The A.C.T. has relaxed laws on cannabis use, possibly paving the way for other states to consider more progressive legislation, writes Chris Mordd Richards.
ON 30 JANUARY 2020, the A.C.T. “legalised” cannabis, in the process becoming the first jurisdiction in Australia to take this step.
Since then, the sky has not fallen. Despite the rhetoric from the Federal Government last year about overturning the legislation with an act of Federal Parliament, thus far they have taken no action.
It is now legal under A.C.T. law for someone over the age of 18 to possess up to 50 grams of dried cannabis, as well as grow two plants per person at home, or a maximum of four plants per household (with some caveats).
The number of active users has likely remained static thus far since the change in law, with most existing users continuing to purchase it illegally for the moment given the grow time and seasonal timing required for outdoor growth.
A few enterprising folks may have planted a late crop on 1 February this year when the law took effect, but most would not be growing their own till the 2021 season at the earliest.
Labor MLA Michael Pettersson, who sponsored the original bill, says:
I think Canberra is still much the same place it was before the reforms but I do know that users of cannabis in the A.C.T. no longer have to fear fine or criminal prosecution.
I'm eagerly awaiting any data that might shed some light on how the reforms have changed behaviour regarding usage, drug driving and supply.
Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, putting users in the A.C.T. in a legal grey zone currently. At any point, A.C.T. Police – being a division of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) – could decide to charge someone with possession under the federal laws still.
It is up to the discretion of each individual A.C.T. Police officer which laws to apply now. In the event someone is charged under federal law, which at some point will inevitably occur, the A.C.T. Government has pledged to intervene in court on behalf of the person charged.
It will then ultimately be up to a judge whether the A.C.T. legislation presents a reasonable excuse under federal law or not.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government could pass legislation specifically to overturn the A.C.T. laws but has been silent on that front for almost six months now. Certainly, the bushfires and then the pandemic have pushed the issue off the radar for the moment.
The longer the legislation remains in place in the A.C.T., the more likely it becomes that it will not be overturned. The Morrison Government could still decide to pursue this issue later this year or next, however, as the next election approaches.
When asked if or when he thinks the Government might still seek to intervene, Pettersson says:
‘I think the Federal Government has come to terms with the legislation and frankly have more important things to worry about than busting individual cannabis users. If they were going to intervene then surely they would have done it already.’
Technically, this situation means cannabis is not actually “legalised” in the A.C.T. — it is essentially mostly decriminalised instead. Whilst the chances of being charged with possession at this point are now slim, the possibility still exists, meaning you cannot truly describe the situation as legalised yet.
There remain numerous issues with the legislation as well in terms of fairness and equity. One example is that growing indoors, or using artificial lighting or heating, remains banned.
This means that for anyone without a backyard, you may not have anywhere you can grow your own plants. Anyone in an apartment is limited to their balcony at best, using only natural sunlight, depending on how much sun your balcony happens to get.
Whilst you can get strains that will thrive even in more limited sunlight conditions, not all strains will perform as well if grown on a balcony with only morning or afternoon sun.
There is also still no legal method to acquire seeds. Anyone wanting to grow their own must source seeds from a drug dealer or import them illegally from overseas, limiting most Canberrans ability to easily commence growing their own.
Whilst the legislation currently in effect in the A.C.T. is a good starting point, it has a way to go still before being truly fair and equitable for all residents. In addition, a retail model of distribution is ultimately the desired long-term outcome for most people, rather than just growing your own at home.
The A.C.T. has set a base model that other states could now choose to follow. There is a strong push in Victoria currently to move all the way to a retail distribution model, potentially leapfrogging the A.C.T.’s progress in the process.
The more states and territories that legalise cannabis, the more pressure will come to bear on the Federal Government to make it legal nationally in the long run.
We have already seen from the USA, Canada and other countries the massive tax benefits a fully legal retail model can have for states or countries that pursue that path.
There is also ample opportunity for advanced research into medicinal applications in Australia, were we to pursue a federally legal model.
The USA is still lagging on the research front, despite many U.S. states having legalised cannabis. There is an opportunity for Australia to take the lead in this area if we chose to, with our reputation for cutting edge research and high-class facilities and agencies here, such as the CSIRO.
Meanwhile, it has not affected police enforcement of large-scale commercial grow operations, with busts still taking place recently. With a reduced focus on enforcing possession laws in the A.C.T. now, the police should have more resources available to go after the criminal enterprise aspects instead.
Ultimately, not much has changed yet in practice, except that cannabis users can go about their business free of most legal concerns and the rest of society continues like always. IA will let you know if the sky does still fall in at some point, though.
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