The legalisation of cannabis for personal use in the ACT has resulted in grey areas which have left vulnerable groups at risk of heavy-handed policing, new research has found.

In March/April 2021, 14 months after the introduction of new cannabis laws in the ACT, a team from UNSW interviewed 30 people aged 18-plus who had grown and/or consumed cannabis in the previous 12 months. 

Participants were asked about recent and past use, growing cannabis and changes to their habits after legalisation.

Image: ACT Policing

The Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use of Cannabis) Amendment Bill 2018 was implemented in the ACT at the beginning of 2020. 

It legalised the use and possession of personal quantities of cannabis and cultivation of a small number of plants (a maximum of two per person or up to four per household). 

However, the bill stopped short of introducing a full legal regulatory regime, including cannabis trafficking offences, while the sale, swap or sharing of cannabis plants, products and seeds remained illegal along with plants grown via ‘artificial cultivation’.

The researchers found that the incremental nature of the changes resulted in regulatory grey areas, and that the way people interpreted and navigated the resulting uncertainty was determined by their relative privilege, circumstances and history. 

Those most likely to be stopped by the police continued to fear police interference for cannabis activities or had directly experienced interference, despite the removal of criminal prosecution from the legislation. 

Higher rates of policing for drug use among particular populations in Australia is well documented. Studies on social bias in policing have found higher rates of stop and search and arrests of people who are younger, male, Aboriginal, unemployed, members of ethnic minorities and those with prior police encounters. 

Those who were highly policed were more likely to experience the grey areas in the legislation negatively while those who weren’t found the changes confusing or incomplete, but mostly appreciated the opportunity to grow their own cannabis and the perceived reduction in stigma and fear of arrest. 

Those with self-identified privilege were unconcerned about the legislation’s grey areas.

The authors said: “Overall, the study found that incremental cannabis policy change in the ACT resulted in the creation of regulatory grey areas that were the site of confusion and perceived contradictions. 

“The ability to navigate these grey areas and experiences of the legislation was dependent on life circumstances, including various privileges and perceived risk of police interference. 

“Put simply: the same legislative change was felt differently by different people.”

Prior to launching Cannabiz, Martin was co-founder and CEO of Asia-Pac’s leading B2B media and marketing information brand Mumbrella, overseeing its sale to Diversified Communications in 2017. A journalist...