Greg Hunt 'concerned' about legalisation of cannabis but no plans to override ACT law
Health minister says he will leave legal issues to attorney general as criticism from senior ministers grows.
Health minister Greg Hunt says he is ‘very concerned’ by the legalisation of cannabis in the ACT as it poses ‘a very significant health risk’. Photograph: Enigma/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo
The Morrison government has “no plans” to override the Australian Capital Territory’s new law legalising possession of cannabis, the health minister Greg Hunt has said.
On Friday Hunt and treasurer Josh Frydenberg added to a growing chorus of senior federal ministers criticising the law – of which home affairs minister Peter Dutton is most vocal – but held the line against directly overriding it.
The attorney general Christian Porter has warned ACT cannabis users may not be protected by the law because of a separate commonwealth offence and has asked for the Australian Federal Police’s advice on how they interact.
Hunt told ABC Radio in Melbourne he will leave the legal side of the issue to Porter, but there are “no plans at this stage” to override the ACT law, which would require an act of federal parliament.
“On the health side, I’m very concerned – we know that the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK has directly linked marijuana use to psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia,” he said.
Hunt said cannabis had a “very significant mental health risk” citing the fact frequent users have double the likelihood of schizophrenia, and quadruple for those who started using it before the age of 15.
Earlier, Frydenberg said the Morrison government does not support the laws and described drug use as “criminal behaviour”.
Frydenberg said the federal government will “review the laws … to understand the true impact between the commonwealth laws and the ACT laws”.
The ACT laws will allow residents over 18 to possess up to 50 grams and grow two plants. Under existing legislation, people with up to 50 grams or two plants for personal use face fines. If paid within 60 days, they do not appear on a criminal record.
However, Porter has warned separate commonwealth offences may still apply and – if they do – “the expectation would be commonwealth laws would be enforced”.
The ACT government believes its new laws create a defence for ACT residents who could be charged with a commonwealth offence.
The commonwealth director of public prosecutions, Sarah McNaughton, first advised that commonwealth law allowed a defence for people engaged in conduct “justified or excused” by a state or territory law, but then withdrew her advice citing unspecified “legal complexities”.
A spokesman for the CDPP told Guardian Australia the advice was withdrawn “following communications with the attorney-general’s department” and “further legal consideration was given to the issues”.
“There has not been detailed judicial consideration of the defence contained in [Commonwealth criminal code section] 313.1 and its potential scope,” he said, explaining why the CDPP could not be definitive about the legal risk to ACT residents.
Michael Pettersson, the Labor member of the ACT Legislative Assembly who moved the successful private member’s bill, told Guardian Australia it was “extraordinary” the CDPP had withdrawn her initial advice, questioning what “legal technicalities” and correspondence may have changed her view.
“Peter Dutton might be advocating that they interfere by changing ACT Self-government Act or potentially changing the criminal code,” he said.
“But Greg Hunt is out there saying based on current laws that this is a state and territory issue.”
Hunt also reiterated his opposition to vaping, citing 11 deaths “directly attributable to vaping” and describing e-cigarettes as “a massive on-ramp to smoking”.
Hunt has commissioned research from the national centre for epidemiology at the Australian National University to assess claims by advocates that legalising vaping is a harm minimisation that would help people quit smoking.