Canberra Becomes First Australian City to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

The new recreational marijuana law in the Australian Capital Territory could be challenged by the federal government.

The Australian capital Canberra became the country’s very first city to legalize adult-use cannabis for those 18 and over last week. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which encompasses the capital city Canberra, voted to pass the recreational marijuana law that will likely take effect on January 31, 2020.

Under Canberra’s new marijuana law, ACT residents will be able to possess up to 50 grams of marijuana and grow up to two plants per adult in their homes, up to a maximum of four per household. Provisions in the law mandate that care be taken to keep it away from children, and public use remains illegal.

“It will work to reduce the harm of drugs in our community by reducing the stigma of drug use and encouraging people to seek help without fear of arrest,” said Michael Petterson, a Labor Member of the ACT regarding the bill’s passage.

Marijuana laws differ in Australia depending on the state or territory. The Australian Capital Territory had previously decriminalized 50 grams or less of marijuana, with possession subject to an AU $108 fine and jail time of two years. Possession of more than 50 grams was punishable by an AU $8,000 fine.

The local medical association reviewed the new bill and said that while cannabis could lead to chronic issues, the risk was low and “occasional users were unlikely to be affected” in an official inquiry into the issue.

National Versus Local

Canberra’s new marijuana law conflicts with Australia’s federal ban on cannabis, which might supersede the local law. The Australian Parliament approved an amendment in 2016 that legalized the growing of marijuana for medical or scientific purposes, but recreational use remains illegal.

Issues of local laws and supremacy are compounded by the fact that this is Australia’s capital.

“This does not entirely remove the risk of people being arrested under Commonwealth law, and we are being up front with the community about that,” said ACT Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay. The ACT police said while they plan to continue fighting illegal market traffickers while leaving those with possession alone.

Christian Porter, Australia’s Attorney General, criticized the decision by lawmakers in the ACT to legalize recreational use.

“I think this is a really dumb idea,” Porter said. “This is a matter for the ACT, but where Commonwealth laws apply they remain enforceable.”

The ACT’s Chief Minister Andrew Barr, however, does not believe that the conflict in Canberra and national marijuana law will be a problem.

“Does anyone seriously think the Commonwealth DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions, comparable to a D.A.) is going to spend all of their time, or a considerable amount of their time, prosecuting individuals in the ACT for the possession of less than 50 grams of cannabis?” Barr asked on a radio program recently.

According to state broadcaster ABC, however, marijuana laws enacted by Australia’s Parliament could overrule ACT’s new law. In 2013, the ACT legalized same-sex marriage, but the federal Parliament won a court case banning it before it was fully legalized in 2017.

Marijuana is Australia’s most wide-used illicit drug, according to the Australian government. In 2016, about a third of those surveyed said they have used cannabis.

In addition to ACT, South Australia and the Northern Territory have decriminalized cannabis. Australia’s neighbor New Zealand is on track to legalize recreational marijuana use next year.

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