Senator Shoebridge Is Consulting the Community on Legalising Cannabis This Year

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Yes we can cannabis

Based on the model Greens Senator David Shoebridge has put on the table, legal cannabis could initially be sold at as little as $13 a gram, and even with GST, this could dip to $7 a gram within 5 years of the recreational use of the plant becoming lawful, which would eradicate the black market.

And key concerns that current cottage industry producers of cannabis on the sly tend to raise appear to have been ticked off on: homegrow is on the cards and nonprofits and small businesses will be prioritised over corporates, with Big Pharma, Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco barred from the industry.

But just to make sure that ardent cannabis advocates and others with concerns about how the plant will be regulated in the community are satisfied, Shoebridge released the Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023 to the public on 6 April, opening it up to consultation with interested parties via a survey.

This proposal would have appeared radical a decade ago, however, the reality is legalising cannabis is a global trend nowadays, with Canada, Uruguay, Thailand, Mexico and other nations having passed laws permitting recreational use, while 21 US states and Washington DC have done the same.

Laws regarding illicit substances are usually the domain of the states, but Shoebridge has obtained expert legal advice outlining the reform could be legislated federally – think medicinal cannabis legalised by Turnbull – and with Greens in balance of power in the Senate fertile ground now awaits.

Yes, we cannabis

“Traditionally, the regulation of drugs – normally, the criminalisation of drugs – has been seen as a state and territory issue,” Senator Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last October, soon after he’d obtained legal advice regarding the change.

“However, law reform at a state and territory level faces significant institutional resistance from the law-and-order lobby, most particularly the police and police unions,” the federal Greens justice spokesperson outlined.

Late September saw Shoebridge announce that he’d consulted constitutional law expert Professor Patrick Keyzer, who advised that the legalisation of the herb could be enacted at the federal level, via the patents power contained in section 51(xviii) of the Australian Constitution.

This can be done by patenting various cannabis strains for legal production and sale. Initially, common strains will be registered with the to-be-established Cannabis Australian National Agency (CANA), with room for other emerging strains to be listed in the future.

“One of the real advantages in taking the debate to the federal parliament is we step away from that toxic law-and-order politics at the state level,” Shoebridge made clear. “It gives us the chance to do some more blue-sky thinking about what the nature of a cannabis market would look like.”

Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge speaking at the recent Belmarsh Tribunal into the plight of Julian Assange held in Sydney 
Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge speaking at the recent Belmarsh Tribunal into the plight of Julian Assange held in Sydney 

The guts of the bill

The Shoebridge bill seeks to establish the Legalised Cannabis Act 2023. After the preliminary details and definitions are set out in the initial sections of the 31-page document, part 3 of the bill establishes that CANA will provide a registry where new strains can be listed if approved.

Part 4 division 1 of the bill then goes on to establish the regulations. These include new offences for the unauthorised importation and exportation of cannabis, which, if transgressed, will see an individual facing up to 2 years inside and/or a fine of $550,000.

Section 18 of the proposed Act specifically allows for an individual to grow up to six plants at their private residence. But if an underage person is found growing a plant or someone is cultivating for unauthorised sale, the individual will have their plants confiscated and can be fined up to $550.

A range of other offences incur penalties of up to 6 months prison time and/or a $550,000 fine, which include the unauthorised manufacture or sale of cannabis products, providing a minor with such products, and the publication of cannabis advertising both in real life and electronically.

Division 2 sets out other regulated conduct. Minors in possession of cannabis are to have it confiscated but aren’t to face criminal penalties regardless of state or territory law, and the same applies to over 18-year-olds who may fall foul of state law, although their stash is not to be seized.

And division 3 outlines licensing. The bill establishes a system whereby small businesses or co-ops can obtain a licence for a regulated cannabis activity, which includes growing, manufacture and sales, while a system for licensing cannabis cafes provides for sales and outdoor area consumption.

Part 5 of the legislation then provides the framework for establishing CANA, with a CEO and staff members. And the agency will be charged with registering strains, issuing licences, overseeing licensees and approving responsible service training.

Legalise it, don’t criticise it

As Australian historian Dr John Jiggens tells it, when cannabis was lumped in with opium and the coca plant as substances banned for recreational use under the 1925 Geneva Convention, the first Australian health director general Dr John Cumpston told the PM’s department it wasn’t necessary.

At that time, cannabis was readily available and regulated as over-the-counter and prescription medicine, with the most popular being Dr J Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, and cannabis cigarettes were also available retail in this country early last century.

But the demonisation of cannabis in Australia was really the result of a 1930s propaganda campaign launched by US Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger, which saw a series of local articles about a destructive new drug called “marijuana” brought into the country by US soldiers.

And as the US implemented its 1937 Marijuana Tax that made it impossible for farmers to continue cultivating cannabis and hemp plants, which were regular cash crops in those days, “reefer madness” caught on in this country, and the various states prohibited the sale and use of cannabis.

But a widespread Australian campaign over the last decade raised awareness around the medicinal properties of cannabis and led the Turnbull government to legalise the cultivation, manufacture and sale of cannabis for medical purposes, which came into effect in October 2016.

And despite initial exorbitant prices and lashings of red tape, the legal medicinal cannabis market has, of late, become much more accessible to a larger section of the population.

It’s high time

“We’re proud to announce that today the Greens are releasing the first ever bill to legalise cannabis nationally, striking a solid blow against the war on drugs and creating an amazing new grassroots super-green industry,” Shoebridge said in a statement on release of the draft legislation.

In highlighting the benefits of cannabis legislation, the senator pointed to the rollout of cannabis cafés as opposed to ongoing sniffer dog harassment, along with “co-ops selling quality, legal and organic cannabis” and the ability to grow one’s own at home.

And there are further benefits as right now a sizable portion of the community is criminalised for their recreational use of the fairly innocuous plant that’s less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019 report sets out that 36 percent of Australians have used cannabis at one stage in their lives, while over 11 percent had used it in the last 12 months. And that regular use figure has hovered just above the 10 percent mark for years now.

Then there are the economic benefits. Since the first retail sale of cannabis in Colorado on 1 January 2014, the industry in that US state has raked in over $12.2 billion, and more than $2 billion of that has been in tax revenue, which has been funnelled into sectors, such as education and health.

Indeed, the Labor-Greens government in the Australian Capital Territory legalised the personal use and possession of cannabis in January 2020, and the sky has not fallen in. However, locals continue to have to illegally purchase their product on the black market if they don’t homegrow.

In contrast, the Australian Greens are seeking to implement an entire legalised and regulated market that will eradicate criminal network supply, prevent minors from purchasing the product, and will, in general, provide for a much happier and carefree community.

If you would like to partake in the consultation process, you can fill out the online survey.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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