Cannabis remains the most widely used illicit drug in Australia, with a majority of Australians supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis and a slim majority support legalisation.
Given that the current prohibition of cannabis worsens, rather than reduces, harms. Some consideration for law reform is warranted.
The decriminalisation of cannabis refers to the removal of criminal penalties for the use and possession of cannabis within a jurisdiction.
Decriminalisation of small quantities of cannabis exists in the ACT, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Despite nearly 30 years of decriminalisation, ACT and South Australia have the lowest rates of cannabis use in Australia (10.5% and 10.6% respectively, compared to the Australian average of 11.6%).
Decriminalisation models do not involve the legalised sale or cultivation of cannabis, merely the removal of criminal penalties for use and possession.
Cannabis has been decriminalised (to varying degrees) in many countries across the world including Portugal, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and 16 states and 1 territory in the United States.
Research has found the following benefits to the decriminalisation of cannabis:
- Lower costs to society, especially the criminal justice system.
- Lower costs to individuals, including improving employment prospects.
- No change to drug use or drug-related crime as a result of decriminalisation.
However, a key disadvantage of the decriminalisation model is that it has no impact on cannabis supply, allowing black market operators to continue to operate.
Cannabis legalisation involves implementing a model for regulated cannabis supply.
Sale, supply, possession and use of cannabis has been legalised in Uruguay, Catalonia, Canada and a number of jurisdictions in the United States.
There have been some promising findings from these countries including:
- No evidence of increased cannabis use by young people following legalisation.
- Decreased illicit drug markets in legalised jurisdictions (although some indication of cross-border illicit activity).
- No increase in crash fatality rates in legalised jurisdictions.
If cannabis is legally supplied, the number of people who come in contact with the criminal justice system will almost certainly be reduced, but little is known about the size of reduction. Likewise, the impact on drug treatment outcomes is unclear, although presumably, as stigma is reduced access to treatment is improved.
Research has found some increases in use among middle- and older-aged groups in legalised jurisdictions, but not amongst young people.
One study, found small increases in cannabis disorder in legalised jurisdictions in the United States. The proportion of respondents aged 12 to 17 years reporting cannabis use disorder increased from 2.18% to 2.72% after legalisation. The proportion of respondents 26 years or older reporting frequent cannabis use increased from 2.13% to 2.62% and those with cannabis use disorder, from 0.90% to 1.23%.
In 2020, the ACT partially legalised cannabis, allowing adult residents of the ACT to grow up to 2 plants per person to a maximum of 4 per household, or to possess 50g or equivalent of dried cannabis. The legislation has enabled the ACT Government to put in place numerous safeguards to protect the interests of children and young people. Under the legislation, use and possession is legal but sale and supply of cannabis is still a criminal offence.
No jurisdictions in Australia currently allow for the regulated commercial supply of cannabis.
Given the risks associated with the current black market in cannabis, 360Edge supports a cannabis legalisation model that includes regulated supply.
Models for regulated cannabis supply range from very restricted approaches (such as Uruguay) to free market approaches (such as USA).
Best-practice controls are similar to controls over alcohol and tobacco, including:
- Strict regulation of product including limits on potency, labelling and packaging
- Age limits
- Bans on advertising
- Graduated taxation measures designed to disrupt black markets firstly, followed by ‘sin taxes’ to disincentive heavy use
- Continued prohibition on driving whilst impaired by cannabis
- Clear public health messaging to ensure that the public is well informed about potential harms and how to avoid associated health and social problems.
It should be noted that although commercialised models have dominated global discussions, alternative ‘middle-ground’ legalisation models exist. For example, Vermont and Washington, DC have limited legal cannabis supply to home grows and gifting.
Other options for cannabis supply include government monopolies to allowing socially responsible businesses that do not exclusively focus on profit.
Addressing cannabis related harms requires re-thinking how we approach drug policy. The aim should be for a net reduction in harm, which is in line with Australia’s official drug policy. Currently, the legal status of cannabis increases drug related harms.
Should we reform?
Overall, there is compelling evidence for Australia to decriminalise cannabis use and possession, as well as strong evidence for the legalisation of cannabis supply.
Legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis use by adults, would allow resources to be prioritised on preventing cannabis use and harms by young people.
Read more here about the potential harms of cannabis use.