People caught with small amounts of illicit drugs, like cocaine, ice, heroin and speed, will be spared criminal charges in the Australian Capital Territory from 2023, after the territory government became the first in Australia to agree to decriminalising personal possession.
On Thursday, the ACT’s parliament passed new laws—first tabled in June—that will see people caught with up to nine different substances, including MDMA, amphetamine, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and mushrooms, face cautions, fines, or drug diversion programs instead of criminal prosecution.
In the meantime, the government plans to train frontline workers, including police, on the territory’s new harm reduction protocols, and strengthen the territory’s oversight protections.
Under the new law, personal drug use wouldn’t be fully legalised. Instead, those caught with small amounts—or, “personal use” quantities (averaging just under 2 grams)—of the substances covered would be fined, not arrested.
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.
The ACT’s health minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, said this new legislation falls in line with recommendations made by leading harm reduction and health experts across the country, and adds to a flurry of recent harm reduction efforts mounted by the ACT government over the last 12 months.
“The ACT has led the nation with a progressive approach to reducing the harm caused by illicit drugs with a focus on diversion, access to treatment and rehabilitation and reducing the stigma attached to drug use,” she said.
“This sensible reform is based on the expert advice that a health-focused, harm-reduction approach delivers the best outcome for people using drugs.
”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.
Earlier this 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 bill hasn’t come without its opposition, though. Speaking on the ABC, Jeremy Hanson, deputy leader of the Canberra Liberals, called the law change a “radical” move that risks driving crime rates up and leading “to more carnage on our roads”. “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.”
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.