Australian Territory Decriminalizes Small Quantities of Hard Drugs

The Australian Capital Territory, which includes Canberra and surrounding areas, Saturday became Australia’s first jurisdiction to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.

The Australian Capital Territory, or ACT, now considers illegal drug use a health, not criminal, issue. While the ACT government has promised to remain tough on dealers and traffickers, it wants low-level cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine users to receive treatment, a police caution or a fine rather than going to court. Drugs will be confiscated.

The law was passed in 2022 by the ACT Legislative Assembly. Hard drugs, including LSD, cocaine and methamphetime, remain illegal.

Welfare and health campaigners welcomed the new measures, saying they will lead to more drug users getting help rather than being treated as criminals.

Alice Salomon, the Head of Media and Advocacy at Uniting ACT, a community services organization, said in a statement Thursday that “a shift to a focus on health-based and community responses for drug use and dependency rather than seeing the police and the courts as the place where we seek to address this is long overdue but warmly welcomed.”

Senior police officials say they fear the changes could encourage people to take illicit substances for the first time.

ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. the new laws are too permissive.

“You know, I am concerned about people trying drugs that have not historically done it because I think there will be confusion between, particularly young people, who will not understand the difference between decriminalization and legalization,” he said. “The harm-minimization issue still needs to be front and center, and that means people do not take drugs. I mean, they are dangerous.”

Michaelia Cash, a federal Liberal Party senator, is a staunch critic of the new drug law in the ACT. Earlier this month, she failed to overturn the legislation in Federal Parliament. Cash told Parliament that parking offenses in Canberra would now be treated more seriously than dangerous drugs and that the region was at risk of becoming Australia’s “drug capital.”

Australia’s federated system includes six states and two main territories. They are all self-governed and pass their own laws. The federal government has responsibility over several areas, including defense, foreign affairs, trade and immigration. The Federal Parliament can overturn state or territory legislation, but it is uncommon.

Often, reforms introduced in one jurisdiction are adopted by others. For instance, laws similar to Victoria’s 2017 voluntary assisted dying legislation will be introduced into the state of New South Wales in November.

In the ACT, allowable amounts of hard drugs vary depending on the substance: 1.5 grams for cocaine, 1 gram of heroin and 5 doses of LSD.

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