New green dawn: Advocates hope ACT's cannabis laws pave way for open market
Advocates have welcomed Canberra's contentious new cannabis regime, hoping it sparks a broader public discussion about drug law reform and paves the way for an open market for the substance. But critics have again sounded the alarm about the changes, warning of the harm they could cause to young Canberrans.
Bayden Motte was among a small group cannabis advocates to gather outside the ACT Legislative Assembly on Friday morning to mark the commencement of the territory new drug laws.
Friday marked the commencement of the territory's new cannabis laws, which allows adults to possess 50 grams of cannabis and grow two plants. A maximum of four plants per household is permitted.
Smoking in public, or near a child, is prohibited.
The ACT government used the date to roll out a public health campaign about the effects of cannabis use, and to provide information on support services available to users.
But the milestone was largely bereft of the political fanfare which so often surrounds progressive law reform in the ACT.
A small group of cannabis advocates did make an effort to mark the occasion, travelling from Sydney to be outside the ACT Legislative Assembly early on Friday.
The group are part of the "Who Are We Hurting" campaign, which aims to spark discussion about cannabis use.
Alec Zammit, who started smoking weed recreationally but is now prescribed the drug for medicinal purpose, described the ACT's laws as a "step in the right direction".
But he said cannabis should be fully legalized, allowing adults to purchase the drug in the same way they could cigarettes or even "vegetables at a supermarket".
"Cannabis obviously has its flaws, it is not without its problems," Mr Zammit, who runs a security business, said.
"But I don't feel like it has hindered my life in any way.
"I understand that it affects all people differently, but given the other things that are available on the open market - like alcohol and tobacco - it doesn't make any sense that cannabis is illegal."
The laws, which passed the ACT Legislative Assembly in September, provide no pathway for cannabis to be commercialised in the nation's capital. The architect of the new laws, Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson, has also stressed that Canberra wouldn't become the next Colorado, where cannabis is fully legalised.
The government's health campaign which launched on Friday aims to promote "help-seeking" behaviour among users, particularly males aged 20-49.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
The campaign, which will be broadcast online, through social media and on various government websites, will provide facts about the physical and mental health implications of cannabis use, as well as where and how users and their families can access support.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith reiterated that the government did not condone cannabis use.
"However, we also acknowledge - as jurisdictions across the globe have - that outright prohibition clearly does not work as an effective strategy for dealing with drug use in our community," she said.
"We believe governments have a responsibility to support initiatives that reduce harms associated with drug use, including harm caused to individuals and their families when drug use leads to involvement in the justice system."
Ms Stephen-Smith said the campaign would help people access support and information "without fear of stigma or legal repercussions".
Shadow attorney-general Jeremy Hanson said the laws sent a dangerous message that "cannabis was safe".
Mr Hanson said the Barr government had replaced what he described as the "best cannabis laws in Australia" with a system that was "ill conceived and unhelpful".
He was also alarmed by the continued confusion surrounding the enforcement of the laws. The Canberra Times on Friday reported that police officers were still unclear on whether to enforce territory or federal drug possession laws.
Chief Police Officer Ray Johnson said his organisation was of the view that federal laws still applied in the ACT. However, it was ultimately up to individual officers to decide which laws to enforce.
On Friday, Australia's chief health officer Brendan Murphy said he was opposed to the ACT's laws, declaring more research was needed into the health effects of cannabis.