Each year, Australia spends more than 1.5 billion dollars policing our nation’s ban on cannabis.
But to what end?
Cannabis was declared illegal by our federal government almost a century ago – yet it remains easy to buy and regularly used by Australians from all walks of life.
Across the country, its use continues to rise.
At the same time, prohibition itself is doing real damage to our community.
It does this in a number of ways.
Prohibition actively creates crime. In Australia a thriving illegal cannabis trade is estimated by police to be worth around $8 billion a year.[i]
It’s these criminal networks, and the harder drugs they peddle, that everyday Australians are forced into contact with when buying cannabis for personal use.
Being caught with cannabis is pushing many of these recreational users into the criminal justice system, often leaving them with criminal records which can have devastating emotional and financial impacts.
Prohibition ensures we have zero control over the potency or purity of cannabis, allowing criminal networks to make their products as addictive and contaminated as possible to maximise profits.
Current policies mean that stigma and shame shut down the honest public conversations we need to have about the potential risks of cannabis, particularly with young people and other vulnerable Australians.
Prohibition also compounds the over-representation of marginalised groups in our justice system, and jail time for personal possession or use further strains our crowded prisons.
And all the while, futile efforts to stamp out cannabis are costing Australia around $1.7 billion a year in law enforcement efforts,[ii] and diverting police and court resources away from far more serious drugs and crimes.
This profound failure of policy has been decades in the making. It’s time that we reject the myths and panic around cannabis in favour of rational discussion and real evidence. Reform is long overdue.
As a community, we need to listen to research showing that the risks of cannabis for most people are lower than for many other illicit substances.
We need to recognise that public views on cannabis use have fundamentally changed – in 2019, for the first time, more people in Australia’s pre-eminent drug use survey supported legalisation of cannabis than opposed it.[iii]
It’s a key shift that’s reflected in reforms elsewhere, as more and more governments and communities around the world recognise that criminalisation of cannabis is doing more harm than good.
We need to acknowledge that using cannabis does not make you a bad person. There are millions of recreational and medicinal cannabis users in Australia. They could be your sister, your boss, your neighbour or your coach. They could be your child. They could be you.
Penington Institute doesn’t promote cannabis use, or ignore its risks.
But the simple truth is that prohibition of it is not protecting our community.
With the irrefutable evidence of this failure all around us, Penington Institute believes the only responsible path forward is to establish a strictly-regulated legal market for cannabis.
By taking supply out of the hands of criminals and by drawing on cannabis law reforms happening around the world, Australians can build a new approach tailored to our community’s needs and concerns.
Ours must be a regulatory framework defined by public health goals. Targeted prevention, education and treatment efforts are essential to protect young and vulnerable people. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation will be crucial.
There is no doubt this will be challenging reform, requiring proactive leadership and extensive and open community conversation.
It will also demand that we expose, once and for all, some of the key mistruths propping up the failed policy of prohibition.
[i] Victoria Police (2017). Submission to the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee inquiry into drug law reform.
[ii] Whetton, S., Tait, R.J., Chrzanowska, A., Donnelly, N., McEntee, A., Mukhtar, A., Zahra, E., Campbell, G., Degenhardt, L., Dey, T., Abdul Halim, S., Hall, W., Makate, M., Norman, R., Peacock, A., Roche, A. and Allsop, S. (2020). Quantifying the social costs of cannabis use to Australia in 2015/16. Perth: National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University.
[iii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Table 9.26.
Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug worldwide, with an estimated 192 million people (roughly 3.9% of the global population aged 15 to 64) using it at least once in 2018.[i]
In Australia, rates of use are even higher – and climbing.
According to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), cannabis is the nation’s most commonly and most frequently used illicit drug: 36.5% of people over the age of 14 years – 7.6 million Australians – had used cannabis at least once in their lives.[ii]
In 2016, 10% of Australians told the NDSHS they had used cannabis in the previous year. By 2019, that figure had risen to 11.6%,[iii] or more than 2.4 million Australians. The highest prevalence of recent use reported in 2019 was among people aged 18-24, with 27.8% having used cannabis in the previous 12 months.
In 2019, 37% of users consumed cannabis weekly or more often, while half had used it only a few times during the year, and 12.8% used about once a month. A third only used cannabis once or twice per year.
In Victoria, 11.5% of people aged 14 and older had used cannabis in the previous year, up from 9.9% in 2016.[iv]
These results confirm that cannabis is not a niche drug. Its prevalence means this an issue which touches all of us, as parents, friends, work colleagues, employers or neighbours. This is an issue we can no longer ignore.
[i] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020). World drug report 2020. Vienna: UNODC.
[ii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Tables 4.2, 4.3, 4.6 and 4.7.
[iii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW.
[iv] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Table S.32.
Prohibition of a substance must be justified by an ongoing and rigorous assessment of the dangers it poses.
So what do we know about the effects of cannabis use on people’s mental and physical health?
There is substantial evidence that cannabis can have beneficial therapeutic effects for a range of illnesses and conditions, such as chronic pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea. There is also some evidence, although not as strong, that it is therapeutically effective for other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.[i]
These benefits led the Australian parliament in 2016 to legalise cannabis for medicinal use in strictly controlled circumstances, with Victoria the first state to legalise medicinal cannabis for terminally ill people.
We know too that cannabis is much less addictive than many other legal drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, and illicit substances, such as heroin and barbiturates.[ii] It also has a very low level of toxicity, with an estimated fatal dose many times greater than the dose that even a heavy user could consume in a single day.[iii]
Significantly, the proportion of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia attributable to cannabis use in 2015 was just 0.2% – compared with 4.5% attributable to alcohol use and 9.3% to tobacco.[iv]
Research also estimates that just 1.6% of the burden of disease and injury caused by schizophrenia in Australia can be attributed to cannabis.[v]
Research overseas highlights this lower-risk harm profile; in its recent report examining the evidence on the harms of psychoactive substances, the Global Commission on Drug Policy[vi] placed cannabis eighth, behind both alcohol (in first place) and tobacco (in sixth).[vii]
However, it must be emphasised that cannabis is not without harm, and its potential risks are real.
- While conclusive evidence on the effects of cannabis use remain elusive, there is an emerging body of evidence on the potential effects of chronic, heavy cannabis use.
- There is potential for adverse health effects with chronic use, such as respiratory infections.
- There appears to be an association between heavy use – especially of high-potency cannabis – and some mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, particularly for those with a pre-existing genetic or other vulnerability.
- Young people are at heightened risk of drug-related harms for a range of reasons, including the effects of regular use on their developing brains; adverse health, educational and mental health outcomes are more likely among those who start using earlier and use more heavily.
We believe that targeted public education around these risks, particularly for young people and for those with pre-existing vulnerabilities, is imperative – and would be significantly more effective than our current approach.
[i] The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a committee of 16 experts across different specialisations to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature regarding the health effects of cannabis and/or its constituents. The committee considered more than 10,700 studies and arrived at nearly 100 different conclusions based on a standardised set of criteria for classifying the weight of the evidence. In order of strength, the weight-of-evidence categories were as follows: conclusive evidence, substantial evidence, moderate evidence, limited evidence and no/insufficient evidence to support the association. See further: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017). The health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids: The current state of evidence and recommendations for research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, p. 7.
[ii] Penington, D. (2015). Medical cannabis: Time for clear thinking. Medical Journal of Australia, 202(2): 74-76.
[iii] Hall, W. (2009). The adverse health effects of cannabis use: What are they, and what are their implications for policy? International Journal of Drug Policy, 20: 458-466, p. 458.
[iv] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019). Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australia, 2015. Canberra: AIHW, p. 62.
[v] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018). Impact of alcohol and illicit drug use on the burden of disease and injury in Australia: Australian Burden of Disease Study, 2011. Canberra: AIHW, p. 84.
[vi] The Global Commission on Drug Policy is an independent body comprising 26 members, including 14 former heads of state or government and four Nobel Prize laureates.
[vii] Global Commission on Drug Policy (2019). Classification of psychoactive substances: When science was left behind. Geneva: Global Commission on Drug Policy.
Cannabis is sometimes described as a “gateway drug”, as the first step in an inexorable descent into the abuse of harder drugs. While there is some evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and the use of other illicit drugs, there is no clear evidence that cannabis actually causes other drug use.
There is, however, strong evidence that the overwhelming majority of people who use cannabis do not progress to harder drugs. More than one-third (37%) of Australians aged 14 and over have used cannabis at some point in their lives, but only 6% have ever used methamphetamine and just 1% have used heroin.[i] This shows that the vast majority of people who use cannabis do not then move to more dangerous drugs.
[i]Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Table 4.2.
Concerns are also raised in the community about the impact of cannabis use on dangerous driving.
Assessing latest research, while the evidence on the association between cannabis use and road accidents is inconsistent, the most robust research suggests that there is no significant increase in crash risk attributable to cannabis.
International and Australian studies have shown only modest impairments due to cannabis, and research suggests the impact of cannabis on crash risk is far smaller than the impact of alcohol.
Significantly, cannabis has been estimated to be responsible for only 0.6% of the burden caused in Australia by injuries among motor vehicle occupants, and 0.8% of the burden caused by injuries to motorcyclists.[i]
Legalisation of cannabis does not mean automatically abandoning all restrictions on its recreational use –cannabis-impaired driving should be unlawful.
[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018). Impact of alcohol and illicit drug use on the burden of disease and injury in Australia: Australian Burden of Disease Study, 2011. Canberra: AIHW, p. 84.
The cannabis plant has been used by many different cultures for its healing properties for thousands of years.
Here in Australia it’s been banned for almost a century, with Victoria the first to outlaw its use in 1928.
But deeming cannabis illegal did not erase it from Australian life – the law merely forced it underground.
In the decades since then, states and territories have adopted a range of de jure and de facto decriminalisation schemes for cannabis use and possession, either by replacing criminal penalties with civil penalties such as fines, or by referring offenders to education or treatment programs rather than sending them to court.
In Victoria, the Cannabis Cautioning Program allows police to caution and provide education material to eligible offenders [i] who are found with small amounts of cannabis.
Yet even with these decriminalisation strategies, the cost of policing cannabis continues to be immense.
In 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that $7.1 billion was spent on illicit drugs in Australia, more than half of which was spent on cannabis.[ii]
In the same year, it was estimated that a staggering two-thirds of Australia’s spending on drug policy went to law enforcement efforts, with less than one-third going to treatment.[iii]
In 2015-2016 alone, the costs of law enforcement relating to cannabis in Australia included:[iv]
- $1.1 billion spent on imprisonment
- $475 million spent on police
- $62 million spent on courts
- $52 million spent on legal aid and prosecution
- $25 million spent on community corrections
In Victoria, in the year ending June 2020, cannabis accounted for 10,511 use and possession offences recorded by police – more than a third of all such offences, with cannabis the most common drug involved overall.[v]
In the 10 years to June 2017, cannabis was also the most common drug type involved in minor drug offences in the courts, accounting for 44% of all proven charges of these offences in the Victorian Magistrates’ Court, or about 5,000 charges per year.
In the three years to June 2019, there were 11,498 people sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court for simple cannabis possession under s 73(1) of the Drugs, Poisons And Controlled Substances Act 1981 (Vic). While the most common outcome was a fine, more than one in ten charges received a term of imprisonment.[vi]
Another 2,071 people were sentenced for cannabis use over the same three years. One in five of these were sentenced to a term of imprisonment.[vii]
It’s been estimated that the average cost per person for police and court activities around a cannabis charge is $1,918.[viii] In Victoria in 2018-19, cannabis possession offences cost taxpayers around $35 million per year in prison costs alone.[ix]
But it’s not only the financial costs that are enormous. The personal costs of criminalisation can also be crushing.
Each year, thousands of Victorians who possess cannabis for their own recreational use are being swept into the justice system and left with a criminal record.
For many, this can have lasting negative impacts, affecting employment, housing, family relationships and mental health.
[i] People are eligible for this program if they are above 18 years of age, admit to the offence and consent to being cautioned, have received no more than one previous drug caution notice of any kind and are not involved in any other offence: Victoria Police (2017). Submission to the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee inquiry into drug law reform.
[ii] Anex (2013). Profits dwarf drug responses. Anex Bulletin, 11(6).
[iii] Ritter, A., et al. (2013). Government drug policy expenditure in Australia 2009-2010. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales.
[iv] Whetton, S., Tait, R.J., Chrzanowska, A., Donnelly, N., McEntee, A., Mukhtar, A., Zahra, E., Campbell, G., Degenhardt, L., Dey, T., Abdul Halim, S., Hall, W., Makate, M., Norman, R., Peacock, A., Roche, A. and Allsop, S. (2020). Quantifying the social costs of cannabis use to Australia in 2015/16. Perth: National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University.
[v] See further: https://www.crimestatistics.vic.gov.au/index.php/crime-statistics/latest-victorian-crime-data for the year ending June 2020.
[vi] Sentencing Advisory Council (2020). SACStat Magistrates’ Court data: Possess cannabis. Available at: https://www.sentencingcouncil.vic.gov.au/sacstat/magistrates_court/9719_73_1.7.html.
[vii] Sentencing Advisory Council (2020). SACStat Magistrates’ Court data: Use cannabis. Available at: https://www.sentencingcouncil.vic.gov.au/sacstat/magistrates_court/9719_75.3.html.
[viii]Shanahan, M., Hughes, C. and McSweeney, T. (2016). Australian police diversion for cannabis offences: Assessing program outcomes and cost-effectiveness. Canberra: National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund.
[ix] For example, 1,242 people received a prison term of less than three months. The number of people in this category was multiplied by the mid-point duration for the category – 6 weeks, or 42 days – for a total of 52,164 prisoner days. At almost $320 per day, this one group cost the taxpayer almost $17 million over the three years.
We’ve seen how current laws criminalise everyday Australians caught with cannabis.
For some Australians, the penalty for cannabis use can be even more severe.
Our current system of prohibition disproportionately affects marginalised groups already over-represented in our justice system, with people of colour, First Nations people and those from poorer backgrounds more likely than others to be penalised for minor drug offences.
While police diversion schemes for low-level cannabis offences are in place across Australia, research suggests that police discretion too often sees Indigenous peoples and people of colour disproportionately targeted for drug-related law enforcement rather than being offered diversionary processes.
Data from NSW show that police are far less likely to divert Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people found in possession of a small amount of cannabis: 83% were taken to court during the period 2013 to 2017, compared with 52% for the non-Indigenous population.
Police were four times more likely to issue a cannabis caution to non-Indigenous people: 40% of non-Indigenous people received a caution, compared with only 11% of Indigenous Australians.
And while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous people had a similar conviction rate once at court, Indigenous women have been shown to receive harsher sentences than others for drug possession offences, including triple the rate of prison sentences.[i]
In Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprised 10% of the adult prisoner population in 2019,[ii] despite accounting for less than 1% of the state’s population – an imbalance seen across the nation.
Contact with the criminal justice system can be especially harmful for these vulnerable cohorts, increasing the likelihood of further criminal justice system contact and the risk of death in custody.
[i] Data compiled for The Guardian Australia news by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jun/10/nsw-police-pursue-80-of-indigenous-people-caught-with-cannabis-through-courts.
[ii] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2019). Prisoners in Australia, 2019. Cat. No. 4517.0. Canberra: ABS.
One of the most disturbing effects of prohibition in Australia is the creation of a thriving black market, which has an estimated retail value of $8 billion annually.[i]
The links between organised crime and the cannabis market are well established,[ii] with the lure of vast financial rewards generating powerful incentives for organised crime to dominate the market.
In 2010 alone, the profit margin to cannabis distributors in Australia was estimated at $3.7 billion.[iii] By 2018, senior police were conceding that “the syndicates controlling Australia’s multi-billion-dollar cannabis black market are far more powerful than they had previously suspected”.[iv]
Profits then help fund other criminal activities involving drugs which are much more dangerous than cannabis, such as the importation of ice and heroin into Australia.[v]
The mega-profits of the illegal cannabis trade also drive up cannabis potency, as growers increase the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis responsible for the drug’s ‘high’, to make their product more addictive – and therefore more dangerous – to ensure return customers.
The impact of this so-called “iron law of prohibition” (that is, that “the harder the enforcement, the harder the drug”) is reflected in rising THC content levels across the world.
In the United States, for example, the average THC content in confiscated samples jumped from less than 4% in the early 1990s to more than 15% in 2018.[vi] Here in Australia, the potency of cannabis has soared over the past three decades, with average THC content tripling between 1995 and 2014.[vii]
(Source: Queensland Productivity Commission, 2019; modified from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2018.)
As we’ve seen with alcohol and tobacco, once a drug is legalised, its quality and distribution can be controlled.
In jurisdictions where cannabis production is regulated, research shows that cannabis contains lower levels of THC and higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD) – a secondary psychoactive compound with various beneficial medicinal properties, including the treatment of pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.[viii]
Controlled supply also allows us to tackle the use of contaminants in the cannabis production process.
Major concerns have been raised around additives such as pesticides and around the use of plant growth regulators, many of which have been banned from use on food crops after being identified as carcinogens.[ix]
One study of cannabis growers in Australia, Denmark and the UK found that almost half used additives – chemicals which can be transferred into cannabis smoke.[x]
[i] Victorian Police (2017). Submission to the Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Inquiry into drug law reform.
[ii] Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation (2016). Toward the legalization, regulation and restriction of access to marijuana: Discussion paper. Government of Canada.
[iii] Drugs that are produced within Australia have a far higher estimated profit margin than those which are imported. Anex (2013). Profits dwarf drug responses. Anex Bulletin, 11(6).
[iv] See further: Bucci, N. and Dredge, S. ‘The green house next door’, ABC News, 2 July 2018. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-02/inside-the-grow-houses-of-australias-illegal-cannabis-trade/9889304?nw=0.
[v] See, for example: Silvester, J. (2015). Victoria police estimate ‘hydro’ a $1.5 billion drug industry. The Age, 27 February 2015. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/victoria-police-estimate-hydro-a-15-billion-drug-industry-20150226-13pl0v.html
[vi] National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020). Marijuana research report. Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, p. 10.
[vii] Humphreys, K. (2019). Varieties of cannabis legalisation. Presented to the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs conference, Hobart, Tasmania.
[viii] The medicinal value of CBD and the importance of ease of access to its benefits has been recognised in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which recently down-scheduled low-dose CBD preparations to allow over-the-counter supply by a pharmacist, without a prescription. See: https://www.tga.gov.au/media-release/over-counter-access-low-dose-cannabidiol.
[ix] Lenton, S., Frank, V.A., Barratt, M.J., Potter, G.R. and Decorte, T. (2018). Growing practices and the use of potentially harmful chemical additives among a sample of small-scale cannabis growers in three countries. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 192(1): 250-256.
[x] Taylor, A. and Birkett, J.W. (2019). Pesticides in cannabis: A review of analytical and toxicological considerations. Drug Testing and Analysis, 12(2): 180-190.
Public support for our current approach is falling.
Australia’s respected National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed in 2019 that for the first time, more people support the legalisation of cannabis than oppose it.
It also found that only 22% of those surveyed felt that cannabis use should be a criminal offence.[i]
Just over 40% supported the legalisation of cannabis – a figure which has nearly doubled since 2007.
More than half of respondents believed that someone found in possession of cannabis for personal use should receive a caution, warning or no action.[ii]
It’s clear that Australians increasingly want non-punitive, effective harm minimisation measures that reduce problems associated with drug use – not cause them.
[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Table 9.15.
[ii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Table 9.32.
In reality, the shifts underway in Australia are being echoed in cannabis law reform across the globe.
In October 2018, Canada became the first G20 nation to legalise the possession, cultivation and commercial supply of cannabis for personal use.
The three key goals of its Cannabis Act should inform our framework in Australia:
- To keep cannabis out of the hands of youth.
- To keep profits out of the pockets of criminals.
- To protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to legal cannabis.[i]
Results so far show:
- No significant increase in the use of cannabis following legalisation, with use among people aged 18-24 and heavy users remaining unchanged. Among adolescents aged 15-17, the proportion reporting cannabis use declined following legalisation: from 19.8% prior to legalisation to 10.4% afterwards.[ii]
- No change in the percentage of people who reported driving within two hours of consuming cannabis, while the proportion of people who reported having been a passenger in a car driven by someone who had consumed cannabis within the previous two hours actually fell following legalisation.[iii]
- Significant tax revenue and employment generated by the new legal cannabis market. In the first five and a half months following legalisation, Canadian governments earned $186 million Canadian dollars from excise taxes and general taxes on goods and services directly related to the sale of cannabis.[iv]
With public health protection as its guiding principle, the Canadian model places heavy emphasis on education and awareness campaigns – a priority we strongly advocate in Australia too.
(Source: Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction)
The United States
The US has the largest legal cannabis market in the world. As of 2018, the US cannabis market was valued at $11.3 billion – $7.2 billion of which was accounted for by medical cannabis use.[v] Taxation of the cannabis industry generates significant revenue for governments. As of May 2020, for example, Colorado, with 5.8 million residents, had collected $1.31 billion US dollars in tax revenue since retail sales of cannabis began there in early 2014.[vi]
With an additional four states legalising recreational cannabis at the 2020 election,[vii]cannabis is now legal as a recreational drug in 15 American states, with each adopting different models and restrictions.
Fully commercial reforms (similar to alcohol-style regulations) have been adopted in Colorado and Washington State.[viii]
Evidence from Colorado shows that the impacts of reform have been largely positive:[ix]
There has been no obvious spike in young people’s cannabis use, road fatalities, or crime, and there have been a number of positives, including a dramatic drop in the number of people being criminalised for cannabis offences; a substantial contraction in the illicit trade, as the majority of supply is now regulated by the government; and a significant increase in tax revenue, which is now being spent on social programmes. Consistent public support for legalisation also suggests Coloradans perceive the reforms to have been a success. Where challenges have emerged, for example around cannabis edibles, the flexibility of the regulations has allowed for modification to address them.
In September 2019, the Australian Capital Territory government passed the Drugs of Dependence (Personal Cannabis Use) Amendment Act 2019, legalising the personal cultivation, possession and use of cannabis in small quantities. Larger-scale production, as well as any form of supply or sale of cannabis, remains illegal.
Police data since the law came into effect in January 2020 show no meaningful increase in drug arrests or drug-driving charges. Cannabis offences fell by 90% in the 12 months since the law changed, from 56 to just five.[x]
Early insights from the first year of the ACT reforms suggest that both cannabis use and hospital presentations have remained steady,[xi] as have the number of young people being directed into drug support programs and the number of drug tests detecting THC.[xii]
Experts also believe that legalisation and the reduced stigma of cannabis use has seen more people access treatment for problem use and for any associated mental health issues.
[i] See further: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/cannabis/.
[ii] Statistics Canada (2020). Cannabis legalization: What has changed?
[iii] Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (2019). Cannabis legalization: Year one observations.
[iv] Statistics Canada (2019). At a glance: Government revenues from the sale of cannabis, March 2019.
[v] Grand View Research (2019). U.S. cannabis market size, share & trends analysis report by cannabis type (medical, recreational), by product type (buds, oils, tincture), by medical application, (chronic pain, mental disorder, cancer), and segment forecasts, 2019 – 2025. San Francisco: Grand View Research.
[vi] Colorado Department of Revenue (2020). Marijuana tax data. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/revenue/colorado-marijuana-tax-data?mod=article_inline.
[vii] Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota all passed measures to legalise recreational cannabis. Mississippi and South Dakota also legalised medical cannabis. One commentator suggested that ‘the strong win across party lines shows that our country is less divided on the “freedom to use drugs” than just about any other issue’. See further: Iaquinta, S. The real winner this election day – drugs : Several states approve marijuana for recreation, medical uses. Marin Independent Journal, 8 November 2020. Available at: https://www.marinij.com/2020/11/08/the-real-winner-this-election-day-drugs/.
[viii] Caulkins, J.P., Kilmer, B., Kleiman, M.A.R., MacCoun, R.J., Midgette, G., Oglesby, P., Pacula, R.L. and Reuter, P. H. (2015). Options and issues regarding marijuana legalization. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
[ix] Rolles, S. (2017). Cannabis regulation in Colorado: Early evidence defies the critics. Bristol: Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
[x] Inman, M. “What has changed in the year since cannabis possession was legalised in the ACT?”, ABC News, 31 January 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-31/what-has-changed-in-the-year-since-cannabis-was-legalised-in-the-act/13105636.
[xi] ACT Health launched a public health campaign about the potential impacts of cannabis use, which may have helped minimise cannabis-related harms.
[xii] There has yet to be any academic research into the impact of the ACT reforms. However, ABC Triple J Hack received these data from ACT police. See further: https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/act-legalised-cannabis-one-year-ago-heres-how-its-gone/12703982.
The crucial issue of protecting young people from drug use must be central to every aspect of a legal framework for cannabis.
We know that adverse health, educational and mental health outcomes are more likely among people who use cannabis heavily before the age of 17.[i]
Yet despite cannabis being illegal, young Australians report that it’s easily accessible, with one-third of 14-19 year old respondents to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey having had the opportunity to use cannabis in the previous 12 months.[ii]
Young people appear to be at heightened risk of drug-related harms for a range of reasons, including the effects of regular use on their developing brains.[iii] There is moderate evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and increased risk of physical injury, as well as between acute cannabis use and cognitive impairment.
There is also substantial evidence that initiating cannabis use at an earlier age is a risk factor for the development of problem cannabis use.
Each of these risk factors requires sustained public focus and intensive education campaigns.
The solution is not to treat young people as criminals but to use regulatory mechanisms to limit their access to cannabis and to talk to them openly and frequently about the risks that cannabis can pose. `
Strict age limits for buying cannabis from licensed sellers, quantity and potency limits, and a ban on advertising and public consumption, are among the many tools we can employ to minimise harm in this high-risk cohort.
To date, international evidence on the impact of cannabis reforms has shown that liberalising cannabis use does not change consumption patterns in young people.[iv] A sophisticated statistical analysis of data from US states in which cannabis had been legalised found that young people were 8% less likely to try cannabis after legalisation than before, and 9% less likely to use cannabis frequently.
The authors suggest that legalisation makes it more difficult for teenagers to obtain cannabis as criminal drug dealers are replaced by licensed dispensaries that require proof of age.[v]
We agree that young people should be strongly discouraged from cannabis use. We think that the best way to do this is through intensive and targeted public messaging and education and strictly managing a legal adult-only market.
But we also argue that accepting the status quo – which leaves those young people navigating an illegal cannabis market run by organized crime, with no controls on access, product safety or quantities – is putting them in real danger.
[i] Silins, E., Horwood, L.J., Patton, G.C., Fergusson, D.M., Olsson, C.A., Hutchinson, D.M., Spry, E., Toumbourou, J.W., Degenhardt, L., Swift, W., Coffey, C., Tait, R.J., Letcher, P., Copeland, J., Mattick, R. P. and Cannabis Cohorts Research Consortium (2014). Young adult sequelae of adolescent cannabis use: An integrative analysis. Lancet Psychiatry, 1(4): 286-293.
[ii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019: Detailed findings. Canberra: AIHW, Table 4.37.
[iii] A recent review of studies that examine neuroimaging effects in both adolescent and adult cannabis users concluded that, while there is some evidence of compromised frontoparietal structure and function in adolescent cannabis use – primarily in relation to inhibitory control, reward and memory – it remains unclear whether the observed effects are causally attributable to the young age of onset of cannabis use or to factors that are simply related to cannabis use, such as depressive symptoms. The review suggested that more methodologically robust studies are needed in this area. See further: Chye, Y., Christensen, E. and Yücel, M. (2020). Cannabis use in adolescence: A review of neuroimaging findings. Journal of Dual Diagnosis, 16(1): 83-105.
[iv] Public Health Association of New Zealand (2020). PHANZ cannabis referendum position and policy statement. Wellington, New Zealand.
[v] Anderson, D.M., Hansen, B., Rees, D.I. and Sabia, J.J. (2019). Association of marijuana laws with teen marijuana use: New estimates from the Youth Risk Behavior surveys. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(9): 879-881.
It’s clear that much of the opposition in Australia to cannabis law reform is shaped by misinformation and fear.
But it’s just as obvious that drug use isn’t going to disappear – and that we need to find new ways of tackling it.
The scale of the challenge is immense: worldwide the availability of drugs is growing, their potency is rising, and new synthetic substances continue to flood markets.[i]
The UN’s World Drug Report 2020 found that around 269 million people used drugs worldwide at least once in 2018 – 30% more than in 2009. As that report warns: “More people are using drugs, and there are more drugs, and more types of drugs, than ever”.[ii]
These grim global trends make it vital to target enforcement efforts towards harder and more dangerous drugs – such as methamphetamines and opioids – which are inflicting lethal damage on millions.
In a landmark 2019 review of imprisonment and recidivism, the Queensland Productivity Commission found:[iii]
- Significant net benefits of around $850 million from decriminalising the use and possession of cannabis.
- Legalisation of lower harm drugs such as cannabis would move around $4 billion out of illegal markets, significantly curtailing criminal activity.
- Moving away from a criminal approach is unlikely to increase drug use.
As with alcohol and tobacco, an illicit market may still exist following legalisation – but on a much smaller scale.
Five years after legalisation in Colorado, it was estimated that more than 70% of the cannabis in the state had been brought under control by the legal market; in Washington, the estimate was 50% to 65%.[iv] These figures mean that between 50% and 70% of underworld income in these states has been eliminated.
[i] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020). World Drug Report 2020. Vienna: UNODC.
[ii] UN World Drug Report 2020.
[iii] Queensland Productivity Commission (2019). Imprisonment and recidivism: Summary report. Brisbane: Queensland Productivity Commission.
[iv] Forrest, M. (2017). With legal pot, Colorado and Washington are winning fight against black market, committee hears. The National Post, 12 September 2017: https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/with-legal-pot-colorado-and-washington-are-winning-fight-against-black-market-committee-hears.
Although not advocating a US-style commercial market approach, Penington Institute believes Australia is well-placed to learn from this and other models and strategies in overseas jurisdictions.
Australia can draw on these emerging reform experiences to design our own model, which we believe should be based on the following recommendations:
- That Australian governments legalise recreational cannabis within the framework of a tightly-controlled and strictly-regulated cannabis market.
- That this reform is founded on evidence from the implementation of cannabis law reform in overseas jurisdictions, learning from their experiences and successes.
- That cannabis use is no longer treated as a criminal matter but as a public health issue underpinned by harm minimisation principles.
- That targeted prevention, education and treatment strategies are prioritised, with a particular focus on preventing or delaying cannabis use among young people.
- That the market is subject to strict controls, such as purchasing age and quantity limits, a ban on advertising and a ban on public consumption.
- That monitoring and evaluation of a regulated market is extensive, independent and ongoing.
The time has passed for us to debate whether cannabis should be available in Australia. The reality is that it is being used widely, by millions of Australians, of all ages and backgrounds.
There is instead an urgent conversation our community needs to have about the undeniable failure of decades of prohibition to curb demand and supply or lessen its own damaging impacts.
It’s time Australia confronts one of its greatest drug policy failures.
Declaring cannabis illegal has not stopped widespread use, increasing potency, lucrative criminal involvement in cultivation and distribution, and costly law enforcement which is stranded in a legal limbo where criminal penalties are often inconsistently applied.
It’s unacceptable that prohibition is funnelling billions of dollars every year into criminal networks, while costing taxpayers at least $1.7 billion a year in law enforcement.
It’s not good enough that thousands of Australians have been convicted and criminalised for their cannabis use.
It’s bad policy that compounds the disadvantage faced by marginalised groups and unnecessarily burdens our prison system.
And it’s deeply concerning that current punitive laws continue to hold us back from frank and frequent public discussions with young and vulnerable people about the risks of this drug.
Continuing on our current path means ignoring the compelling evidence of harm all around us.
But there is a real opportunity to do better.
Penington Institute believes that Australians can design a model of cannabis regulation responsive to our community’s needs and concerns.
Adopting a public health model of regulation does not mean dismissing the risks of cannabis, or opening the floodgates to users. Instead, regulation gives us powerful levers to control access, product safety and distribution – currently in the hands of an out-of-control black market – for the protection of our entire community.
Persisting with business as usual, in the face of widespread cannabis use and prohibition’s flaws, is irresponsible.
As a community we must move beyond the panic and myths around this drug and use evidence-based solutions from Australia and other jurisdictions to finally build a truly effective harm-minimisation approach.
Achieving this reform won’t be achieved by a simple act of legislation. It will require intensive and rational community collaboration driven by robust, evidence-based leadership.
We know that Australians are up to the challenge – and the prize will be a healthier and safer community for us all.