Rough sleepers could be needlessly criminalised by plans to fine people up to $4800 for smoking cannabis in public if the drug is legalised, lawyers have warned.
A Legislative Assembly inquiry is under way into a private members bill from Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson to legalise small amounts of cannabis for person use.
Program manager and solicitor at Street Law, Farzana Choudhury, said cannabis users have suffered harsh consequences because of their inability to pay their fine. Credit:Elesa Kurtz
The bill is intended to stop people entering the criminal justice system for possessing small amounts of the drug for personal use.
As a safeguard, it bans people from smoking cannabis in a public place or within 20 metres of a child, under threat of a maximum $4800 fine.
However Street Law program manager and solicitor Farzana Choudhury said the creation of this new offence would have a negative effect on rough sleepers, who would have no capacity to pay a fine and would in effect be punished for behaviour that would not be a crime if they were not homeless.
"This is much like other public space offences, where some acts that are perfectly acceptable to do when in your own home, like smoking or drinking, are illegal to do in certain public areas. For people living on the streets, they simply do not have this option," Ms Choudhury said.
"The clients we see at Street Law are often taking active steps to get their lives back on track, and interactions with the criminal justice system can really set them back.
"While of course community health concerns need to be recognised and addressed, we would not like to see a situation where rough sleepers end up being targeted by police officers as a result of the introduction of this offence."
Street Law's submission to the Assembly inquiry spoke of a woman who witnessed a crime and decided to report it to police, but when officers came to take her statement they saw cannabis on her table and gave her an on-the-spot fine of $100.
The woman was on a disability pension, as well as a good behaviour order for a separate drug-related offence.
She was unable to pay the fine due to financial hardship, exacerbated by the ill health of a child, but risked more serious consequences if her fine was not paid within 60 days.
Ms Choudhury said there needed to be more recognition of the disproportionate effect fines can have on people in those circumstances.
"When a cannabis fine isn’t paid in time, the offence will end up on one’s criminal record, and this can impact on future employment," Ms Choudhury said.
"Many of Street Law’s clients are in crisis and have complex circumstances including health, trauma, DV history and other issues.
"Receiving a fine and then taking steps to address them while over dealing with other hardships is often extremely stressful for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness."
She said there needed to be more flexibility in how fines are dealt to people with a limited capacity to pay them.
"We have a pretty good system in place in the ACT for dealing with traffic and parking fines. For example you can pay off traffic or parking fines by instalment, ask for an extension of time, or enter into a work or development program which may involve volunteer work or participating in a counselling program if you cannot afford to pay a traffic fine," Ms Choudhury said.
"Street Law was actively involved in the reforms that led to the establishment of those more flexible options. Unfortunately, the options are much more limited for people dealing with criminal infringement notices and fines under the current SCON scheme."
The inquiry continues on Friday.
Originally published here: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/politics/act/homeless-to-suffer-if-big-fines-introduced-for-smoking-weed-in-public-20190328-p518ew.html