Should heroin, ice, MDMA and other drugs be decriminalised in the ACT?
A bill that would make the ACT the first place in Australia to decriminalise illicit drugs such as heroin, MDMA and methamphetamines was introduced to the ACT Legislative Assembly by Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson in February of this year.
What does drug decriminalisation look like?
Drug decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. Decriminalisation means it is still illegal, but you may receive a fine, rather than a criminal charge. In this case, the proposal is for decriminalisation of use and possession only. Manufacturing and selling will still be a criminal offence.
Those caught with drugs within the possession limits would face a fine of $100 as opposed to going through the criminal justice system. Under current ACT law, drug possession is a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of 50 penalty units (up to $8,000 fine) and/or 2 years imprisonment.
The proposed personal limit for possession includes 0.5 grams of MDMA and 2 grams of cocaine, amphetamines, psylocibin and heroin. It would also allow for up to 0.002 grams of LSD, a drug that has in recent years become a focal point for scientists exploring its therapeutic benefits for those suffering from anxiety and depression. These are much lower levels than the current definitions of “personal use” in the ACT.
Possession of cannabis has already been decriminalised in Canberra since 1992. Pettersson also introduced a bill that came into effect in 2020, which went one step further and allowed adult residents in the ACT to legally grow and possess small amounts of cannabis for personal use.
ACT vs Commonwealth law
The proposed bill is currently being examined by an ACT Legislative Assembly committee. Concerns have been raised with the committee about a potential inconsistency between Commonwealth and ACT law. The same issues were raised when the Assembly passed laws to legalise cannabis, however, the federal government has not yet intervened and so the issue remains unresolved. There are concerns the issue could be tested under the proposed laws, however, given the drugs concerned are more serious than cannabis.
Despite now being legal under ACT law, it is still open to police to charge people with a Commonwealth offence for possessing cannabis – which could result in gaol time. Police have adopted internal governance procedures to help with this, according to The Canberra Times.
Australian Federal Police Association president Alex Caruana has said, of the conflicting laws, officers used discretion, and some still charged for cannabis possession.
“I’ll be honest, there are police officers out there that will charge members if they are caught with cannabis under the current legislation,” Caruana said.
Caruana also said he would lobby the Commonwealth to act should the proposed bill in its current form pass the ACT Legislative Assembly.
“We will be lobbying the Commonwealth to act, because a lot of those drugs we would say aren’t socially acceptable and they wouldn’t pass the pub test.”
Benefits of drug decriminalisation
A central feature of drug decriminalisation is the concept of harm reduction.
One of the biggest harms from illicit drug use is having a criminal record for possessing small amounts of a drug for personal use. Most people who use illicit drugs do so only on occasion and only in small amounts. These people are not dependent on drugs, nor do they need treatment. A criminal record can have a long-lasting negative impact on a person’s future, including on their career and their ability to travel.
The criminalisation of drugs also means there is a lot of stigma attached to using them, which makes it harder for people to seek help when they need it.
Several studies have shown that decriminalisation does not increase drug use among existing or new users. It also reduces demand on, and the cost of, the criminal justice system.