People caught with small amounts of illicit drugs, like ice, heroin, cocaine and speed, will soon be spared criminal charges in the ACT, after the territory government became the first in Australia to agree to decriminalising “personal possession”.
The government decision arrives in the wake of a Legislative Assembly inquiry into a proposed law tabled by Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson last year, who was also responsible for a similar bill that legalised the personal use of cannabis across the territory back in 2019.
Under the new proposed law, personal drug use wouldn’t be fully legalised. Instead, those caught with small amounts—or, “personal possession” quantities (averaging about 2 grams)—of the substances covered by the new law would be fined, not arrested.
In its current form, the proposed law would see those in possession of MDMA, cannabis, cocaine, heroin, lysergic acid, methadone, LSD, ice, and psilocybin escape criminal charges. However, early talks would indicate that the list could be subject to change.
Rachel Stephen-Smith, the ACT’s health minister, said on Wednesday that the proposed law shows the territory is leading the nation, with yet another “progressive, health-focused reform”.
“We know from research and evidence around the world that criminalising drug users does not reduce drug use, and that treating drug addiction as a health issue improves outcomes for everyone in the community,” Stephen-Smith said.
“This legislation is part of our broader suite of policies developed in partnership with experts, people with lived experience and our alcohol and other drug sector to support those most in need to get the help and services they need when they need them.”
According to a 2021 survey, Canberra residents said they “overwhelmingly” supported decriminalising drugs, with only one in 10 saying they supported imprisonment for drug possession offences. As it stands, the number of Canberrans who face drug charges averages only 10 every year.
Stephen-Smith said it’s not “a huge number”, but getting that number to zero would take immense pressure off the justice system, allowing the territory to prioritise reducing the risks of harm faced by the territory’s drug users, and make room for police to target Canberra’s drug trade at the distribution level.
The government’s agreement didn’t come without opposition, though. In a bid to win opponents over, ACT Greens member Jonathan Davis said he once held “very conservative views” on the issue, but was able to turn them around, and urged the territory’s Liberal Party members to do the same.
“Sadly, today in the ACT Assembly we saw the next instalment of the Canberra Liberals’ politically expedient disregard of the evidence, attacking vulnerable people and pushing them further into the shadows,” Davis said.
“I encourage the Canberra community not to take their lead from the Canberra Liberals on this issue, and to instead engage empathetically with the evidence.”
It wasn’t just the ACT’s conservatives who had reservations about the move, either. Some harm reduction advocates suggested a move to fines could be a zero sum game, and leave some of the community’s poorest, or otherwise most vulnerable, particularly exposed to aggressive policing and fines they ultimately cannot afford.
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