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Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Pettersson introduces drug reform bill to the Assembly

The time has come for ACT drug laws to reflect contemporary values, Michael Pettersson MLA (ACT Labor) argued in the Legislative Assembly this morning, introducing his bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs.

“This bill aims to give people the support and help that they need, instead of being unnecessarily put through a criminal justice system not designed to provide health care,” Mr Pettersson said.

The motion to amend the Drugs of Dependence Act 1989 follows Mr Pettersson’s successful bill last year to decriminalize personal possession of cannabis.

“I believe the decriminalisation of small quantities of drugs better allows us to treat drug use as a public health problem. This is a common-sense step forward that will continue the ACT Government’s track record of helping those in our community who need help.”

As the Act stands at present, possession of drugs of dependence or prohibited substances can incur 50 penalty units, a two-year prison sentence, or both.

Instead of penalising people who use drugs with a criminal conviction, Mr Pettersson explained, offenders would have their drugs confiscated, be made to pay a fine, and be referred to a medical professional.

“The community has moved on from the war on drugs, and it’s time to move on from criminalization,” Mr Pettersson said. “We know that the traditional ‘just say no’ approach hasn’t worked.”

If the reform were successful, users 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 (which did not reflect lived experience, Mr Pettersson thought).

More than 43% of Australians over 14 had used an illicit drug, Mr Pettersson said; the threat of jail time and a criminal record did not deter people from taking drugs.

“People should not be arrested and shamed for their drug use. This can lead to a terrible cycle of recidivism – put simply, a terrible outcome for everyone.”

Since announcing his bill in December, Mr Pettersson said he many in the community had supported his proposal: addicts afraid to seek help for fear of criminal justice repercussions, grieving parents who lost children to drugs, experts and researchers who want to see laws changed, and law enforcement representatives.

“United across all of these different groups, they all want to reduce harm,” Mr Pettersson said. “Seemingly, it’s a question of how, not if.”

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Last year, Mr Pettersson’s bill to decriminalise cannabis received tripartisan support. That bill benefited both the health and the legal systems. “People who need to seek treatment for drug use are now able to access that help free of the spectre of the justice system.”

Despite conservative fears the bill would increase drug use, cannabis usage, drug driving offences, and cannabis-related hospital visits had not changed. Moreover, cannabis offences had decreased by 90%, freeing police time and resources, Mr Pettersson said.

The amendment would also protect drug users from potentially lethal substances.

“More often than not, these illicit drugs are cooked up in terrible circumstances in bikies’ bathtubs with no safety measures or precautions,” Mr Pettersson said.

“If people choose to consume drugs regardless of the health or legal risks, we as legislators have a responsibility to ensure that where we can, we reduce the harm.”

More funding for drug and alcohol services should accompany the reform, Mr Pettersson argued. Other laws such as self-administering (under the ACT Medicine Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act) that left people open to criminal prosecution needed to be reviewed, while prescription medicines also should be considered.

“We need to have a holistic response that doesn’t discriminate against a person for the drug they consume,” Mr Pettersson said.

The debate has been adjourned.

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