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Everything You Need To Know About Canberra's Decriminalisation of 'Hard Drugs'

Editorial Assistant, Eva Anido, reports on the new legislative changes in Canberra, detailing the decriminalisation of certain ‘hard drugs’ and what this means.

A big step in Australia’s war on drugs was made in the ACT legislative assembly on the evening of October 20 2022. A new law was passed to decriminalise small amounts of some ‘hard’ drugs in the territory.

The drugs included are: [1]

1.5 grams of cocaine

1.5 grams amphetamine

1.5 grams MDMA

1.5 grams methamphetamine

1 gram of heroin

This isn’t Canberra’s first time leading drug reform. The new law follows the ACT’s 2019 cannabis legalisation. There are however some important differences between the two laws. For one, the amount of cannabis one can possess is far greater. If you are over 18 in Canberra you can have up to 50g of dried cannabis or 150g of fresh cannabis in your possession legally. It still remains illegal for those under 18. It also remains a crime to drive with it in your system. This is important to consider as the drug can stay in your system for anywhere between 3 days to a month depending on how often you use it.

Another important difference between the two laws is that ‘hard’ drugs have been ‘decriminalised’ whilst cannabis has been ‘legalised’. So, if you stay within your limits using cannabis you will not incur a penalty. [2] Whereas, if you are found to possess any of the ‘hard’ drugs listed within the limits mentioned, you will receive a fine of $100. Unlike before, in the ACT if you are found with the listed drugs in your possession you will not be committing a crime, meaning you can’t be arrested or have a drug crime listed on your criminal history. The possession of ‘hard’ drugs will be treated more like an infraction, similar to littering and other petty offences. [3]

Only around 10 people each year are charged and found guilty for possession of this size in Canberra, and the move to decriminalise these drugs was found to be “overwhelmingly” supported. This information was provided by Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith in a press conference following the official news of the decriminalisation of these ‘hard’ drugs. She stated, “the harm associated with drug use is a health issue and treating drug use as a criminal matter does not help addicts.” The health minister found that this new law was a far better way to protect the community’s well-being. [4]

However, there are some who believe this isn’t enough. The chief executive of the organisation Unharm, which promotes the safe and legal use of drugs, didn’t believe this law reform was an effective change, stating, “this is not going to solve any problems — all it’s going to do is create new problems.” He discussed that the fines will likely target marginalised groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people who are homeless, as police will possess complete discretion. [5]

Other federal officials have disagreed with the reform as well, including the shadow attorney-general, Jeremy Hanson. When asked whether he supported the change he replied, “I’m not going to support anything that’s going to make life more dangerous for police and society.” He explained that the already low number of drug related prosecutions informed by the health minister indicated the decriminalisation was unnecessary. [6]

To aid in the new law, further drug related rehabilitation programs will be available for those fined for possessing these quantities of drugs. Canberra is also one of Australia’s territories that has experimented with pill testing stands at music festivals. Following the decriminalisation of these ‘hard’ drugs there is now a fixed pill testing centre in Canberra undergoing a 6 month trial. Along with professionals testing the drugs, there are also nurses present to provide care and information regarding drug use. [7]

Canberra has a reputation of being a leader in law reform. It will be interesting to see how this pans out in the territory and how it may be adopted in other states and territories around the country.


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