Canberra's weed laws: here's what they mean

If you’re in Canberra, you’re now legally able to possess up to 50 grams of green. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
  • The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has passed legislation to legalise cannabis, in an Australian first. Under the new laws, expected to be made effective from January, Australians will be able to possess 50 grams of dried cannabis and cultivate two plants.
  • However, there are some caveats. Cannabis and seeds can still not be sold, bought or even exchanged between individuals – nor can it be smoked in public.
  • While the new legislation will change Territory laws, it won’t affect Commonwealth laws. Under those, possession and cultivation are both still illegal, and technically those laws still cover the ACT, meaning police could still technically charge you. It’s believed however that they will use discretion and follow the local laws instead.

The ACT has become the first Australian state or territory to legalise the possession and small scale cultivation of cannabis after landmark legislation passed the ACT Parliament on Wednesday.

Under the new legislation, adults will be able to possess up to 50 grams of dried cannabis for personal use and cultivate two plants at their residence – for a maximum of four plants per household.

It puts Canberra completely at odds with Commonwealth law, under which possession and cultivation is still largely illegal, carrying significant fines and imprisonment in some states.

Here’s what you need to know.

The legislation isn’t effective yet

Before you rush to Canberra to light up, you should know that it’s not legal quite yet.

The new laws won’t become effective until 31 January 2020, when they’re due to be signed off on by the health minister. It’s a date which will no doubt spark something of an informal festival in the capital.

Possession and cultivation will be legal but with limits

As long as you’re over 18, you will be able to possess 50 grams of dried cannabis or 150 grams of the fresh stuff. In addition, an individual will be allowed to cultivate two plants at home with a maximum of four plants allowed at one residence.

What’s still illegal under the new legislation?

It’s a long list.

Firstly, you shouldn’t get your hopes up before you start organising a February trip to Canberra. There won’t be vendors popping up to sell weed and it’ll still be illegal to buy any, as has been the case in parts of the US and Canada.

In fact, it’ll still be illegal in the ACT to even be given any. ACT chief police officer Ray Johnson has warned that even if no money changes hands, gifting or sharing weed is still technically an offence.

“If there’s evidence that someone is providing cannabis to someone else, that’s supply and that’s an offence,” he told ABC radio on Wednesday.

You can’t smoke in public space and you also won’t be able to buy, sell or provide seeds to anyone in order to grow plants. That creates a strange legal space where you’ll have to technically break the law to begin legally growing.

Any hydroponic or “artificial” cultivation remains illegal, as does growing on commercial or community property, including nature strips. That goes to for driving under the influence of cannabis as well.

Cannabis is still illegal under Commonwealth law

That means that while Canberra’s territory laws allow possession and cultivation, you could still be prosecuted under Commonwealth laws. It puts police officers in a very strange position.

“On the face of it, regardless of the passing of the bill, possession of cannabis would remain illegal in the ACT by effect of Commonwealth law,” Johnson wrote to the ACT’s Legislative Assembly. “This would create a tension for ACT Policing members between their obligation to implement ACT government policy intent and to have regard for the Commonwealth criminal law.”

Those Commonwealth laws are pretty tough, including a maximum prison sentence of two years.

While clarity is still lacking, the general idea appears to be that it remains up to individual police to decide how to proceed. It’s assumed they’ll use discretion and go by the new Territory laws, but no one really has a concrete answer at this stage.

Where does that leave the other states and territories?

Again, it’s very much illegal elsewhere in Australia – including New South Wales which fully encircles the ACT.

If you were to take legal weed from Canberra and then leave its borders, you can be charged just as you were before the legislation came into effect. Those penalties include fines and, in the most serious cases, imprisonment.

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