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Herald Sun: Time to turn a new leaf on cannabis

Cannabis policy reform is long overdue, says John Ryan, CEO of Penington Institute. Here, he explains why decriminalisation and a regulated cannabis market is the best way forward for Australia.

This piece was originally published in the Herald Sun on Saturday 22 June, 2024 (download pdf).

By John Ryan

It doesn’t make many headlines but there is a glaring drug policy failure in this country, and the chances are that it has an impact on every second person you know.

Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in the nation, with nearly half of Australians aged 18 and over acknowledging they have used it. 

In recent years our community’s perspective and attitudes towards cannabis have continually changed and matured, to the point where support for its legalisation has never been stronger. 

A recent Penington Institute survey of 1500 Victorians found that the majority were in favour of a strictly regulated cannabis market for adult use, with only 21 per cent saying the current laws work well to prevent harm from drugs. 

The outdated prohibition model piles harm upon harm to many of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our community, in particular young people.

Regulation would not create a cannabis market. That market is already here: underground, unregulated and largely unrestrained. 

Sellers in the criminal market are held to no standards, they don’t check buyer birth dates, they don’t pay taxes and they are not compelled to test for contaminants and the potency of their products. 

In a government regulated cannabis market, there could be licensed manufacturers and retailers, lab-tested products with labels verifying potency and purity, and scope to reinvest taxes back into drug education, support and treatment.

Under prohibition, millions of otherwise law-abiding Australians are deemed criminals for possessing or using a drug that is objectively less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. 

For those convicted, the implications can be grossly disproportionate to the offences committed, leading to difficulties with aspects of everyday life, such as employment, education, travel and housing. 

There is also a drain on law-enforcement resources, with billions of dollars spent on cannabis-related crimes, more than 90 per cent of which relate to personal use and possession (8000 Victorians last year).

At Penington Institute, we believe in approaching drug use in a safe, considered and practical way, with an emphasis on community health and safety. That is why our position is to support a long-overdue reform of cannabis laws, with the best way forward being decriminalisation of cannabis in tandem with the introduction of a tightly regulated market for adult use.

John Ryan is the CEO of Penington Institute, an independent public health non-profit organisation with expertise in drug policy, research, and community education. 

Download a pdf of this op-ed from the Herald Sun, Saturday 22 June, 2024.

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