absolutely in line with the national drug strategy commitment to harm minimization.”
“Harm minimization has three pillars: harm reduction, supply reduction and demand reduction. This is about harm reduction, but we also remain committed to supply reduction,” she said. “We are not encouraging people to use drugs and we are not facilitating the trafficking or dealing of drugs with this change, all we are doing is ensuring that those people who have a small amount of drugs in their possession for personal use are treated with a health response, not a criminal one.”
However, not everyone approves of the ACT government’s decision to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs. The Canberra Liberal Party opposed the legislation and party representatives have said that they will work to repeal the new law. Deputy leader Jeremy Hanson said the “radical reform” would cause several new problems while making existing ones worse.
“It wasn’t taken to the community, it’s going to lead to more crime, it’s going to lead to more carnage on our roads,” he said. “It’s not going to change the number of people going into the criminal justice system, and it’s not going to fix the problem that we have now which is not enough people being able to access treatment.”