With the federal election in sight, The Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale has made a bold push for support on legalising marijuana in Australia.
When speaking to the ABC, Senator Di Natale said “Quite simply, the war on drugs is really a war on people.”
“We need to get real about cannabis use in Australia,” he said.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer has backed the Greens’ proposal, and says the “war on drugs” has failed and police resources could be better used catching the “criminal syndicates” and “gangs” behind the war.
However, the proposal was not met with support in Federal government, with the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt MP stating “Marijuana is a gateway drug. The risk of graduating to ice or to heroin from extended marijuana use is real and documented.”
His concern he said was with the future health of Australians deteriorating due to ongoing marijuana use.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has also denied support, saying the Labor party wants to instead focus on making marijuana more accessible for medicinal use, an ongoing issue since the introduction of medicinal marijuana in 2016.
“I’m sure as the Greens political party know, much of the responsibility for this issue lies at state and territory levels,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Cairns.
The plan includes a proposed agency that would act as a regulatory body and control the production and distribution of marijuana, purchasing it from farmers and selling it onto licensed shops in plain packaging. The agency would also be in charge of issuing licenses for shops and the ongoing regulation for distribution.
“We’ve got to have a much more tightly controlled and regulated environment,” Senator Di Natalie says.
Consumers would have to be at least 18 years old, and the growing of marijuana would be restricted to six plants per adult for personal use only.
The senator pointed to the success of the decriminalisation of marijuana in other countries like the United States, Spain and Uruguay, stating the plan would ensure the drug is “taken out of the hands of criminals” who he says are the people benefiting its criminalisation.
“The profits in this industry are huge,” he says.
Just like alcohol and tobacco, the millions of dollars in tax revenue from the decriminalisation of marijuana the senator says, will be put into education, treatment and harm-reduction programs.
Current drug use in Australia
It’s estimated that 7 million Australians have used marijuana, with 2 million currently using the drug nationwide.
Recreational use of marijuana is illegal in Australia, and is a criminal offence, with the severity of consequences differing state to state.
Whilst more serious cases like trafficking and selling marijuana are handled by a blanket criminalised approach, minor cases of possession are treated with the discretion of the local police.
In the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Northern Territory, minor offences are relatively decriminalised and are treated with civil consequences such as the issue of a warning, a fine or order to undergo counselling.
However, in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, minor offences face more severe consequences such as cautions and drug diversion programs.
During 2015-16, there were 80 thousand reported cannabis-related arrests, and a record 7, 504 cannabis detections at the Australian border.
The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that marijuana was the most commonly used drug, with 10.4 per cent of people over 14 years of age reportedly using the drug in the past 12 months.
The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes was introduced in 2016 after receiving a groundswell of support from Australians.
The 2016 report by the Institute of Health and Welfare found a shift in opinion towards the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, with a reported 85 per cent of people supporting a legislative change to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
“Community tolerance has increased for cannabis use, with higher proportions of people supporting legalisation and a lower proportion supporting penalties for sale and supply,” the report said.
Marijuana is used to treat severe medical conditions like chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic non-cancer pain and palliative care.
However, since its introduction, patients have reported difficulty in the process and it can take years before they are treated.
President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Dr Alex Wodak estimates tens of thousands of people have applied for medicinal marijuana, with only 525 patients having been approved.
Medical experts say this is due to a lack of evidence from clinical trials, despite the proven track record in other countries.
Many have argued the evidence is there within peer-reviewed studies, but it is the health department that fail to recognise their significance.
Drug use in other countries
In the U.S, 10 states have legalised the recreational use of marijuana for those over 21 years old, including Washington and Colorado, who became the first to do so in 2012. Other states include Alaska, Some parts of California, Nevada and Oregon. Surrounding states have decriminalised recreational use of marijuana but have stricter laws around owning, buying and possessing the drug. Another 29 states have legalised marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Since the introduction of marijuana dispensaries in Washington in 2012, the state has made over $US1 billion from non-medicinal marijuana sales, which has funded schools, public health initiatives, research, state police affairs and local government.
A 2017 report found that 64 per cent of Americans support the legalisation of marijuana for recreational and medicinal use
A report published in The Economic Journal found that within states close to the Mexican border, crime rates had fallen 12.5 per cent.
Prior to decriminalisation, Mexico was one of the largest illegal drug exporters, trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of marijuana over the border to sell across the country.
By creating marijuana dispensaries, it removes the need for illegal drug distribution and gang related violence.
The report also found robberies have decreased by 19 per cent, murders by 10 per cent and assaults by 9 per cent.
In Uruguay, marijuana use has been legal since July last year. Since then, a report found that drug-related crime has dropped 20 per cent.
The laws in Uruguay are like the Greens proposal, where permanent residents over 18 can purchase marijuana from a pharmacy and grow up to six plants.
However, officials have noted an influx of tourism since the legalisation due to the appeal of the new law, but the rise of illegal distribution to some tourists looking to buy marijuana.
Director of the Cannabis Museum in Montevideo, Eduardo Blasina, told The Guardian “South America’s war against drugs has been absurd, with catastrophic results no matter which indicators you consider, including consumption.”
He says that the legalisation of marijuana has effectively ended Uruguay’s involvement in South America’s war on drugs.
The use of Marijuana has been decriminalised in the Netherlands since the 1970’s and has since become a popular tourist spot for its ‘coffee shops’, selling marijuana edibles and small amounts of the drug.
Whilst not completely legalised, police have discretionary power to criminalise people found possessing the drug based on the “public interest.”
The selling of marijuana by coffee shops is monitored by a regulatory framework that permits the advertisement of the drug, selling to underage customers and sales of ‘hard drugs’.
The Netherlands’ Country Drug Report in 2017 found that amongst young adults aged 15-34 years old, 16.1 per cent used marijuana.
The report also noted drug-induced mortality rate amongst adults aged 15-64 years old was 16.5 deaths per million in 2015, lower than the average of the EU which reported 20.3 deaths per million.
Co-authored by Jasmine Riley and Matthew Evans.