A decision by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government to decriminalise the use of illicit drugs, including heroin and ice, has sparked alarm from authorities.
From October 2023, heroin, meth and cocaine will be decriminalised in the ACT, but authorities are warning the move could promote drug-fuelled culture in Australia’s capital territory. Decriminalisation involves the removal of a criminal penalty for using or possessing small amounts of drugs. It differs from legalisation, where drugs are regulated and allowed to be sold and bought according to government rules.
Laws were passed in the Territory’s parliament in December 2022 after the ACT’s Labor-Greens majority government introduced the legislation, making the ACT the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise small amounts of illicit drugs.
Under the new laws, people caught with decriminalised amounts of drugs, such as 1.5 grams of cocaine, meth and MDMA, or one gram of heroin, will be slapped with just a $100 fine.
While former liberal party Vice President Teena McQueen said the “dangerous and “shocking” move was hazardous for young people and teenagers in ACT, National Drug Research Institute Dr Nicole Lee said the changes in possession move Australians away from the criminal justice system and instead treat it as a health issue.
“The drugs are being decriminalised, so they’re still illegal, and they still attract a penalty, but it’s not a criminal penalty, so they won’t get jail time,” Dr. Lee said.
She said there was no academic evidence to show that decriminalisation would lead to a “honey pot effect.”
Police Concerned About Decriminalisation
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) were concerned about the practical realities of the impacts of this decriminalisation model on the community.
AFP Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan said he was worried the changes would lure recreational drug users into Canberra and increase drug-related deaths.
“It would be naive not to think people won’t come down, even for a weekend, to get on the coke and not worry about the cops,” Mr. Gaughan said.
“Meth is highly addictive, so the worry is people will go on four or five-day meth benders, go out and drive and kill someone.
“Last year, we had 18 people die, a 300 percent increase on the rolling average, and most of those people had meth or cannabis in their system.”
When asked about the risks of decriminalising drugs and its impact on frontline workers, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said, “it would be a far more dangerous environment to police. It would become a more dangerous society, and it wouldn’t be as safe as we enjoy today. For me, it would lead to chaos.”
“Of course, we’re always open to different strategies, but so far, the evidence is not stacking up that decriminalisation necessarily leads to less crime,” Mr. Kershaw said.
The AFP unsuccessfully sought to exclude methamphetamine (‘ice’) from the legislation.
“Methamphetamine, in our view, is the most dangerous drug in the community. We see it as a violent drug. We very rarely come across people affected by ice who aren’t involved in some other sort of criminality,” Mr. Gaughan said.
“I’m worried we’re almost enabling addiction and the criminality that’s often behind that.”