As of last Sunday, the personal possession and use of cannabis has been legal in the ACT for four months. In fact, you can even grow a couple of plants at home to consume yourself, and it won’t even raise an eyebrow.
However, a large number of Australians continue to be unaware that since 31 January, sparking up at home in Canberra is completely okay. And the silence that’s accompanied the law reform around recreational use of cannabis in the capital territory speaks volumes.
It’s an obvious point to make, but if problems had arisen out of these changes, they’d be a loud public outcry.
And it seems that just like elsewhere in the world where cannabis has been legalised over recent years, it’s been so unproblematic that people have simply gotten on with their lives.
These days, in the US, recreational cannabis is legal in eleven states. And in Colorado – which is often cited as the prime example of how beneficial a legal cannabis market can be – the tax revenue raised from the billion dollar industry has been funnelled into health and education.
Meanwhile, north of the border, Justin Trudeau ran for the position of Canadian prime minister in the 2015 election on a platform that included legalising the plant. And following his win, recreational cannabis was legalised across the entire nation in October 2018.
And just across the ditch in the land of the long white cloud, the New Zealand government is holding a referendum on 19 September to allow its citizenry to decide on whether they want cannabis to be legal nationwide.
The NZ laws have been drafted, and now the public must decide upon them.
Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt sent out a 420 day tweet this year, in which he pointed out that with one in three Australians having tried cannabis, it’s about time it’s no longer possible for possession to end in a criminal conviction.
Indeed, the party that Bandt heads up has quite a progressive drug law reform platform. And part of its recommended move towards treating “drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one” is a proposal to create a legal cannabis market nationwide, which would also allow for homegrow.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to federal Greens MP Adam Bandt about the guts of his party’s recreational cannabis plan, his vision for how it’s all likely to come about and how the sky hasn’t fallen down in Canberra since the herb was legalised.
Firstly, Mr Bandt on 31 January, the personal possession and use of cannabis for recreational purposes was legalised throughout the ACT. In your understanding how has that gone?
Our understanding is that it has gone well. It happened because the Greens are in power together with Labor in the ACT.
So, now, Canberrans over 18 can legally possess 50 grams of cannabis and can grow two plants.
It’s responded to the community’s demand for change. It’s gone well. And it should have, I hope, reinforced for people that this is the kind of change that could go national.
At a 420 rally in Melbourne last year, you spoke about it being a “crazy” situation in Australia, where it’s legal to possess drugs like alcohol and tobacco, but not cannabis. Why is that the case?
We know the consequences of criminalising cannabis. It falls disproportionately upon young people, and it can stay with you for your whole life.
When you compare the effects of the use of drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, there’s no reason for potentially ruining someone’s life, simply because they’ve been found with some cannabis for personal use.
The community is with us on that. It depends on which poll you look at, but somewhere around three-quarters of people want to see cannabis for personal use legalised.
When you understand that about 92 percent of the arrests are for consumers – not people up the supply chain – then you see that this is something that disproportionately affects people who are only using for personal or recreational use.
And given that other drugs are legal for that purpose, the onus should be on the government to explain why they’re discriminating against one particular kind of drug.
I also note that you think we should be burning cannabis, not coal.
Yes. The world would be a better place if instead of lighting something up to wreck the planet, people were just able to enjoy themselves.
The Australian Greens already have a plan on how to establish a legalised recreational cannabis market. What does your party’s proposal involve?
We want to create a legalised and regulated market for cannabis. It would create a new government agency that would be the buyer and wholesaler of recreational cannabis.
People would also be able to grow a small number of plants for their own personal use, but the government would be the one in charge of the buying and selling.
That simultaneously decriminalises it – so that it takes it out of the hands of large-scale dealers at the top end and people with a few plants for their own personal use would no longer be criminal – and it legalises it, as people could buy from the government agency.
Also, by doing it this way, you not only make it legal and decriminalise it from top to bottom, but you also create a revenue stream. And that money could go into the public purse to do things like build schools and hospitals.
In the same way as alcohol, it becomes a legal product that generates a revenue to use for public purposes.
Right now, over 20 percent of US citizens live in a state where cannabis is legal for recreational purposes, while the entire nation of Canada legalised it in 2018.
What would you say Australia could learn from what’s happening in North America?
The world didn’t end when countries legalised the use of cannabis. In fact, it’s freed up policing resources to focus on issues that matter.
It has kept people out of the criminal justice system and out of prisons. And people on the whole are happier, so it’s a win all around.
We had hoped – like every pollster had predicted – that there would be a change of government at the last election. And we felt that, just like in the ACT, we Greens would have been able to work with Labor to get this reform at the national level.
That hasn’t happened, and the government has continued with a law and order approach, which we know doesn’t work and it just hurts people.
But, having said that, we did get them to make some changes around medicinal cannabis. And what we need to do now is keep making the public case for change.
Then after the next election, if we end up federally with a situation like in Canberra – where you’ve got Greens and Labor working together – it’s a change that we could see right across the country.
And lastly, it looks as if New Zealand could legalise it nationwide quite soon with its cannabis referendum coming up.
So, you’re suggesting that we too could see cannabis legalised in the not too distant future in Australia?
We’ve got a bill in parliament that can make it happen. If there was courage from the other parties, we could have it done within a few months.
The other parties seem to be soft peddling on it. So, we’re worried it will take a bit longer here than it may, say, in New Zealand.
But, having said that, it’s only a question of political will now. The legislation is there, it’s in the parliament and it just needs the others to vote on it.
In Australia, we wouldn’t even need a national referendum, we could just pass a law and it would be done.
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.