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Monday, April 12, 2021

Pettersson: Hard drug use a public health, not criminal justice, issue

Labor MLA Michael Pettersson, who successfully moved to decriminalise personal possession of cannabis in the ACT last year, now wants to decriminalise hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and ice, and direct people to health programs instead.

At present, possession of drugs of dependence or prohibited substances can incur 50 penalty units, a two-year prison sentence, or both, under the Drugs of Dependence Act 1989.

Mr Pettersson will introduce a bill to amend the Act – Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill 2021 – when the Legislative Assembly sits in February.

If Mr Pettersson had his way, possession of limited amounts would be a civil offence, rather than a criminal one. Offenders would have their drugs confiscated, be made to pay a fine, and be referred to rehab, instead of being imprisoned.

“The current prohibition framework stigmatises drug users, and makes them fearful to come forward and seek help,” Mr Pettersson said. “No-one fixes a drug addiction by going to jail or being put in handcuffs.”

People would be able to possess:

  • up to 2 grams of cocaine, ice, heroin, amphetamine, methadone, methylamphetamine, or psilocybin;
  • 0.5 gm of ecstasy; or
  • 0.002 gm of lysergic acid or lysergide (LSD).

These possession thresholds fall beneath traffickable thresholds set by the Federal Government.

“Any proposal coming out of the ACT needs to be very cognisant of Federal laws,” Mr Pettersson said.

He said the proposal is an expansion of the simple cannabis offence scheme for the decriminalisation of cannabis. Since last year, ACT residents have been able to possess up to 50 grams of dry cannabis, or up to four pot plants per household.

“Most Canberrans don’t think someone should go to jail for two years for the possession of small amounts of drugs for their own personal use,” he said. “Hopefully [this will] deter people from the criminal justice system, and instead direct them to health services.”

A copy of the consultation draft is available on Mr Pettersson’s Facebook page. He would like to hear feedback from peak bodies, doctors, unions, and individuals as to what changes should be made.

The political response

Mr Pettersson’s Labor colleagues and the ACT Greens have welcomed the proposal, but the Canberra Liberals are cautious.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr expressed his pleasure that Mr Pettersson had put such “an important public policy debate” on the legislative agenda for 2021.

A Legislative Assembly Committee will examine the policy issues and the proposed legislation, Mr Barr wrote on Facebook, possibly beginning early next year. The Assembly may vote on the issue before the end of next year.

Mr Pettersson moved for the ACT Government to investigate the feasibility of a simple offence notice, and report to the Assembly by November 2021. He said this was supported by every political party.

The Canberra Liberals said they had not seen the proposed legislation, and commented that Mr Pettersson appeared to be getting ahead of his own motion.

“It has been less than two months since the ACT election, and Labor never mentioned that this was on their agenda,” opposition leader Elizabeth Lee said.

“It is yet another example of their wrong priorities, and Canberrans will be right to question: why now?”

Once there was a bill to consider, Ms Lee said, the Canberra Liberals would engage with stakeholders and consider the evidence before taking a position.

“There are many legal, health, and social considerations that must be balanced,” she said.

Johnathan Davis, ACT Greens spokesperson for drug harm minimisation, said he was “delighted” minimising drug harm was on the Assembly’s agenda, and looked forward to discussing the legislation. The Greens’ electoral campaign had included decriminalising drug possession, Mr Davis pointed out.

“I have firsthand experience caring for someone close to me who has struggled with drug dependency,” he said. “When people demonise drug use, they often forget we are talking about people – someone’s son or daughter, their husband, mother, friend. 

“It’s important that any policies and programs concerning drugs and people who use drugs are evidence-driven, including input from people who use or have used drugs.”

Mr Davis will also propose a Legislative Assembly committee inquiry into alcohol, tobacco, and other drug harm minimisation at the next meeting in February.

“The community expects more than just decriminalising the possession of drugs,” he said. “Decriminalisation without a comprehensive suite of policies that support those who struggle with drug dependency will fail to address the underlying social, economic and health impacts of drug dependency in our community.”

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