ACT government decriminalises small amounts of illicit drugs including speed, heroin and cocaine
The ACT government has decriminalised small amounts of commonly used illicit drugs, becoming the first jurisdiction to do so in the country.
Under the new law, people found with amounts of certain drugs considered to be "personal possession" — smaller than trafficable quantities — would be subject to fines rather than criminal charges, and be referred for counselling.
The law, which will not come into effect for 12 months, applies to drugs such as heroin, cocaine and speed.
The legislation follows the recommendations of a Legislative Assembly inquiry into the proposal, which was tabled by Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson last year.
The ACT was the first — and remains the only — state or territory to legalise the personal use of cannabis.
The penalty for possession of a small quantity of decriminalised drugs will be a $100 civil fine (that will not need to be paid if the person chooses to attend an illicit drug diversion class), a diversion or a caution.
The opioid methadone and a form of LSD were proposed to be included in the reform but were dropped from the bill in the Assembly.
A range of other drugs of dependence and prohibited substances not included in the decriminalisation will have their maximum prison penalty reduced to six months.
Before the reform, the maximum penalty for possession was two years imprisonment.
There was no legislated diversion program or civil fine that could be applied to any possession offences.
The inclusion of ice in the reforms has been controversial, but Mr Pettersson said people who use methamphetamine are often the most in need of assistance from health services.
"People that use recreational drugs are taking a risk, and certain drugs cause more harm than others," he said.
"If people are using a substance like methamphetamine, we need to make sure that we do not continue to criminalise them and make it even easier for them to come forward and access the support that they might need."
While the law may have changed in relation to possession, police will still be able to target dealers and work to disrupt the drug trade in Canberra.
ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the reforms were focused on harm reduction and had been called for by people with lived experience of drug use, the alcohol and other drugs sector, and the advocacy group Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform (FFDLR).
"We know that the ACT has a progressive community and supports evidence-based changes, and the evidence to support decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts of a range of drugs is there," Ms Stephen-Smith said.
"We know that treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one is not only reducing harm for those individuals who use drugs, but also ultimately ends up building a safer community.
"It both reduces harm associated with engagement with the criminal justice system – which is a harm in itself – [and] reduces the stigma associated with drug use and encourages people to come forward for the support and treatment that is going to help them recover from their dependence."
Ms Stephen-Smith said because the amendments would not take effect until October next year there was a 12-month transition period to ensure police are ready for the reform and the community was clear on what the new rules were.
"This is responsible, progressive change absolutely in line with the national drug strategy commitment to harm minimisation," she said.
"Harm minimisation has three pillars: harm reduction, supply reduction and demand reduction. This is about harm reduction, but we also remain committed to supply reduction.
"We are not encouraging people to use drugs and we are not facilitating the trafficking or dealing of drugs with this change, all we are doing is ensuring that those people who have a small amount of drugs in their possession for personal use are treated with a health response, not a criminal one."
The Canberra Liberals, who have opposed the bill since its inception, said they would push for the laws to be repealed.
The party's deputy leader Jeremy Hanson said the "radical reform" would cause multiple new problems and exacerbate existing ones.
"It wasn't taken to the community, it's going to lead to more crime, it's going to lead to more carnage on our roads," he said.
"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."
He argued similar laws had not been successful in other parts of the world.
"Look at places like Portland in America where they've implemented these sort of reforms, where meth now is a real scourge on the streets," he said.
"That is chaos, and we don't want to see that rolling out in Canberra."
Mr Hanson said removing the deterrent of criminalisation would lead to more drug use in the community.
"Who wants to see people addicted to meth and heroin?" he said.
"We don't, and it's very clear that by removing the criminal aspects of it you're removing a significant deterrence and that will lead to that.
"If you're addicted to drugs – if you're on meth or heroin – yes, we want to make sure there are treatments available, we want to make sure that support's available, we want to of course have people diverted to those treatment spaces, but at the very core of it we want to stop those drugs becoming available in the first place."
For reformed drug user Steve, the new laws are a welcome change.
Steve started using cannabis and heroin when he was 14 and was first arrested when he was 16.
"At the time I did not really understand my drug use. I used it as a coping mechanism because of my traumatic upbringing," he said.
Steve said his criminal conviction had a serious impact on his life and had followed him for decades.
"It stopped me getting employment – you have to tick that box that you have got a criminal history which made it really hard," he said.
"I have not had a criminal history for over 20 years … I'm tarred with that for life."
Steve said he believed he would have fared better in life had the laws been in place when he was a drug user.
"I would have had quicker exposure to health services and understanding why I was doing what I was doing," he said.
"The war on drugs has not been very successful, so it is time to try something new."
He now works as a casual employee at the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy, where he is involved in community outreach.
He said he hoped to see more people get the help they needed once the laws took effect.
"In my own neighbourhood I come into contact with a lot of drug users who will greatly benefit," he said.
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