A new policy that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs took effect on Saturday in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which includes the national capital of Canberra and surrounding areas. The jurisdiction is the country’s first to adopt the policy change.
Lawmakers for the territory approved the new decriminalization policy a year ago, passing the bill from Labor MP Michael Pettersson through the ACT Legislative Assembly. It removes criminal penalties for simple drug possession and instead makes possession punishable by a warning, fine or participation in a drug diversion program.
The fine of AU$100 (about $64 USD) could be waived if a person voluntarily completes the program.
The change applies to eight drugs and sets specific possession limits for each substance.
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
The bill also reduces the maximum penalty for possession of drugs that aren’t specifically decriminalized to a maximum of six months of incarceration.
“Canberrans know that drug use is a health issue and today our laws now reflect our values,” Pettersson said in an Instagram post on Saturday.
At the time his bill passed, Pettersson called the plan a “sensible, evidence-based approach to drug policy” that puts public health over criminal punishment.
“The bill is about harm reduction, reducing ordinary people’s interactions with the criminal justice system,” Pettersson said. Across the world, he added, the war on drugs “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.”
Ahead of the new law taking effect, Sen. Michaela Cash, a Liberal Party member representing Western Australia, attempted to scuttle the policy change in the national legislature. Earlier this month, Cash said the shift would turn the nation’s seat of government into “the drug capital.”
“I effect, they’ve created a parking fine scheme that applies to the possession of ice, speed, heroin, cocaine and other things,” Cash said, according to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation report. “I would implore the [federal] government, please don’t turn your back on people in the ACT.”
Labor Sen. Tim Ayres of New South Wales said Cash’s effort to derail the plan was “an extraordinary intervention” into ACT’s jurisdictional affairs. If Cash wants to intervene in ACT politics, he said, she should consider moving to the district and running for the legislative assembly.
ACT decriminalized marijuana in the early 1990s, and lawmakers approved a separate non-commercial cannabis legalization bill from Pettersson that took effect in 2020. That law allows adults 18 and older to possess and grow marijuana for personal use.
Pettersson has said the jurisdiction’s marijuana decriminalization policy provided a “framework” for the new, broader decriminalization law.
Lawmakers made some changes to Pettersson’s drug decriminalization bill last year in response to recommendations from ACT’s executive government. Methadone was dropped from the original list of decriminalized substances, for example, and implementation was delayed until this month.
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 at the time that the shift was “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.”
Earlier this year, Australia’s national government rescheduled two substances, psilocybin and MDMA, to provide access to people with PTSD and treatment-resistant depression.
The substances weren’t legalized for broad use, but by placing them in Schedule 8 for therapeutic use under the country’s drug code, psychiatrists who meet the required standards can legally prescribe the psychedelics. The drugs will remain in the stricter Schedule 9 for unauthorized use.
In September, a study of more than 2,300 Australian medical patients with chronic health conditions found that those who used medical marijuana saw significant improvements in overall quality of life and reductions in fatigue during the first three months.
Photo courtesy of Dominic Milton Trott.