The capital city of Australia, Canberra, became the first and only city in the country to legalize marijuana for personal use on Tuesday. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly passed the bill introduced by Labor politician Michael Pettersson in September of this year.
- The law will go into effect on January 31st, 2020.
- Opponents of the bill have called the law “dangerous” and “crazy.”
- Recreational use and cultivation of marijuana remain illegal in the country’s other six states and territories.
- Medical marijuana was legalized in Australia in 2016.
Table of Contents
- What Is Legal and What Is Illegal
- Reasons for Legalizing Marijuana in ACT
- Local Law vs. Commonwealth Law
- On the Road to Commercialization?
What Is Legal and What Is Illegal
The law allows for the possession of up to 50 grams of dried marijuana for anyone over the age of 18, among the territory’s 400,000 residents. The Private Members Bill also permits the cultivation of up to two plants per person or four per household, although the law stipulates that growing cannabis hydroponically is prohibited.
The new law also prohibits public consumption of marijuana. No one may consume cannabis anywhere near children, and it must also be stored in a place where children cannot reach it. Despite the ACT’s passage of the bill, recreational marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and in other parts of Australia, a fact that federal lawmakers pointed to when they heard of the news.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton railed against the law, saying that “it might be trendy for the ACT government to go down this path … but I think it’s dangerous”. Dutton’s remarks were followed by a warning from Federal Attorney-General Christian Patterson to Canberrans, “if … you want to possess marijuana, be careful because there are commonwealth laws that still apply”.
Reasons for Legalizing Marijuana in ACT
MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) said they voted for legalization because of safety concerns and to destigmatize drug use among the 10% of Australians who consume cannabis, which is also the most widely consumed drug in the country. Pettersson remarked that he was motivated to introduce the bill to “reduce the exposure individuals have to drug dealers and organized criminal cartels. I think by allowing people to grow their own supply does that”.
ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay echoed those sentiments after the bill passed, saying that it was time to treat addiction as a health issue rather than a matter of “right and wrong”. Ramsay was also upfront about how the law conflicts with national statutes, saying that the legislation “does not remove the risk of being arrested under Commonwealth law”.
Local Law vs. Commonwealth Law
The Legislative Assembly sought clarification before voting on the bill from Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions Sarah McNaughton on the possibility of Canberrans being prosecuted under federal law for marijuana possession. McNaughton sent two responses.
The first said the ACT law would defend people from Commonwealth prosecution. The second nullified the advice of the first response, as McNaughton reiterated that the matter had “legal complexities that had not initially been appreciated.”
For their part, ACT police officials have said that when the law takes effect in 2020, they will focus less on consumers and more on suppliers and organized crime distribution. Before passage of the bill, 92% of all cannabis-related arrests in 2017-2018 were of consumers.
On the Road to Commercialization?
The ACT legalizing personal marijuana use and cultivation is not the same as commercialization, where people buy cannabis and other marijuana products from a retail business. The law states that growers cannot sell their crops to anyone.
For commercialization to take effect, the drug would have to be legalized at the national level, which does not seem likely, given the federal government’s fierce opposition to the ACT legislation. The federal government has a history of voiding laws passed at the local level.
In 2006, the government of John Howard overturned the ACT law that recognized civil unions between same-sex couples in the territory. In this most recent case, the government has not signaled whether they would pursue revocation of the law, although they have said it is within their power.