Cannabis will be legal in the ACT come the end of the month, but those hoping to light up might have to break the law to do so.
- Buying, selling and trading cannabis after January 31 will remain illegal in the ACT
- Academics are worried potential pot purchasers will go to drug dealers
- Calls for „cannabis social clubs” have been rejected by the ACT Government
The controversial new laws legalise growing, possessing and smoking small quantities of cannabis.
If you are over 18 you can grow the plant, collect up to 50 grams of dried bud, and smoke it as you like within your own home (provided there are no children around).
But the laws do not offer any guidance at all on how it is supposed to be acquired.
There will not be any cannabis shops opening up, as buying and selling the drug remains strictly illegal.
It also cannot be gifted from one person to another.
Cultivating two plants — to a limit of four per household — is perfectly legal but buying cannabis seeds is not.
Professor Simon Lenton from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute argued the laws left people looking to use cannabis with few options outside of drug dealers.
„Either they’re going to go to the illegal market or they’re going to miss out,” he said.
„It really is a problem for how the majority of people in the ACT who smoke cannabis are going to access the cannabis.”
The ACT Government is quite clear on the matter, arguing its approach is around „harm minimisation”, not opening doors to cannabis for potential users.
„This approach seeks to ensure that adults who are in possession of cannabis do not have to face the prospect of criminal penalty for possession and are more easily able to seek help for addiction or treatment for the adverse effects of cannabis,” a spokesperson said.
„It is not the Government’s intention to legalise the gifting of cannabis between individuals, other acts of supply, or the commercial sale of cannabis.”
Could weed shops work?
New Zealand is currently weighing up its options on legalising cannabis, ahead of a referendum on the question in late 2020.
The current plan suggests a tightly regulated commercial model, with cannabis sold in licensed shops.
It would not be advertised, or sold to anyone under 20 and the potency of cannabis sold will be restricted.
Like the ACT, the New Zealand Government is also pitching legalisation as a harm minimisation measure.
„The primary objective of the legislation is to reduce overall cannabis use and limit the ability of young people to access cannabis,” New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little said.
Anyone who wants to smoke it can do so at home, and in licensed venues — but not where alcohol is being sold.
It raises the possibility of cannabis cafes, like those found in parts of Europe.
„You might be able to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with you cannabis product, but not alcohol,” Mr Little said.
Some ACT MLAs have indicated they could be supportive of commercialisation down the track, arguing it would help cut criminal gangs out of the cannabis business.
But it will not be an option for the foreseeable future, due to federal regulations that cannot be overcome.
Professor Lenton said going by the experience in North America, adding profit to the mix did not necessarily work out.
He argued it encouraged the consumption of ever-stronger strains of cannabis.
„What we’ve heard about in North America is very much commercially driven, profit-driven markets, where industry is really in the market trying to maximize its profit,” he said.
„And then we get the very serious problems that we’ve seen associated with alcohol and tobacco use and a lot of the problems that are emerging now look like the worst of that.”
’Social clubs’ floated as possible solution
An ACT parliamentary inquiry considered many of these issues while the legislation was still being drafted, and made a range of recommendations.
One was allowing cannabis 'social clubs’ of up to 10 people to be formed, as a way of getting around some of the supply issues.
Social clubs would essentially allow users to pool their plants — growing plants together at one single property.
Membership would be restricted and registered, and plants would be grown on behalf of members, who could then access their cannabis free of charge.
Professor Lenton said, having surveyed the models in place around the world, social clubs appeared to offer the best legal middle ground.
He argued it provided an easy option for people unable or unwilling to grow their own plants.
„It’s a way of providing cannabis in a restricted market without the problems of widespread availability, rampant commercialisation and profit-driven advertising to people who are regular cannabis users,” he said.
„Rather than having them go to the illicit market.”
The ACT Government rejected the recommendation, suggesting it went beyond the intention of the legislation and would have made it difficult for police to distinguish between cannabis clubs and illegal grow houses.
Whether or not supply becomes a problem for users — and the ACT Government — will become apparent in just a matter of weeks when the legislation comes into effect.
A public information campaign is planned to roll out before the laws come into force, which might give some indication that the Government expects users to put the new laws into practice.