The ACT could soon decriminalise small amounts of illicit substances such as heroin, MDMA and methamphetamine under a radical new bill set to be introduced to the ACT Legislative Assembly by Labor MLA Michael Petterson next year.

The bill aims to reduce the burden placed on an already overwhelmed criminal justice system while providing drug users with better access to health services. It is also important to point out though that decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. Under the proposed changes police would be granted the power to issue a $100 civil fine and send the person to a health program, instead of bringing criminal charges.

Petterson, who in 2018 introduced the private members bill to legalise cannabis in the ACT, believes that the current approach to drug use in the Canberra community is inadequate.

“We’ve had laws of prohibition in place for about 100 years. In that 100 years, somehow, 43% of Australians have used an illicit substance [including cannabis]. That tells me that the criminal justice system isn’t the deterrent we think it is. If someone is using drugs, the best way to get them to stop is to sit them down with a doctor,” Peterson said in an interview with ABC.

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 Petterson was also quick to point out that support for drug decriminalisation within the broader community continued to grow. A statement supported by the results of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey released earlier this year which found that only 20% of people supported a prison sentence or community service for someone found to possess MDMA, while around a quarter of people surveyed said they supported prison or community service for someone caught in possession of heroin.

The bill proposes to follow in the same way Canberra did in 1992, when it became the second jurisdiction to decriminalise cannabis. The bill would remove the requirement that the person be sent through the courts on charges of possession of up to 2g of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines, and 0.5g of MDMA.

Opposition leader Elizabeth Lee said that the announcement had come ‘”without warning” and that her party would need to see details of the proposed bill before considering it further.

“We know from experience when Michael actually brought the bill in relation to cannabis last time that it was riddled with concerns, especially raised by the legal fraternity, about the way it was drafted,” Lee said.

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 However, the ACT Greens, said in a statement the party was “delighted” drug reform was on the agenda for next year,” and that they were “more than prepared to make some big changes this term.”

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said that despite decriminalising drugs not being an endorsed ACT Labor policy that it was still an important public policy debate. I’m pleased Mr Petterson has put this on the legislative agenda for 2021.

“I personally support the policy direction of the proposed reform but will want to look at this bill closely next year. The process from here will most likely see a Legislative Assembly Committee conduct an examination of the policy issues and the proposed legislation. 

Subject to the view of the Assembly, this work could commence in the first quarter of the new year. Cabinet will also consider the bill and any proposed amendments multiple times throughout out next year. It may then come before the Legislative Assembly for a vote towards the end of 2021.

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