A large number of Australians breathed a collective sigh of relief on April 16, as Greens leader Richard Di Natale announced that his party is proposing that recreational cannabis use be legalised nationally.
Drug law reformists and harm reduction experts have long stated that what’s hampering change in this country is that politicians are unwilling to take a stand on the contentious issue of implementing an approach to illicit substances that doesn’t involve heavy law enforcement.
But, now that the leader of a prominent political party has stepped forward to champion the cause of lawful pot, it looks like Australia might catch up with legalisation moves in other parts of the world that have seen a once frowned upon substance bring multiple benefits to whole communities.
Sensible drug policy
Under the Greens proposal a regulated and taxed cannabis market would be established, operating in much the same way as the alcohol and tobacco industries. This would ensure the quality of cannabis products, which would be sold in plain packaging and banned from being advertised.
Overseeing and regulating the cannabis industry would be the newly established Australian Cannabis Agency. It would operate as the single cannabis wholesaler, purchasing from producers and on selling to retail stores that would make it available to anyone over 18 years of age.
The policy also allows individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants at home for personal use.
A legalised recreational cannabis market would therefore undermine organised crime groups that benefit from prohibition, as well as alleviate the burden it places on the criminal justice system. As noted by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission cannabis arrests are at record highs.
Misguided and detrimental
The nation’s leading drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak has pointed out that cannabis prohibition was “an accident of history.” With no formal evidence, it was added as a last minute addition to the more serious drugs included in the transnational drug control treaty, the 1925 Geneva Convention.
The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president makes it clear that the harms produced by cannabis prohibition are far greater than those resulting from the plant itself. These include criminalising consumers, creating a black market, and the proliferation of suspect products.
Global developments in legalisation
When Rastafarian singer Peter Tosh sang “legalise it” back in 1976, it sounded like a far-off dream. But, when Richard Di Natale spoke those very same words last week, the prospect that cannabis could be legalised quite soon in this country didn’t seem that far-fetched.
Marijuana for pleasurable use is now legal in nine US states. Canada is set to establish a legal and regulated cannabis market later this year. And Uruguay was the first country to legalise the plant nationwide in 2013.
Colorado’s recreational cannabis marketplace is the shining example of the benefits legal weed can bring. Available retail since 2014, lawful marijuana generated $198.5 million in tax revenue in 2016, which was funnelled into public health programs and schools.
Being honest about it
Close to 2 million Australians reportedly consume cannabis every year, while over a third of the population has used it at least once in their lifetime. And these are people forced to partake in criminal behaviour to access a drug that’s been shown to be less damaging than alcohol.
Not only are attitudes overseas becoming more accepting, and indeed honest, but the tide is also starting to turn at home. A 2016 Essential Media poll found that 55 percent of Australians support taxing and regulating cannabis, just like Di Natale does.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with the Australian Greens leader, who is a former drug and alcohol clinician, about why it’s necessary the use of Australia’s most popular illegal drug is treated like a health issue and not a criminal offence.
Senator Di Natale, why is the time ripe for Australia to legalise recreational cannabis?
It is absolutely clear that prohibition of cannabis has failed. Thirty five percent of Australians have tried cannabis, and the drug accounts for an ever-increasing proportion of illicit drug arrests across Australia.
There have been those in the community who’ve displayed disbelief, and even shock, over the Greens’ proposal. Federal health minister Greg Hunt went as far as to describe the policy as “dangerous.”
How do you respond to claims that legalising marijuana could be a perilous step?
This policy is about harm reduction. It reduces the negative consequences associated with consuming cannabis by abolishing criminal penalties for consumption, regulating the products that are available for sale so that they are of known quality and free from contaminants, and ensuring that people are getting appropriate health advice.
You just stated that legalising recreational cannabis use is a harm reduction approach. What are some of the key harms associated with keeping cannabis illegal?
Under the current model, cannabis users are purchasing from an individual with a vested interest in maximising consumption and ensuring ongoing dependence.
This also leads to greater harms because some dealers have an incentive to shift consumption onto other more lucrative and more harmful illicit drugs.
Politicians in jurisdictions elsewhere in the world where cannabis is now legal have spoken about the benefits legalisation has brought to the community as a whole, not just those who want to consume the plant.
Under the Greens policy, what sort of benefits and changes would pot legalisation bring to Australian society?
Illegal cannabis cultivation and sale puts money directly into the hands of criminal gangs and syndicates.
A legal access pathway would create jobs in agriculture, production and retail, with an anticipated $2 billion being redirected back into the public health system.
Further, the tax money generated by this scheme would allow for a greatly expanded drug treatment network that would then help adults who develop any issues associated with their drug use.
There are those out there who still believe the reefer madness hype. Indeed, the federal health minister called the proposal “medically irresponsible” and labelled cannabis a gateway drug.
What do you think about Greg Hunt’s claims?
The minister for health’s tired old claim that cannabis is a gateway drug is not supported by the evidence.
Health professionals should be alarmed that the minister for health is peddling a theory that has been comprehensively debunked by the scientific community.
And lastly, the Greens have developed this policy to establish a legal and regulated cannabis market and put it front and centre in the national debate.
Why have you placed such significance on seeing recreational cannabis use legalised?
The Greens recognise that all drugs, legal or illegal, have the potential for harm and that cannabis is no different.
But, by providing a product with a known potency and quality, though a controlled and regulated environment, users will be better informed of the risks and will be better supported if they require help.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.