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Regulating cannabis is inevitable. We should talk about getting it right

A legal marijuana market would free up police resources and eliminate a major source of funding for organised crime

An employee inspects medicinal marijuana buds at Tweed INC., in Smith Falls, Ontario. Canadians aged 18 and over could soon be free to legally buy and smoke cannabis, under task force recommendations unveiled December 13, 2016 in a push towards ending nearly a century of marijuana prohibition. The annual turnover of the cannabis market in Australia is estimated to be bigger than our wine market. But unlike our wine market, not a cent of Australia’s cannabis is taxed. In 2014-15, 66,309 people were arrested in Australia for possessing cannabis. The number of people arrested for cannabis consumer offences increased more than 40% between 2004-5 and 2014-15. No one knows what it costs to police cannabis possession and charge and process the large number of people charged every year with minor cannabis offences. But it would not be cheap. Yet in a recent poll of just over 1,000 Australians by Essential Media, 55% said they thought cannabis should be taxed and regulated like alcohol or tobacco. That includes a majority of Labor (61%) and Greens (74%) voters and almost half (47%) of the Liberal voters. Only 26% were opposed including 13% strongly opposed. This means that support is almost as strong in Australia as it is in the USA where a total of eight of the 50 states have now voted to regulate and tax the cannabis trade. Almost a quarter of US citizens live in legal cannabis states, or will soon. In the 1969 Gallup poll in the US, 12% of people thought cannabis should be made legal. Support rose to 31% by 2000 and almost doubled again to 60% in 2016. In the November 2016 elections, five states held ballots on recreational cannabis regulation while four states held ballots on medicinal cannabis. Four out of the five states passed those ballots including California, a major trend-setter in the United States and around the world. All four states passed their medicinal cannabis ballots. So why the recent surge in support for bringing recreational cannabis regulation into line with alcohol or tobacco regulation? It’s partly because cannabis use is so widespread, and mostly unproblematic. One in three Australians is prepared to admit to trying cannabis in the major government social survey. Overwhelmingly, Australians don’t think that people should get a criminal record for possessing cannabis, and are familiar with the idea of taxing and controlling markets through regulation. At the same time, more and more political and law enforcement leaders in Australia and overseas admit that trying to eliminate use by stopping supply hasn’t provided the social benefit it was meant to, and has come at great cost. We cannot keep pretending that more of the same will somehow produce a different result. The reality is that if the two million Australians who use cannabis every year cannot purchase supplies from a legal, regulated market, they will obtain their supplies from a black market. A legal, regulated market would free up more than 60,000 thousand arrests-worth of police resources and eliminate a major source of funding for organised crime. Regulating cannabis like alcohol or tobacco would enable governments to enforce clear product labeling and a minimum age at which people can purchase cannabis. It would also enable controls over the quality of production and therefore eliminate the heavy metals, pesticides and micro-organisms rife in cannabis sold in today’s black market. Revenue would flow from taxes imposed as in other consumer markets – Colorado’s recreational cannabis market generated $US70m in taxes in its first year and $US122m in its second year. Much of this was allocated to rebuilding state schools. California will allocate some of the revenue to “justice reinvestment” to reduce the size of the state’s prison population. Regulatory models being imposed in US states remove criminal penalties for small scale domestic cultivation for personal consumption. This makes sense but most cannabis consumers continue to purchase rather than grow their supplies after legalisation. Market regulation is the main game, and it would be an opportunity to draw on the lessons learned from alcohol and tobacco – including the mistakes. A new era of sensible cannabis regulation isn’t just necessary now, it’s inevitable. Let’s start talking about how we get that right.

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