Cannabis laws in Canberra two years after decriminalization: Use and abuse

When personal cannabis use was decriminalized in the ACT in January 2020, Mary couldn’t wait to start growing the plant she uses to treat her chronic depression and arthritis.

“It was time to regain our power and grow for ourselves and make our own medicines healthier ways at a lower cost,” she said.

But she soon discovered that Canberra’s cool climate was unsuitable for a steady supply of the drug and feared that outdoor crops could be stolen.

So she decided to grow with artificial light indoors.

Although the cultivation of up to two plants per person and a maximum of four per household is decriminalized in the ACT, the use of artificial light still threatens a maximum prison sentence of two years.

Hydroponic cannabis is grown in Canberra
Mary says she used artificial light to grow for climate and safety reasons.(Delivered)

But Mary – not her real name – said the reward was well worth the risk because the creams, oils, and edibles she made from her cannabis crop changed her life.

“I have a comfortable movement, my depression is in complete remission right now,” she said.

“I achieved this through the use of herbal medicine and I am just so grateful to have access to it even though I have to do it illegally.”

Cannabis, medicine
Mary says her treatment with medicinal cannabis products changed her life.(ABC Canberra: Mark Moore)

Under the ACT Act, Canberrans can own up to 50 grams of dried cannabis and 150 grams of wet cannabis.

Exceeding these limits will result in a simple cannabis offense in the form of a fine rather than a criminal charge.

Driving the drug on your system, keeping and using the drug around children, and sharing it with friends is still illegal.

In addition to the use of artificial light, the sale of cannabis and the purchase and supply of seeds for cultivation also remain illegal.

Woman's hands next to medicinal cannabis products
The ACT laws were put in place to keep recreational users out of the criminal justice system, not necessarily to allow people to grow their own medicinal cannabis.(ABC Canberra: Mark Moore)

Despite the risks, a return to conventional drugs to treat their chronic diseases is not an option for them.

“To get back to those things, it makes me wince, the toxicity of these drugs is just amazing compared to something that really has so few side effects,” she said.

Canberrans who use cannabis to deal with trauma

Man lights a bong with cannabis
John says smoking cannabis is only part of his trauma management strategy.(ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)

Canberra man John uses cannabis daily to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After his mother died of suicide as a child, he had to move in with other family members because his father was imprisoned at the time.

“Unfortunately, I was sexually abused by a family member in the house I went to shortly thereafter, and I have been sexually abused as a grown man ever since,” he said.

John – not his real name – said cannabis use helped calm his mood and made him function on a day-to-day basis.

“[Cannabis has] a calming effect for me, it also helps with trauma and dealing with past traumas, “he said.

John said he grew cannabis outdoors between October and April and that since the new laws went into effect, he felt that drug reform was going in the right direction.

Cannabis plant is grown outdoors
John grows cannabis outdoors during Canberra’s warmer months.(ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)

“I’ve definitely felt a boost, as much as less strain on my shoulders … [being] a criminal, because this one plant is good for me, “he said.

“Those handcuffs have been released and as such I can now put them up in the air as an advocate and say, ‘Hey, look at all the good things about this plant.’

Man exhales cannabis smoke
John says he smokes cannabis to deal with his PTSD.(ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)

The future of drug reform in Canberra

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson introduced the new cannabis laws in 2018.

He said that while it helped that the ACT recreational laws provide some medicinal benefit to people, it was ultimately the responsibility of the Commonwealth to make further changes to medical cannabis laws.

He reiterated that the prescribing and distribution of medical cannabis in Australia is administered by the Federal Administration for Therapeutic Goods.

The leaves of a cannabis plant in Canberra. growing inside
According to ACT law, Canberrans can own up to 50 grams of dried cannabis.(ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)

Mr Pettersson recently tabled a new bill calling for the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs like ice cream and heroin.

He said the bill, if passed, would be another major step in the ACT away from law enforcement and towards minimizing harm in dealing with drug use.

Working backbencher Michael Pettersson
Labor MLA Michael Pettersson introduced the ACT’s cannabis laws in 2018.(ABC Canberra: Donal Sheil)

“All over the world, national and sub-national jurisdictions are having this debate, and Australia is at the beginning of this journey,” he said.

“It is time we had an evidence-based discussion of these substances so that we can reduce the harm these substances cause.”