Skip to main content

General enquiries:

(04) 496 6800


0800 500 122

Contrary to popular belief, Canberra has not decriminalised drugs. They are still illegal in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency (ANZPAA) conference was told.

Jodie McEwan co-ordinates legislation and governance for ACT Policing – the community policing arm of the Australian Federal Police. She told last month’s conference in Melbourne that the Drugs of Dependence Amendment Act sets limits on certain drugs for personal use, in line with a principle of keeping people out of prison when they would be better served by the health system. The legislation, coincidentally, came into effect just days before the annual conference.

The basics of the law are:

  • Maximum penalties for possessing small amounts of some illegal drugs have been reduced. If found, police will still confiscate them.
  • Small quantities of drugs found on a person may attract diversion to a health education and information session or the option of paying a $100 fine – if either are done, there is no further action.
  • If a person has drugs and is charged with other offences, possession charges will likely be included, ruling out a health referral.

ACT Policing initially opposed the legislation because of the message it sent to the broader community, and the expectation that organised criminal entities would exploit any relaxed laws.

“We were unsuccessful in having the bill quashed and when [we saw] the list of drugs included in the scheme we strongly, strongly opposed the inclusion of the likes of heroin, cocaine and meth,” Jodie said.

“We were very concerned at the amounts that were deemed for personal possession under the law. In our view they are very high.”

A particular challenge for ACT officers is the 1.5g personal possession limit for MDMA.

“It’s actually higher than the Commonwealth trafficable amount of MDMA and, as our officers are able to use their discretion to apply either the ACT law or Commonwealth law, in terms of ACT Policing policy, that is something we need to address,” Jodie said.

“Internally, we were consulting widely to try to develop the policy and processes and it is fair to say we were spinning our wheels for a little while.”

Jodie said her team had to stop “overthinking” because ACT Policing didn’t target small quantity personal possession anyway. It already had a fully functional diversion pathway.

The questions then were whether ACT Policing was content to divert users to Health even when they saw them time and time again and was ACT Policing content to never take this to court? It was yes to both, in recognition of the spirit of the law – to keep people out of the justice system. It would also be an inefficient use of ACT Policing’s scant resourcing.

The maximum court-imposed penalty is A$160. “The math just doesn’t add up.”

Another key question was how ACT Policing could use it as an opportunity to reduce the burden on the frontline. “It’s the law so we have to support it,” Jodie said.

“We were already diverting drug users to treatment so that made sense and… our police officers are able to show discretion to take different action should they want to. So we thought it really important to be explicit about our support for the law.”

That said, Jodie was clear about the continuing focus on those who brought drugs into ACT and profited from the exploitation of the community that the law was intended to help.

As for the potential for ACT to be the Aussie “narco state”, Jodie said ACT Policing was genuinely concerned there was no significant funding provided to ACT Health to provide more support to people.

ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan said there was already a discernible change in the presence of criminal gangs in ACT, which did not have gang association laws.

He also highlighted that police would maintain zero tolerance towards drug driving, and zero tolerance for drug taking remains for all Australian Federal Police officers.

Neil’s biggest concern was around the confluence of meth and violent crime, particularly when even drug users had publicly said 1.5g of meth a day was “quite a lot of meth”.

“It is quite a lot,” Neil said. “We all know people affected by meth are much more violent. It’s not just for law enforcement but other first responders.

“[Also] kids are going to see this legislation and potentially say. ‘Well, you get more for a parking fine than you do taking 1.5g of meth’.”

Latest News