Recreational cannabis has been legal in the Australian Capital Territory, which contains Canberra, the capital city of Australia since Friday, January 31, 2020. This is the first state in Australia to legalize recreational cannabis, a major step for a nation that has allowed for medical cannabis for years now, but many Australian cannabis advocates argue it simply isn’t enough.
This article is going to break down what exactly ACT allows for recreational cannabis users, what it doesn’t and, most importantly, how much work still needs to be done to improve the lives of Aussie cannabis users.
Why Australia’s ACT Legalization Matters and How It Can Be Improved
While people in the U.S. might not have been keeping a close eye on the land down under, they’ve been making some serious moves when it comes to normalizing and legalizing cannabis both as medicine and for recreational use.
Back in September 2019, the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly passed legislation to allow for adults to possess up to 50 grams, or 1.8 ounces, of cannabis flower at a time. Citizens can also grow, cultivate, and harvest from two plants of their very own.
As long as those with cannabis don’t exceed four plants per household, regardless of how many people live in that household, and keep their cannabis away from kids, and grow it outside on private property, they can use cannabis recreationally.
The historic move made ACT the first of the eight Australian states to legalize both recreational use and cultivation, paving the way for other Australian territories to follow their lead. However many cannabis advocates argue that the ACT legislation doesn’t go far enough and, despite criminalizing possession of cannabis, still leaves those looking to use recreationally in legal limbo.
In fact, growing, cultivating and possessing any amount of cannabis without your medical card is still technically federally illegal in Australia. It’s very similar to the state-by-state patchwork of cannabis laws in the U.S., which can be frustrating for people just looking to use cannabis without breaking the law.
For example, while those in possession of fewer than 50 grams of dried cannabis will only face a minor fine under ACT, there’s no legal way to purchase the seeds to grow that cannabis in the first place. It’s still illegal to sell, share or gift cannabis to others, so how exactly is someone supposed to get a seed to grow cannabis of their own?
If someone was able to get some seeds of their own, however, they would have to worry about the amount of cannabis the plant itself produced. ACT legislation only allows individuals to legally possess 50 grams of dried cannabis and only 150 grams of “wet” cannabis, which is cannabis that has been harvested but not yet dried out and prepared for use. For anyone out there who’s grown cannabis before, one plant is fully capable of producing much more than 50 grams of dried product, let alone four plants.
While decriminalizing cannabis possession is undoubtedly a good thing, one that reduces the burden on the criminal justice system, the polls suggest Australians are ready for full federal legalization. Just like in the U.S., public support for cannabis has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. From 2013-2016, support swelled from 26 percent to 35.4 percent. Younger people tend to be more supportive of legalization than older Australians, with nearly half of 18-24, 25-29 and 30-39 age groups supporting legalization with approval at 48.4 percent, 47.3 percent and 45.8 percent respectively.
What About Medical Cannabis?
When it comes to medical cannabis in Australia, we have great news for those looking for natural, cannabis-based medicine. Medical cannabis has been alive and well in Australia since back in 2016, passing as part of the 2016 Narcotics Drug Amendment.
As of September 2019, more than 6,000 Australians were approved as medical cannabis patients, qualifying due to conditions like chronic pain, epilepsy, nausea, and vomiting from chemotherapy, palliative care and multiple sclerosis.
Interestingly, a 2019 survey found that of people who used cannabis in the last year, nearly 7 percent said they only use it for medical purposes and about 16 percent said they sometimes used it for medical purposes. That survey finds that nearly 3 percent of Australians, around 600,000 people, used some type of medical cannabis. Also interestingly, older Australians were the most likely group to use medical cannabis, with those over the age of 50 making up 43 percent of users. Those demographics aren’t too different from here in the U.S., the global hub for medical cannabis.
While there is no official list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis, Australia allows medical cannabis to be prescribed to patients by “any registered medical practitioner” if they think it’s “clinically appropriate.”
It’s fair to say that the Australian medical cannabis industry is not only extremely successful in providing medicine to those who need it, but it’s also only just getting started. Experts estimate the Australian medical industry will be worth as much as $70 million.
What Does This Mean For Other Countries?
2020 has seen some great strides forwards for cannabis. We saw people in the U.S. vote overwhelmingly for cannabis legalization in some states this past election day. Plus, there’s going to be a hearing on the floor of the U.S. Senate for a cannabis legalization bill and the incoming Biden administration has already committed to decriminalizing cannabis in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the world is starting to catch up with the U.S. in terms of cannabis. Lebanon became the first Arab nation to legalize and implement a medical cannabis program this year, Mexico is on the verge of legalizing recreational cannabis, and now Australia’s capital state, ACT, legalized recreational cannabis for personal use.
Despite more and more countries embracing cannabis, both recreational and medical, that doesn’t mean everywhere has been able to successfully push legislation through.
One of those nations who tried and narrowly failed to legalize cannabis in November 2020 was Australia’s closest geographical neighbor, New Zealand. The vote to legalize recreational cannabis narrowly fell short, 48.4 percent in favor and 50.7 percent against.
If passed, the proposal would have allowed for those over 20 years old to purchase and possess cannabis legally, as well as cultivating two plants of their own. It also would have created cannabis-specific consumption lounges for people to use their cannabis on-site, the same place they purchased the cannabis in the first place.
The plan seemed solid and polled well before Election Day, with one poll finding 49 percent of respondents in favor of legalization and 45 percent against it, but it simply didn’t get the votes this time around.
So far Uruguay and Canada are the only two countries to have fully legalized recreational cannabis use, but they won’t be the only ones for too much longer. When it comes to giving patients access to their medicine and decriminalizing and destigmatizing recreational use, we predict that it’s becoming a matter of when not if.