Hospitality businesses are feeling mixed reactions to the start of new laws decriminalising personal use amounts of all drugs, in the nation’s capital.

In 2020 the ACT legalised personal use amounts of cannabis, and the following year the drug bill was introduced to the ACT Legislative Assembly.

In what has been widely viewed as another piece of progressive policy in the ACT, after considerable opposition and a failed attempt to quash the laws in Federal parliament, the Territory has become the first jurisdiction in Australia to decriminalise small amounts of illicit drugs.

The legislation took effect Saturday (28 October).

From the beginning the ACT government has described the move as a “health-based approach to drug use” with the intention of keeping addicts and low-level drug users out of the criminal justice system and promoting support services.

Decriminalisation does not mean the drugs have been legalised.

It simply means people caught with amounts deemed for personal use will attract a fine or warning, rather than a criminal charge. The principle has been likened to vehicle speeding fines, where a driver will generally only get a fine, not a criminal charge.

The amount considered to be ‘personal use’ depends on the amount and the drug.  

For these smaller amounts police will have the option to issue a caution, a $100 fine, or to refer them to a drug-counselling program. Whichever they choose, the drugs will be confiscated.

Hospitality workers are provided some training in identifying patrons who may be under the influence of drugs through the required RSA course, and venues in Canberra have been notified by the ACT government of the changes.

But there is criticism of the lack of consultation with industry by the government, and the Australian Hotels Association ACT says some hoteliers are concerned.

The issues are mainly around the ACT attracting so-called ‘drug-tourism’ and the effect the laws might have on their venues, potentially leading to overdoses or simply people spending less money on purchasing alcohol. AHA ACT GM James Hawketts says owners are worried about people coming into venues intoxicated and that they are “liable if anything happens”.

Industry is uncertain what the changes will bring, and while no additional training for staff has been mandated by government, some hotels have initiated additional in-house training on the prevention of drug use in the venue, for both staff and security.

Others are not concerned the law will lead to any significant changes for venues, some thinking it well overdue; Rohan Walsh, GM of Cabo suggests it is about providing users with “a more humane response” to their situation.

The government insists the laws will not make it easier to deal or traffic drugs, nor should any leniency be expected for drug driving, and police resources will be freed up to better target big fish in the drug trade and conduct more roadside drug testing.

The AHA has opted to not contact the ACT government yet regarding the new laws, choosing instead to wait and see how much impact they make after implementation.

“If tweaks need to be made, we’ll discuss it with them, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” posed Hawketts.

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