The Australian capital of Canberra made history last week by becoming the first jurisdiction in the country to legalize recreational cannabis.
On Wednesday, September 25th, lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly voted on legislation proposed by Labor Party politician Michael Pettersson. Specifically, the new law makes possession, (limited) cultivation and use legal within the national capital.
But while the bill represents a significant step forward in the liberalization of cannabis laws in Australia, many fear that the federal government may intervene to kill the new law before it even gets off the ground.
Details Of The New Law
Under the new legislation, ACT residents over the age of 18 will be allowed to possess up to 50 grams of cannabis and grow up to two plants. Public consumption, however, will remain illegal. Users must store their pot so that it can’t be accessed by children, and are not allowed to smoke within the presence of minors.
The laws regarding cultivation are also quite strict, and will prohibit the use of hydroponic cultivation and growing on community property.
Officially, the law won’t come into effect until January 31st of next year.
Many are understandably excited by the move. Not only is it a national first, but it will also dramatically decrease arrests, fines and jail time for users within the capital. With that said, it’s important to point out the new laws aren’t analogous to legalization in Canada and certain US states for a number of very important reasons.
To start with, the laws in Canberra don’t go nearly as far as they do in North America. While possession is now legal, distribution is not – both the plant and seeds cannot be sold, purchased or even exchanged between individuals.
Contrast that with the kind of “full” legalization that we’ve seen across the Pacific, which have created the conditions for a large, lucrative new industry to emerge, and it’s clear that Canberra still has a ways to go.
Can The Law Be Overturned?
The rules governing Australia’s states and territories also make things more complicated than they are in North America. The country’s six states have quite a bit of power to pass their own laws within their borders. The ACT, however, is a territory, and while it has its own self-government and legislative assembly, its laws can be changed and revoked by the federal government.
The fact that the territory’s legislation is subject to the whims of the federal government is important to note, and could potentially have devastating consequences for legalization – many have pointed out that the new laws in Canberra are in direct conflict with those at the national level.
Furthermore, outside of the ACT’s Legislative Assembly, a number of prominent national lawmakers and officials are unimpressed, and haven’t been shy about sharing their opinions.
Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton has come down particularly hard on the subject, expressing his disapproval and suggesting that Australia’s Attorney General Christian Porter would be having a closer look at the legislation.
Porter himself has also made a number of comments expressing his disapproval and indicating that the federal government may intervene. When asked about police enforcement of national drug laws towards residents of Canberra, Porter didn’t provide a definitive answer, but did comment that “there is still Commonwealth law that applies to the ACT where a person commits an offence if they possess a prohibited substance, which includes marijuana.”
If the new legislation does in fact get axed, it wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened in Canberra- in 2013, an ACT bill legalizing gay marriage was overturned by the High Court of Australia, citing that it was inconsistent with national laws.
And while this kind of heavy-handedness isn’t the norm, many cannabis advocates are worried that something similar may happen with the new bill – especially given the fact that prominent politicians have felt the need to speak up on the issue.
Cannabis Laws In Australia
Cannabis is by far the most widely used illegal drug among Australians. Studies within the country have found that, while its use among the general population has remained stable since 2001, there’s been a general trend of increasing use among older people in recent years.
These studies have also found that tolerance for cannabis has increased quite a bit, and the vast majority of Australians favor allowing it for medicinal purposes. In 2016, medical cannabis was legalized at the federal level, with the Australian parliament amending the Narcotic Drugs Act in February of that year.
Along with progressive social attitudes that are more or less in line with much of North America, Australia’s drug laws have been focused less on punitive measures and more on harm-reduction, and the country generally gives their states and territories a good amount of leeway in drafting legislation when it comes to cannabis-related crimes.
Future Legalization Efforts In Australia
While those hoping that Canberra’s legalization will lead to a full blown cannabis industry starting up in Australia would be advised to hold their breath, the new laws have left some industry insiders hopeful – many believe that the capital’s legalization is a sign of things to come in other parts of the country.
Dr. Sud Agarwal, CEO of industry service provider Cannvalate is optimistic, commenting that “as attitudes towards adult-use cannabis use soften and learnings about how to regulate this market in a safe manner are made, then I would expect other states to pass similar legislation as it is likely to be an easy tool for political parties will use to win over large numbers of the Australian electorate”.
While others are skeptical of the impact Canberra’s decision will have, if the bill does make it into law next January without being torpedoed by the federal government, it could potentially create a domino effect. If other parts of the country follow suit, we could very well see a legal situation similar to that in the US – imperfect, but a major step in the right direction.