1st February 2021
By Emily Ledger
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One year ago (January 31, 2020), the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Authority passed a bill legalising the personal possession, use, and cultivation of cannabis. The ACT (made up of Canberra and the surrounding area) became the first region in Australia to legalise the drug.

Following the announcement, the ACT government received some backlash from both federal government officials and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). However, the country’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, later confirmed that the commonwealth would not intervene to overturn the law, stating: “states will make their own decisions according to their own priorities”.

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A year on, we want to know what impact cannabis legalisation has had on the ACT and whether the policy change could spread to the rest of the country.

The Impact of Legalisation: One year on

While critics of the legalisation bill claimed that the ACT would see an increase in cannabis use, as well as more deaths and road accidents due to drug driving, the current evidence suggests that this has not been the case.

Criminal Offences

According to the Detective Acting Superintendent in the ACT, Callum Hughes, “Drug use and drug possession continues to be associated with other crime types such as drug driving, assault, burglary and possession of stolen property etcetera.” However, official police figures show that drug driving offences have remained steady over the course of the year.

Furthermore, ACT policing figures who that simple cannabis offences have dropped by around 90%. Interstate visitors and under-18s can still be charged for cannabis possession/use.

Physical and Mental Health

Another cause for concern to critics of the legalisation bill was the potential impact on mental health and hospitalisations. Critics worried that legalisation would lead to an uptick of mental health issues in the population, as heavy cannabis use is often associated with conditions such as psychosis and even schizophrenia.

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However, data from the ACT shows that there was little change in cannabis-related presentations for mental health issues in the territory. Between February and December 2019, there was a reported 31 cannabis-related presentations to Canberra Emergency Departments (5.4% of all illicit drug-related presentations). In the same period for 2020 (after legalisation), the figure was 32 (5.2% of illicit drug-related presentations.

Conflict Between ACT and Federal Enforcement

Due to the discrepancies between local and national law following legalisation, the possibility that officers could dismiss the local law and charge cannabis users under federal law has been a worry in the ACT. However, so far, this hasn’t seemed to be a problem.

Detective Acting Superintendent, Callum Hughes, stated in an interview with abc news:

There remains the tension between Commonwealth drug possession laws and the ACT’s cannabis laws, however, this has not stopped the ACT law being implemented.”

Cannabis Use

One of the main concerns, when any jurisdiction moves to legalise cannabis, is the potential impact on overall cannabis use. The aim of cannabis legalisation is not to encourage the use of the drug but to protect the citizens who choose to use it from criminal prosecution.

Efforts have been made in the ACT to discourage the use of cannabis with health-led campaigns warning of the implications and dangers of the drug. These efforts appear to be paying off, with data suggesting that cannabis use has remained steady since legalisation.

While there was a spike in cannabis use in June 2020, this was in line with a national trend that many consider being down to the Coronavirus pandemic. Similar trends have been seen in various countries around the world, implying that boredom, increases in anxiety and depression, and more free time may all have played a role.

The ACT Cannabis Legalisation Law

Unlike legalisation models seen in other countries and states, the ACT’s legalisation bill was not built around a regulated, legal supply of cannabis, but rather of “providing a legal excuse for adults” who choose to use the drug.

The law change removed penalties for the use of cannabis and the possession of up to 50 grams for adults aged 18 and over. The bill also permitted the cultivation of up to two plants – with a maximum of four per household.

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