The Australian Capital Territory Legalizes Personal Cannabis Use

The legalization movement took another huge step forward this week, after the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became the first state in Australia to officially legalize the cultivation, possession and consumption of cannabis for personal use.

The legislation was passed earlier this week with the support of Labor and the Greens, and is set to come into effect on 31 January, 2020.

The move represents a massive milestone for Australia's embryonic cannabis industry, as any adults residing in the ACT will now be able to possess up to 50 grams of cannabis per person, while also being able to grow two cannabis plants, with an overall limit of four plants per household.

However, it's not all good news, as the State Government has warned that there will still be potential risks involved with growing or smoking cannabis in the ACT—as the drug remains illegal at the Federal level—which could include potential jail time.

Additionally, the Commonwealth may also elect to overrule the ACT's decision and attempt to have the laws struck down to ensure that they remain consistent with the Federal Government's current legislation.

"This does not entirely remove the risk of people being arrested under Commonwealth law, and we are being up front with the community about that."

ACT Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay

Although the ACT Government has already spoken with Commonwealth prosecutors in an attempt to gain clarity on the potential legal risks, it has yet to receive a definitive response.

The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP), Sarah McNaughton SC, previously advised the State that the new legislation would provide legal defence to anyone charged with cannabis-related offences under Federal law.

Unfortunately, McNaughton rescinded this stance on Tuesday, before suggesting that it was an issue displaying "legal complexities that had not initially been appreciated".

The ACT Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay, also confirmed that individuals may still be at risk if they choose to cultivate or consume cannabis.

"The ACT's legislation attempts to provide a clear and specific legal defence to an adult who possesses small amounts of cannabis in the ACT, but is prosecuted under Commonwealth law."

"But unfortunately it cannot stop someone being arrested and charged if the Commonwealth officials were minded to do so, or prosecuted if the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions thought it were appropriate to do so," Ramsay said.

Although the news generated plenty of excitement from cannabis enthusiasts, the ACT Government has stated that strict regulations will be put in place governing its use. It will still remain illegal to consume cannabis in public—or anywhere near children—and cannabis plants will have to be grown in a location that is inaccessible to the general population.

Several additional amendments to the legislation were also suggested by the Greens—such as allowing the cultivation of hydroponic cannabis and adding greater allowances for medicinal users—however they failed to gain support and were subsequently voted down.

Despite the lack of support from the CDPP, the state's Chief Police Officer, Ray Johnson, has affirmed that the ACT Police fully understand the stance of the ACT Government, and will attempt to comply with it to the best of their ability.  

"If there's evidence that someone is providing cannabis to someone else, that's supply and that's an offence. We'll work to make [the laws] as effective as it can be. Police officers will have their views, and they'll execute the law of the day as best as they can."

ACT Chief Police Officer, Ray Johnson

"I'm not suggesting for one second that ACT Policing members are going to start a campaign of going out and charging everyone with Commonwealth offences."

"I don't believe that to be the case, and I think for the most part our members understand what this debate is about, and will work with us to make it to best effect," Johnson said.

The Labor backbencher who initially brought the bill forward, Michael Pettersson, has also said that he would potentially be in favour of possible commercialisation in future, although the present legislation provides no legal framework for doing so.

According to Pettersson, the biggest barrier currently preventing this is the Federal Government.

"Some members of the community may wish this bill went further, such as establishing a market for the sale of small amounts of cannabis. This would not be possible under current federal law, and has never been the purpose of this bill."

"This bill is simply about legalising cannabis for personal use," Pettersson said.

Although it seems likely that recreational legalization at the Federal level is still a a long way off, the ACT's decision is an extremely promising barometer for the future of Australia's cannabis industry.

And with the ACT now leading the way, it's highly possible that additional Australian states and territories may eventually choose to follow its lead.

Now that's what I call being a trailblazer.

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Hugo Gray
Hugo Gray

Hugo Gray is a Melbourne-based journalist with a body of work that covers a diverse range of topics, including immigration law, sex technology, and now the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

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