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How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation

The potential benefit of legalising cannabis means drug reform in Australia should be taken seriously – argues Andrew McMillen.

A few years from today, once other Australian states have followed the lead set by Victoria in early October 2015 to move toward the legalisation of cultivating cannabis for medicinal purposes, the nation might finally be ready to have a conversation that needs to be had. Namely: why don’t we regulate and tax the recreational use of cannabis, our most popular illicit drug?

At least 1.9 million Australians use cannabis each year, according to the most recent data from the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report. This is a huge proportion of Australians, and it’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, that’s a lot of adults of voting age, who’d probably be keen to support political parties that provide reasonable alternatives to the tired, ineffective tough-on-drugs approach we’ve seen in this country for generations.

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And second, this number represents an enormous amount of disposable income that’s leaking from the national economy into an unregulated market, far beyond the reach of the Australian Taxation Office.

People take part in a demo for the legalization of marijuana in front of the Legislative Palace in Montevideo, Dec, 2013.

Given that recreational cannabis use is illegal, the only way to obtain the drug in 2015 is to associate with people who are, by definition, criminals. Once that transaction has been made, and you hand over your cash in exchange for the product, you’ve become a criminal, too. If caught by police, you will face charges of possession which may result in fines or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, imprisonment.

This reality is known, understood and accepted by most Australians who choose to interface with illicit drug use. Perhaps a small minority of particularly inflammatory cannabis users get a kick out of breaking the law in this way, but most would probably much rather avoid the hassle of potentially being exposed to the criminal justice system purely because of their desire to use a drug that’s increasingly being legalised by state and federal governments throughout the world.

Social policy reform is most often a slow process, except in times of tragedy and outrage, such as the strict gun control laws which follows the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Male homosexuality , for example, was first decriminalised in South Australia in 1975, with the other states slowly following suit in successive decades. In 2015, the concept of Australian men facing criminal charges purely on the basis of their sexual preference is absurd, yet not so long ago, it was commonplace.

Visitors pose in front of a flag at a store during the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February, 2010.

In the future, our society may well take a similarly dim view of the manner in which Australian drug users were subject to extraordinary harassment and persecution because of their lifestyle preferences under prohibitionist politics.

Few Australians understand the glacial pace of change in this area better than Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. For Wodak, the economic appeal of taxing cannabis use is only one reason why we should follow this path. “But it’s an important reason,” he says. “If we can generate revenue and produce savings, that becomes quite a powerful argument.”

He points out that the American state of Colorado has set aside a portion of its newfound income for upgrading its public schools. “Some of the revenue from the sale of recreational, legal cannabis has gone toward building schools, and they have done very well out of it,” he says. “Who can be opposed to building new schools for kids?”

A worker at a cannabis greenhouse at the growing facility of the Tikun Olam company, Israel, 2010.

The benefits of this shift in social policy are succinctly illustrated by the current Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who told USA Today in February 2015, “The people who were smoking marijuana before legalisation still are. Now, they're paying taxes.”

Illicit drug markets across the world are, by their very nature, highly insidious and prone to violence and corruption. “At the moment, it’s all controlled by criminals and corrupt police,” says Wodak. “Criminals are a problem, as are corrupt police. Reducing the extent of corruption is a great benefit of taxing and regulating cannabis. Having fewer or no corrupt police is an important objective. Which Australian wouldn’t support that? How could we ever hope to achieve that, though, when we have such a large market controlled by criminals and corrupt police?”

A research paper published in 1999 by an economist at the University of Western Australia, Kenneth Clements, estimated that the size of the Australian cannabis market is approximately twice the size of our wine industry. A shift in drug policy would trigger new sources of revenue in every state of Australia, where crops are grown and sold in secret.

A member of the club opens a bag of marijuana buds in a cannabis club on August 22, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.

A side effect of the drug market operating outside of the law is that quality control is minimal or non-existent. This fact is often seized upon by government advertising campaigns as a reason to avoid using drugs. The following warning appears under the heading of ‘drug awareness’ on the Australian Federal Police website:

“In contrast to prescription drugs, illegal drugs are not manufactured in controlled environments under strict standards. That means there is no control over the quality or the quantity of the drug you are getting, and you won't know if an unscrupulous dealer has used a cheaper poison to dilute the drug.”

Scare tactics such as these only go so far, however, once we accept that a percentage of any population will seek to alter their mood through the use of drugs, from alcohol, nicotine and caffeine through to cannabis and its illicit cousins. These problems of quantity and quality control can be solved by introducing a regulatory framework. Wodak advocates a similar approach to how we currently deal with alcohol, where only those aged over 18 years may legally purchase the substance.

“That wouldn’t be perfect, because the alcohol age restrictions aren’t perfect, but they exert some control to require proof of age and make it comparable with alcohol arrangements,” he says. “We could also mandate what lawful cannabis would contain.” In addition to packaging which displays health warnings, like cigarettes, product information panels could accurately list the percentage of THC – the primary psychoactive component in cannabis – and assure consumers that the product is free of any adulterants.

“We should also learn some of the painful lessons we’ve learned from regulating alcohol and tobacco, such as getting in first by banning advertising, before there is a cannabis industry,” says Wodak. “And we should do everything we can to make sure the cannabis industry is never able to donate money to political parties, directly or indirectly. I’d also like to see us set up a system where the production, wholesale and retail of cannabis are all regulated, and that regulation would involve hard-to-get, but easy-to-lose licenses.”

A 'legalise' poster for a referendum about legalizing marijuana is placed with mayoral posters in Washington, DC, October 2014.

All of which might sound like a far-fetched fantasy for now, yet changes within the realm of medicinal cannabis have cracked open the door for further discussions in future. History shows that in Colorado, for example, the state first passed an amendment to the constitution in 2000, which allowed the use of cannabis for approved patients with written medical consent. Twelve years later, the state legalised the sale of recreational cannabis.

“In Australia, there is so much negative emotion and fear surrounding illicit drugs, because for decades now, that's what we've all been taught to think and feel,” says Will Tregoning, co-founder of Unharm, a not-for-profit organisation whose focus is harm reduction. “It’s the emotional pathos, and the sense of compassion that comes from seeing young children who are suffering from seizures, and seeing the effect that cannabis- based medication has on them, which allows people to engage at a different level.”

This was the case with NSW Premier Mike Baird, whose position on this issue changed after he met a terminally ill young man named Dan Haslam, who died in February. So too Federal MP Barnaby Joyce, who was also moved to change his views after meeting the Haslam family.

For Tregoning, and Unharm, the first principle of harm reduction is to stop people from harming others. He cites the example of teenagers who can more readily acquire cannabis – an unregulated drug – than alcohol, which requires proof of age in order to purchase. “No cannabis dealer goes, ‘You’re under 18, I’m not gonna sell to you’,” says Tregoning. This reality can lead to teenagers accessing other illicit substances, too. “So the harms compound, because you have people operating in the market who have no regulatory structure to provide guidelines for what’s harmful, and what’s not.”

Like Wodak, Tregoning does not view the potential economic benefits of cannabis regulation in Australia as the most compelling reason to move toward this policy, but he accepts its appeal. “On a per-capita basis, Australia is one of the world’s biggest cannabis consumers, so a big market opportunity is being lost,” he says.

“Regulation of cannabis is absolutely inevitable,” says Tregoning. “Prohibition is a radical experiment in social engineering that has comprehensively failed. It’s an aberration. Eventually, it’ll be brought in line with how we traditionally deal with markets, and risky behaviours, which is through market regulation, individual responsibility, and through people taking care of other people that they care about. Not through criminalisation, and not through prohibition."

"To me, it’s a matter of time. It’s not going to be easy or fast, but it’s going to be inevitable.”


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