In a First for Australia, the Capital Legalizes Recreational Marijuana


SYDNEY, Australia — Australia’s capital on Wednesday became the first jurisdiction in the country to legalize the recreational possession and cultivation of marijuana, a move that runs counter to federal laws that can carry prison terms for personal use of the drug.

Passage of the measure, which came after months of debate over policy, legal and health issues, echoed efforts in the United States, where more than 10 states have legalized recreational use of marijuana even as it remains illegal under federal law.

The new law in the Australian Capital Territory, which encompasses the capital city of Canberra, would allow residents over age 18 to possess up to 50 grams of dried marijuana and grow two plants per person or four per household at a time. Supplying the drug to other people will remain illegal.

“The passage of this legislation is an Australian first,” Michael Pettersson, a Labor Party lawmaker who was a driving force behind the bill, said in a statement. “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.”

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit recreational drug in Australia. In a 2016 government survey, about a third of Australians over age 14 said they had used it, with about 10 percent saying they had used it in the last 12 months.

Australia approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2016, but the country has not yet begun moving in the direction of the small number of other countries, like Canada, that have legalized recreational use on a national level.

Before the Australian Capital Territory passed its legalization measure, possession of small amounts of marijuana had been decriminalized there and in a few other jurisdictions, giving police officers the discretion to issue fines instead of making arrests.

In other jurisdictions, possession is still a criminal offense, though warnings are usually given to first-time offenders.

Under federal law, recreational possession carries a potential penalty of up to two years in prison. While the Australian Capital Territory legislation would provide a legal defense under local law for adults who possess marijuana, it does not remove the risk of arrest under federal law, said Gordon Ramsay, the territory’s attorney general.

The final legislation, which is likely to come into effect at the end of January, included a number of amendments. They restrict cultivation of plants to private property, make it an offense to smoke near minors, require proper storage away from children, and add a separate weight limit of 150 grams, or about five ounces, for freshly cultivated marijuana.

The federal government has moved to overturn major legislative changes by states or territories in the past, though it is unclear whether it will do so in this case. In 2013, it successfully argued in court to reverse legislation in the capital territory that allowed same-sex couples to marry. The federal government then legalized same-sex marriage in 2017.

Opponents of the capital’s cannabis legislation said that while the amendments would limit some of the harm, it would lead to higher consumption of marijuana, which some researchers have linked to an increased risk of psychosis, and more cases of people driving under the influence.

The legislation could lead to a “whole bunch of perverse outcomes,” Jeremy Hanson, the attorney general for the conservative-leaning Liberal Party, said during debate on the measure. “The current laws as they work are effective.”

The capital branch of the Australian Medical Association said that use of marijuana could lead to chronic health problems, but that the risk was low and that those who used the drug occasionally were unlikely to be affected, according to a government inquiry into the issue.

“It doesn’t appear to be the sort of legislation or policy change that results in the sky falling down,” said Dr. David Caldicott, an emergency medicine consultant who supported the bill.

The nation’s capital has been at the forefront of drug reform policy in the past, including testing pills at festivals, Dr. Caldicott added. “Rather than causing a shift in cannabis consumption in Australia,” he said, “it might create a broader conversational environment” around the policies governing it.

The Australian Capital Territory police said in a statement that they would work with the local government and other agencies to carry out the new legislation, including working out how it intersects with federal law.


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