The first time I used cannabis I was 19 years old and excited to try something new. I had one pot brownie and fell asleep in the back of a movie theatre. The only attention I drew that day was from fellow cinema patrons.
My experience with cannabis did not result in the attention of law enforcement. For many, this is not the case. Canberrans still face the real prospect of a criminal conviction and jail time for their cannabis consumption.
As I have seen in the stories shared with me since I first raised cannabis legalisation, the criminalisation of cannabis is ineffective and harmful. I am not alone in this view. Canberrans support cannabis legalisation by a large margin. Support for legalisation currently sits at 54 per cent of the city, with only 27 per cent opposed.
Community attitudes towards certain drugs are evolving. We have seen the benefits of pill testing at local music festivals, and we have seen reforms that enable people to access medicinal cannabis for therapeutic purposes at the federal level.
The bill currently before the Assembly would not create a commercial cannabis industry. It is a reform to the current laws in the ACT regarding possession and small cultivation, which are more in line with contemporary community attitudes towards cannabis use.
Cannabis law reform in the ACT is not new. In the 1990s the Australian Capital Territory, along with several other states, created a possible civil penalty for the possession of small amounts of cannabis. This was a watershed moment in drug law reform which gave police the ability to issue consumers a fine, not just an arrest. This is the system we have in place today. My bill would take the next step. No arrests, no fines, no stigma.
As a city committed to restorative justice and evidence based public policy, we should be focused on harm-minimisation strategies. To act effectively we must respond to facts and develop policy that is realistic, measured and proportional to the risks at hand. Far too often this debate is dominated by ideological battlelines and is out of step with community attitudes towards the personal use of cannabis.
Despite the widespread use of cannabis in our society, there is little evidence of it causing the significant health or social harms associated with other types of drugs. To be clear; some people have adverse experiences from their cannabis use both medical and social. We must not dismiss this, we must support them. Legalising cannabis allows those seeking help for their drug dependency to do so freely and without concern for legal ramifications.
It’s important to note that people will use cannabis regardless of what our drug laws say. Recreational users of cannabis do not want to be criminals, they do not want to support criminal networks, and given the option, recreational users would rather act within the law.
My bill would allow for this. It would enable adults to legally possess 50g of cannabis and grow a small number of plants naturally for personal use. It remains illegal to sell cannabis, smoke it in public, drive under its influence or provide it to minors. These changes are sensible and measured.
They mirror quite closely the Vermont model in the United States. It allows for the possession and use of cannabis but it does not create a commercial market as in other jurisdictions like Colorado. As is to be expected, even amongst those that support legalisation, there is much contention about the most appropriate model for our city. I believe that this is the right model, for the right time, as it so closely aligns with the reforms our community undertook over two decades ago.
Canberra often considers itself at the forefront of social change in Australia. On this issue, we have an opportunity to develop a more progressive and sensible framework for the personal use of cannabis,
one that is based on harm minimisation not a failed prohibition model.
Michael Pettersson is the Labor member for the seat of Yerrabi.