Cannabis bill needs to be properly debated

In its quest to remain Australia’s most progressive city, the ACT Labor looks set to pass a bill making cannabis legal, in small amounts and for personal use.

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson, who introduced the private member’s bill before the Assembly last week, says such a move is well overdue, and would bring us in line with countries such as Canada, the US and Portugal, who have all legalised cannabis.


The amendment would make it legal for adults to have 50 grams of cannabis or four marijuana plants, for personal use only. It would be illegal to use cannabis in a public place, or within 20 metres of a child.

The bill, in its current form, is simple and straightforward, merely amending the definition of an offence relating to the use of cannabis in the Drugs of Dependence Act 1989, and removing the drug from the definition of a prohibited substance.

It is for this reason, Mr Pettersson says, that the bill should not be considered by a committee, but should instead go to straight to debate in parliament next February.

It’s difficult to see how Mr Pettersson has come to this view, given how many unanswered questions have arisen about the potential consequences of the legislation, should it pass in February.

For instance, possessing and smoking a small amount of cannabis may well be legal, but where does a person get it from in the first place? Will there be a central seed depository so that people know they’re getting the right strains of plant? Will the different strains of cannabis be regulated? How will it interact with current regulations regarding medicinal cannabis? And will it still be an offence to drive with cannabis in your system?

Mr Pettersson’s attitude to these questions has so far been cavalier; the bill is simple, he says, so let’s just get it passed, and worry about the details later.

One has only to look at the current chaos in the United Kingdom to see how that kind of attitude can backfire. There, the population was asked a simple yes/no question, on the proviso that should the answer be “Yes, let’s leave the European Union”, the details could be nutted out at a later date. And it’s these very details, and the painful process of nutting them out after the fact, that has left Britons feeling so aggrieved.

Legalising cannabis, even in small amounts, even for private use only, will have lasting legal, social and medical ramifications that need to be considered and debated now, before the law comes to pass.

So far, the bill has the full support of ACT Labor, and the provisional support, pending debate, of Greens parliamentarian Shane Rattenbury, who holds the balance of power. The Canberra Liberals have, unsurprisingly, opposed it, although shadow attorney-general Jeremy Hanson has conceded it will likely pass. But he wants to hear more considered debate on it. Mr Pettersson says this demonstrates that the Liberals “hate progress”. But perhaps, like many of us, Mr Hanson just fears the chaos that will ensue if the bill is enacted without determining its flow-on effects, which will be considerable.