The 31st of January this year marked 12 months since the ACT legalised the personal use and possession of cannabis. And to date, the sky is yet to fall in.
In fact, by all accounts, nothing has changed except for citizens no longer being arrested over the, for the most part, innocuous plant.
Meanwhile, on the same day the US elected to get rid of Trump, four more of that nation’s states voted to join eleven others in legalising cannabis use for recreational purposes.
In most of the US jurisdictions where it’s been legal for some time now, a person can drop into a store and buy some.
In Colorado, where the first retail sale took place on 1 January 2014, cannabis has become a billion-dollar industry. As of June 2019, the regulated cannabis industry in Colorado had pulled in $6.5 billion and funnelled $1 billion in tax revenue into sectors like education and health.
And as the WA election draws nearer, the just registered Legalise Cannabis Western Australia Party (LCWA) is asserting to local constituents that it’s time for the state to fully legalise the plant not only to remove the criminalisation of a large number of citizens but also to reap in the profits.
A brief history of cannabis prohibition
In 1925, the League of Nations drafted a transnational drug control treaty that became the Geneva Convention. It aimed to ban the recreational use of opium and coca, along with their derivatives.
But, as a last minute addition, cannabis was thrown in on suggestion of Egypt, with Turkey’s backing.
In response to the treaty, then Australian Health Department director Dr John Howard Lidgett Cumpston told the PM of the day that there was no need to ban cannabis.
However, under pressure from the UK and the US, over the coming decades, all Australian states eventually made adult use illegal.
Indeed, in the 1930s, cannabis was one of the most popular over-the-counter medicines in Australia. And when a Victorian MP suggested banning them, country parliamentarians flew into a rage. But, by the 1960s, cannabis medicines had all been phased out due to the recreational prohibition.
Sensible cannabis policy
Legalise Cannabis WA suggests legal cannabis would work similar to the way grapes do. You can grow grapes at home, make wine and share it without a licence. However, if you want to sell wine, you need a licence, which entails regulations around production and sale, including quality control.
Running candidates in the upper house and all the “hotly contested” lower house seats, the LCWA Party also emphasises that the legalising of the drug would benefit those marginalised sectors of society that are most affected by the enforcement of the prohibition.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Legalise Cannabis WA Party president Leo Treasure about the numerous benefits that legalisation would bring to his state, the trouble with this nation’s lawful medicinal cannabis system, and the health impacts that legalisation would bring to the community.
Firstly, the newly formed and registered Legalise Cannabis Western Australia Party is running candidates in the 13 March state election.
The party’s name pretty much sums up its vision. But more broadly, Leo, how does Legalise Cannabis WA foresee a lawful system would operate in its state?
We envision a new industry developing around cannabis which will create thousands of jobs, increase and diversify our export market and substantially bring down the cost for local medicinal and recreational cannabis products.
People would be allowed to grow on their own property and consume for personal use. They would not be allowed to sell product.
Farming, processing and distribution would be regulated, giving rise to job creation and export opportunities.
Cannabis is a drug that has been internationally recognised as an illegal substance since the establishment of the 1925 Geneva Convention.
This led to it eventually being prohibited internally within most countries in the decades that followed.
In your opinion, why should this prohibited plant be legalised? And what would the benefits be?
There are four reasons. The first is the social impact. Contrasted with alcohol, cannabis does not negatively affect social cohesion.
Alcohol is strongly associated with aggression and violence. Cannabis is not.
Legalising the drug would remove the black market. The ability to grow plants yourself means no-cost supply and disincentivising the use of expensive and addictive psychoactives.
Legalisation would de-stigmatise the use of cannabis. And it would take pressure off the prison system.
There are over 100,000 arrests for cannabis in Australia each year. Less incarceration means less people have exposure to hardened criminals.
Many people are currently unable to travel or get jobs because they have a cannabis-related criminal record.
Industry is the second factor. Research by MRI-Simmons suggests that the global market for cannabis products was worth US$19 billion in 2020, which was up from $13.2 billion the previous year.
This is a vast export market that Australia, with its low-cost agriculture and advanced medical technology, could exploit.
Then there’s medicinal cannabis. An abundance of scientific evidence has emerged about the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and it’s often an alternative to highly addictive opioid treatments.
It has been used medicinally and recreationally by many societies for millennia. It’s a herb. It’s a natural product.
And lastly, there’s the health impact. Nobody dies from a cannabis overdose. Over 20,000 Australians a year die from smoking-related illnesses.
Compared to alcohol and cigarettes, cannabis generates negligible adverse health outcomes.
There is some evidence that regular use of cannabis by adolescents is harmful in the long term. Regular use should be discouraged for people of that age.
Legalising the plant would lead to a more inclusive society and provide economic security to West Australians.
There would be a reduction of the cannabis price on the demand side which in turn could significantly shrink people’s exposure to the black market.
It’s now been 12 months since the ACT legalised the personal possession and use of cannabis.
A sizeable number of Australians remain unaware that this even happened, and little has been reported on it since the prohibition was lifted.
What would you say the Canberra experience is telling us?
Twelve months is not a long time to judge the impacts of a policy change, but since the ACT legalised personal possession and use of cannabis, according to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association, cannabis use has not changed.
The chief executive of the association has said, “Overall, we found cannabis use hasn’t changed and, in some ways, that’s the big story, because there were really dire predictions at the outset.”
The Medical Cannabis Users Association (MCUA) of Australia was instrumental in the formation of the Queensland branch of your party.
How would you sum up the way the nation’s legal system of medicinal cannabis is currently operating?
Not well. It’s around four times more expensive than the black market. The average amount spent is $500 a month and there are more costs to pay a doctor if you can even find one who is willing to prescribe it.
Strict laws on cultivation, import and manufacturing standards make accessing medicinal cannabis out of reach for the majority of West Australians living with pain.
Changing climate is threatening life on Earth. Hemp is the form of cannabis used industrially. With low THC, it doesn’t have a psychoactive effect on people if consumed. But it does have profound environmental benefits.
Can you tell us a bit about how utilising this plant benefits the planet?
We have a plastics problem. Hemp biodegrades and is more than twice as strong as traditional plastic. If we’re to address plastic dependence, hemp is one place we should be looking.
Hemp is a more effective way of sequestering carbon dioxide than trees. And it has a high resistance to pests and disease so requires less control with chemicals.
Finally, hemp is a clean alternative to fossil fuels. It produces more biomass fuel per hectare than any other crop. And it adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Cannabis is now legal in 11 US states and that nation’s capital. In most of those states, it’s available retail. And the entire nation of Canada legalised the plant in 2018.
What has the experience of legalising cannabis been like in North America?
Anecdotally, the main thing is that nothing happened. Dire warnings about the decline of society have not manifested. Usage has barely changed.
People continue to behave discreetly, and society continues undamaged. We seem to have avoided Reefer Madness.
And lastly, Leo, with these major cannabis reforms in North America, as well as elsewhere in the world, what’s with the reluctance of most Australian jurisdictions to follow suit? And how is this going to change?
It’s tempting to say our politicians are afraid to do anything controversial – that all parties adopt a “keep your head down” approach.
But it’s also true to say that change only happens when people stand for it.
And that’s why the Legalise Cannabis Party exists – to use existing political and social structures to initiate change.
Others will follow.
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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.