A bill that would make Canberra the first place in Australia to decriminalise illicit drugs such as heroin, MDMA and methamphetamines is set to be introduced to the ACT Legislative Assembly next year from the government’s own back bench.
Labor MLA Michael Pettersson, who introduced a private member’s bill in 2018 to legalise cannabis that was ultimately redrafted and passed, said criminal justice measures were not addressing the problem of drug use in the Canberra community.
He said people caught with small amounts of hard drugs should not face the prospect of a criminal conviction.
“We’ve had laws of prohibition in place for about 100 years. In that 100 years, somehow, 43 per cent of Australians have used an illicit substance [including cannabis],” he said.
“That tells me that the criminal justice system isn’t the deterrent we think it is.
“If someone is using drugs, the best way to get them to stop is to sit them down with a doctor.”
Mr Pettersson said community support for decriminalisation was “way out ahead” of politicians, citing the National Drug Strategy Household Survey released in July.
That survey found just 20 per cent of people supported a prison sentence or community service for someone found to possess MDMA, and about a quarter of people supported prison or community service for someone caught in possession of heroin.
And unlike Mr Pettersson’s cannabis legalisation bill, which clashed with federal law and risked being struck down as unconstitutional, there is already an established path to follow for decriminalising drugs.
In 1992, Canberra became the second jurisdiction to decriminalise cannabis, allowing for a simple fine for possessing the drug, rather than a requirement that the person be sent through the courts.
An exposure draft by Mr Pettersson suggests his bill will follow the same path, decriminalising possession of up to two grams of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines, and 0.5 grams of MDMA.
“For individual consumers caught with small amounts of drugs, those people should be diverted to a health pathway, receive a fine and have the substance confiscated,” he said.
He also noted that since the possession of cannabis was legalised in January, there had been no marked increase in related illegal behaviour, such as drug driving.
Barr welcomes ‘policy debate’ on decriminalisation
Decriminalising drugs is not an endorsed ACT Labor policy, but Chief Minister Andrew Barr said on Facebook that he welcomed Mr Pettersson’s bill.
“This is an important public policy debate. I’m pleased Michael has put this on the legislative agenda for 2021,” he said.
“The process from here will see a Legislative Assembly committee conduct an examination of the policy issues and the proposed legislation.
“It may then come before the Legislative Assembly for a vote towards the end of 2021.”
The government’s junior coalition partner, the ACT Greens, said in a statement the party was “delighted” drug reform was on the agenda for next year, and said they were “more than prepared to make some big changes this term”.
Greens MLA Johnathan Davis said his own experiences as a carer for someone with drug dependency issues had helped him to remember the human faces behind the policy debate.
“When people demonise drug use, they often forget we are talking about people – someone’s son or daughter, their husband, mother, friend,” Mr Davis said.
“Decriminalising drug possession was one of the policies the Greens took to the ACT election, so we’re looking forward to discussing details of the proposed legislation.”
Opposition airs concerns, but decriminalisation not rejected
Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee said her party would consider the proposal, but that the announcement had come without warning, and she had seen no detail from Labor on how decriminalisation might work.
“We know from experience when Michael actually brought the bill in relation to cannabis last time that it was riddled with concerns, especially raised by the legal fraternity, about the way it was drafted,” Ms Lee said.
“When it comes to drug reform there are so, so many stakeholders that we need to consult, and this is just another example of Labor shooting from the hip, without proper consultation.
“We saw none of this in the lead-up to the election campaign, and now they have sort of dropped it on us.”
Ms Lee said any legislation brought to the Assembly would need to have mechanisms to help people off drugs “firmly” in place to be considered.
“Without that it becomes a little bit fruitless,” she said.