Legalising cannabis is not an issue dominated by the left or the right. Photo: The Age
Some big news has come out of North America and it has nothing to do with Trump. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced legislation that will legalise and regulate cannabis use in Canada. This would make Canada the second country the world (after Uruguay) to legalise adult use of cannabis. This comes off the heels of some ground-breaking reforms that took place in November last year when California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada all voted to legalise and regulate cannabis use, joining Colorado, Alaska, Washington and Oregon. One in five Americans now live in a state where adult use of cannabis is legal or is in the process of being made legal. So why has the debate barely even begun in Australia?
In Australia the long arm of the law still has a long reach, waging a war on drugs. Last year, there were more than 26,000 criminal incidents of cannabis possession in NSW. These made up more than half of all drug possession offences and more than all other drugs combined. These failed attempts to wipe out cannabis use continue to drag people through the criminal justice system causing unnecessary harm to them and their families while also wasting limited police resources. Moreover, the Government's glacial pace of legalising medicinal cannabis has meant that these arrests include those who are forced to access cannabis on the so-called black market for treatment.
Cannabis isn't my cup of tea, but it is of many Australians. More than one in three have consumed cannabis in their life and one in 10 has done so in the previous year. Surely, no one can agree that these millions of people are criminals.
Whether adults are using cannabis for recreational purposes or to treat illnesses, there is no excuse for arrests and criminalisation. Australian National University's 30-year election study published this year found less than a third of people support the current system of criminalisation. Evidence is mounting for us to at least look into alternative system of managing and minimising harm. The same drivers for legalisation in the United States are very much present here in Australia – principally, to end ineffective and punitive approaches and their damaging health and social consequences.
The secondary economic benefits of a regulated system of cannabis use have also become evident. Licensing revenues of regulated cannabis can generate significant income which can then be reinvested in education and health programs. For example, in 2016 in Colorado, the legal cannabis market was worth $1.3 billion and generated about $199 million in tax and fees which is put towards schools and public health. The legal cannabis industry is expected to employ 300,000 people by 2020 in the US states that have legalised it. However, any system of legalisation and regulation must allow people to retain the right to grow their own cannabis for personal use, within reasonable limits.
In some respects, we are already on the road to decriminalisation, but we need to go further on cannabis. In many Australian states, there is a Cannabis Caution Scheme that has operated for some years. In NSW, based on a recommendation of the NSW Drug Summit in 1999, police have the discretion to caution rather than charge adults detected for minor cannabis offences. But how you are dealt with by the law depends on where you are. A 2011 NSW Auditor General's report found concerning geographic disparities as to whether someone found with a small amount of cannabis was cautioned or whether they were charged. Police in the Eastern Suburbs, North Shore and Hills districts issues a caution more than 70 per cent of the time. This plunges to less than 20 per cent at Quakers Hill, Walgett and Bathurst. The law must be clear and equal for all.
Finally it is important to point out that legalising cannabis is not an issue dominated by the left or the right. In the United States, the majority of people in Alaska voted for legalisation but they haven't voted for a Democratic president since 1964. In Britain, the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute has called the current drug strategy a failure and is strongly advocating for legalisation as the only solution to crime and addiction problems. In NSW, the Greens policy calls for the regulation of cannabis through the formation of a legal supply.
By maintaining a prohibition on cannabis, we continue to allow unregulated black markets to flourish. We fail people who want to seek support for drug dependence by keeping them in the shadows.
It is time to admit that we need a different approach that will work for everyone and one that promotes safety and harm reduction. It's time to develop a system for legalising and regulating cannabis use in NSW.
Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a Greens NSW MP.