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How Canberra's cannabis laws are and aren't being used nearly two years on from decriminalisation


Using artificial lights to grow cannabis is still illegal in the ACT. (ABC Canberra; Donal Sheil)


When the personal use of cannabis was decriminalised in the ACT in January 2020, Mary couldn't wait to start growing the plant that she uses to treat her chronic depression and arthritis.

"It was time to take our power back and grow for ourselves and produce our own medicine at a lower cost in a healthier way," she said.

But she soon found Canberra's cool climate unsuitable for a steady supply of the drug and was concerned plants grown outdoors would be stolen.

So she opted to grow using artificial lights indoors.

Although growing up to two plants per person and four maximum per household is decriminalised in the ACT, using artificial lights still carries a maximum jail sentence of two years.

Mary says she started growing with artificial lights due to climate and security concerns. (Supplied) "It's really tough emotionally to know that we're breaking the law to supply our own medicine," she said. But Mary — not her real name — said the reward was worth the risk because the creams, oils and edibles she made from her cannabis harvests had changed her life.

"I have comfortable movement, my depression is completely in remission at the moment," she said.

"I've done that through using the plant medicine and I'm just so grateful that I have access to it, even though I need to do that illegally."

Mary says her regime of medicinal cannabis products had changed her life. (ABC Canberra: Mark Moore) Under the ACT law, Canberrans can possess up to 50 grams of dried cannabis and 150 grams of wet cannabis. Exceeding these limits incurs a simple cannabis offence in the form of a fine, and not a criminal charge.

Driving with the drug in your system, storing and using the drug around children and sharing it with friends is still illegal.

Along with using artificial lights, selling cannabis, as well as buying and providing seeds for growing, also all remain illegal.

The ACT laws were introduced to direct recreational users away from the criminal justice system, not necessarily to provide people with the opportunity to cultivate their own medicinal cannabis. (ABC Canberra: Mark Moore)


Despite the risks, Mary said returning to conventional medication to treat her chronic conditions was not an option in her mind.

"To go back to those things, it makes me cringe, the toxicity of using those medicines is just incredible compared to using something that really has so few side-effects," she said.

"I'm just doing my thing, privately in my home, treating my medical conditions, and I'm breaking the law because of it, and it weighs really heavily on my mind." Canberrans using cannabis to cope with trauma

John says smoking cannabis is just part of his strategy for coping with trauma. (ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)


Canberra man John uses cannabis daily to help cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you or anyone you know needs help:

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After his mother died by suicide when he was a child, he had to move in with other family members because his father was incarcerated at the time.

"Unfortunately the house that I went to just after that, I was sexually assaulted by a family member, and I've been sexually assaulted since as a grown man," he said.

John — not his real name — said using cannabis helped calm his mood and let him function on a day-to-day basis.

"[Cannabis has] a calming effect for me, it also helps with trauma and me dealing with past trauma," he said.

"Cannabis isn't the answer to all your problems in the world, having a joint isn't going to fix everything, but it does make things seem better." John said he grew cannabis outdoors between October and April and that since the new laws came into effect he felt like drug reform was moving in the right direction.

John grows cannabis outdoors during Canberra's warmer months. (ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)


"I've definitely felt an uplift, like less of a burden on my shoulders as far as [being] a criminal, because this one plant does something good for me," he said.

"Those handcuffs have been released and, as such, now I can put them up in the air as an advocate and say 'hey look at all the positive things about this plant'.

"It's had a really positive impact on my life."

John says he smokes cannabis to cope with his PTSD. (ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)


The future of drug reform in Canberra

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson introduced the new cannabis laws in 2018.

He said while it was helpful the ACT's recreational laws were providing some medicinal benefit to people, it was ultimately a Commonwealth responsibility to make further changes to medicinal cannabis laws.

He reiterated that the prescription and distribution of medicinal cannabis in Australia is managed through the federal Therapeutic Goods Administration.

"The solution is for that Commonwealth scheme to be improved, so that people who are still seeking medicinal marijuana can access it in a consistent way," he said.

Canberrans can posses up to 50 grams of dried cannabis under ACT law.(ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)


Mr Pettersson more recently tabled a new bill calling for the decriminalisation of small amounts of illicit drugs like ice and heroin, which a special inquiry has since recommended should be passed into ACT law.

He said — if passed — the legislation would be another vital step in the ACT away from criminal prosecution and towards harm-minimisation when dealing with drug use.

Labor MLA Michael Pettersson introduced the ACT's cannabis laws in 2018. (ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)


"Right around the world, jurisdictions at the national and sub-national level are having this debate, Australia is at the start of this journey," he said.

"It's about time that we have an evidence-informed discussion about these substances so we can go about reducing the harm these substances cause."


Originally published here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-12-05/canberra-cannabis-decriminalised-two-years-on-law-change/100671584