ACT Labor has always led the country with progressive drug law reform.
Before we dive into the details of the most recent changes to our drug laws that decriminalise the possession of small quantities of common illicit drugs for personal use, I think it’s worth rewinding all the way back to the 1990’s to understand the history of our drug laws.
From the very earliest days of the first ACT Legislative Assembly, drug law reform has been an issue of immense community interest. In 1991, the Assembly’s Select Committee on HIV, Illegal Drugs and Prostitution found that the prohibition on cannabis use had failed and that it did little to quell its use in the ACT community. The Committee recommended that a new approach was required to address cannabis use in the ACT. Thus, in 1992, the ‘Simple Offence Cannabis Notice’ (SCON) was born.
In its original form, the SCON allowed a person in certain circumstances to avoid a criminal conviction if they were caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use. A person possessing under 25 grams, or five plants would likely be issued a $100 fine, and if the fine was paid in under 60 days, a criminal charge would be avoided. Later, in 2005, the SCON was amended to reduce the maximum amount of cannabis plants from five to two and excluded all hydroponically grown plants but increase the possession limit to 50 grams. In conjunction with the SCON scheme, police also had the power to divert people that use cannabis to relevant health services and not issue a fine if they determined that was a more prudent response.
Fast forward to September 2018, when I introduced a Bill to the Assembly proposing to amend the ACT’s already established cannabis decriminalisation model to a legalisation model, allowing Canberrans to cultivate two plants (with a maximum of four plants per household) and possess up to 50 grams of cannabis without risk of fine or criminal conviction. Alongside these new provisions came a range of rules that regulated cannabis use in the ACT such as bans on smoking in public or around children and limits on where cannabis could be grown.
My proposal had widespread community support. A poll taken at the time of the changes indicated that most of the ACT population supported the legislation, with 54% in support, and 27% in opposition. Following a committee inquiry, debate and then a vote in the Assembly, the ACT became the first jurisdiction in Australia to legalise the personal use of cannabis.
This reform continued in early 2021 when I introduced the Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill to the Legislative Assembly, seeking to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of common illicit drugs.
The Bill amended the Drugs of Dependence 1989 Act to expand the list of common illicit drugs included in the SCON scheme and change the name of the SCON scheme to the ‘Simple Drug Offence Notice’ (SDON) to better reflect its new application to a range of substances, not just cannabis. This offers police an alternative to charging individuals with a criminal offence for personal possession. If someone is caught in possession of a small quantity of drugs in the scheme, they will be issued a fine or directed to a drug diversion service and have the drugs confiscated. Instead of receiving a criminal conviction, Canberrans will get better access to the health services that they need.
It’s important to note that growing, producing, trafficking, selling or gifting drugs is still illegal under ACT and federal law. Other offences, such as driving under the influence of drugs, are not impacted by the changes and still have serious repercussions. This Bill simply reduced penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use – nothing more, nothing less.
On 20 October 2022, my Bill passed. With that, the ACT again became the first jurisdiction in Australia to make such a change. When the Bill comes into effect in October 2023, our health and justice systems will be ready to action this ground-breaking harm-minimisation approach.
The journey to drug decriminalisation in the ACT has been long but worthwhile. With each step we have taken, our expert-informed evidence base has strengthened – all the way from the 1990’s to now.
We have demonstrated that the “just say no” approach hasn’t stopped people from using drugs, and we provided a solution to problematic drug use in health-based harm reduction measures.
And I have no doubt that ACT Labor couldn’t have done it without the unwavering support of our membership base. Thank you for joining us on this journey.