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Australia's Territory Legalizes Small Amounts of Hard Drugs
Science & Health

Australia’s Territory Legalizes Small Amounts of Hard Drugs

On Saturday, the Australian Capital Territory, which covers Canberra and its nearby regions, became the first area in Australia to legalize the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs.

The government of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has shifted its perspective on illegal drug use, viewing it as a health issue rather than a criminal one. While still maintaining strict consequences for dealers and traffickers, the government aims to offer treatment, police warnings, or fines to individuals caught using low-level substances such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, rather than taking them to court. Confiscation of drugs will still occur.

In 2022, the ACT Legislative Assembly approved a law that maintains the illegality of hard drugs such as LSD, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

The implementation of the new measures was praised by advocates for welfare and health, who believe that this will result in more individuals seeking assistance for drug use instead of facing punishment as criminals.

Alice Salomon, the Head of Media and Advocacy at Uniting ACT, a community services organization, expressed on Thursday that a change towards prioritizing health and community-based approaches for addressing drug use and dependency, instead of relying on the police and courts, is long overdue but greatly appreciated.

High-ranking law enforcement officers express concern that the modifications may incentivize individuals to try illegal substances for the first time.

Neil Gaughan, the Chief Police Officer of the Australian Capital Territory, expressed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the recently implemented laws are excessively lenient.

“I have concerns about individuals experimenting with drugs, especially those who have not done so in the past. I believe there is a risk of confusion, particularly among young people, who may not fully grasp the distinction between decriminalization and legalization. The important focus should still be on minimizing harm, which includes discouraging drug use. Let’s not forget that drugs can be 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 system of government is made up of six states and two territories, each with their own autonomy to create laws. The federal government has authority over various matters such as defense, foreign affairs, trade, and immigration. While the Federal Parliament has the ability to nullify legislation passed by states or territories, this is not a common occurrence.

Frequently, changes implemented in one area are replicated by others. For example, regulations resembling Victoria’s 2017 bill for voluntary assisted dying will be implemented in New South Wales in November.

Under the ACT, the permissible quantities of hard drugs differ based on the specific substance: 1.5 grams for cocaine, 1 gram for heroin, and 5 doses for LSD.