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Australian Lawmakers Approve Drug Decriminalization Bill For Federal Territory That Includes Nation’s Capital

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Australian lawmakers approved a bill on Thursday to locally decriminalize low-level possession of currently illicit drugs including psilocybin, heroin and cocaine in the federal territory that includes the nation’s capital of Canberra.

The Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) passed the legislation from MP Michael Pettersson of the Labor party in a 13-6 vote, with some amendments offered by the government.

The law, which will take effect next year to give law enforcement and officials time to adjust policies, will make it so possession of small amounts of eight drugs will be punishable by a fine, warning or participation in a drug diversion program, rather than jail time. The $100 AUD fine (about $63 USD) could be waived if the person voluntarily completes the program.

ACT already decriminalized marijuana in the early 1990s, and the Assembly approved a non-commercial cannabis legalization bill from Pettersson that took effect in 2020, allowing adults 18 and older to possess and grow marijuana for personal use.

Here’s the possession limit for each drug under the new decriminalization policy:

  • Cocaine: 1.5 grams
  • Heroin: 2 grams
  • MDMA: 3 grams
  • Methamphetamine: 1.5 grams
  • Amphetamine: 2 grams
  • Psilocybin: 2 grams
  • Lysergic acid: 2 milligrams
  • LSD: 2 milligrams

“It is a sensible, evidence-based approach to drug policy,” Pettersson said of the drug decriminalization proposal in his closing remarks before the vote on Thursday. “The bill is about harm reduction, reducing ordinary people’s interactions with the criminal justice system.”

“The war on drugs is a failed policy,” he said. “Across the world, it has destroyed countless lives and decimated whole communities. It’s based on flawed science and misinformation. It has not stopped drug use. It has not reduced drug use.”

He added that he views the decriminalization proposal as the “logical next step in the broader drug harm minimization strategy that is already underway in ACT.”

The territory’s executive government recommend amendments to the legislation that were ultimately adopted with the support of the sponsor. Methadone was dropped from the original list of decriminalized substances, for example. The government also secured a revision delaying implementation for one year.

As amended and passed, the bill further reduces the maximum penalty for possession of drugs that aren’t specifically decriminalized to a maximum of six months of incarceration.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said that the territory “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,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“We know that treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one is not only reducing harm for those individuals who use drugs, but also ultimately ends up building a safer community,” she said. “This is responsible, progressive change absolutely in line with the national drug strategy commitment to harm minimization.”

The main opposition to the legislation came from Canberra Liberals, who argued that the “radical reform” would lead to increased drug use and impaired driving.

The party’s leader, Jeremy Hanson, 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.”

The sponsor, Pettersson, slammed the opposition on Thursday, arguing that the party’s position amounts to partisan posturing. He pointed out that, in committee during the last parliamentary term, Hanson himself “spoke somewhat favorably” for his proposal to explore drug decriminalization and specifically talked about reforming laws for people who use MDMA at music festivals.

“Somewhere, somehow, the Canberra Liberals have lost their conviction to stand up for what they truly believe,” Pettersson said. “Because some of them do believe it.”

He also talked about the long-standing marijuana decriminalization policy that was enacted in the ACT almost three decades ago, saying it provided a “framework” for the broader decriminalization law that lawmakers have now approved. In the last Assembly in 2020, personal cannabis possession and cultivation was legalized altogether in the territory.

Meanwhile, members of Australia’s Green party in the state of Victoria recently unveiled a marijuana legalization plan ahead of an election next month. The proposal calls for a commercial market for adults 18 and older.

The premier of New South Wales, Australia separately said last month that the government would not be adopted a drug decriminalization policy in the state, even though a 2020 special committee inquiry into methamphetamine recommended the reform.

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