Should the Land Down Under become pro-ganja and legalize weed? Here are some reasons I think the answer should be a resounding yes.
Australian history was made last year when the country’s Capital Territory legalised cannabis possession and cultivation for personal use. Now, individuals over the age of 18 can possess up to 50 grams of dried cannabis, as well as grow two plants per person at home, or a maximum of four plants per household without fear of reprisal such as fines or arrest. The changed law was certainly a victory for cannabis activists, advocates and enthusiasts alike, though in many ways, it was also very piecemeal.
While cannabis users in the state no longer risk facing a criminal record for possessing or growing small amounts of marijuana possession, the caveats in the law also keep many consumers of the plant forced to subsist on the black market. There is no legal avenue for those looking to purchase cannabis seeds for cultivation, and even once seeds are acquired, it is ostensibly illegal for ACT residents to use grow lights.
This is because the cannabis law excludes the use of ‘artificial cultivation’ methods, which are defined as ‘hydroponic cultivation or cultivation with the application of an artificial source of light or heat.’
This effectively narrows down those with the capacity to grow cannabis to those with a well-positioned backyard, excluding individuals in apartments and those whose property doesn’t get the optimal amount of sunlight for cannabis cultivation. And if you didn’t want to grow your own cannabis? Well, then it’s back to the black market for you.
The ACT’s lukewarm version of cannabis legalisation more closely resembles decriminalisation, and even then, the Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, claimed at the time that legalising cannabis was “dangerous and medically irresponsible,” with members of the federal government threatening to repeal the decision.
Now, it’s been almost four months since the ACT legalised weed and you could be forgiven for forgetting it even happened. Admittedly, concerns surrounding COVID-19 have rightly dwarfed any legalisation or cannabis-related conversations, but it’s safe to say the state hasn’t begun to decline into weed-fuelled anarchy.
Moreover, if one looks over at examples such as Canada or the U.S. states that have legalised the plant, it looks pretty clear that most of the fears surrounding cannabis legalisation here in Australia are unfounded.
In fact, from most perspectives, these countries and states have improved since legalization occurred. Studies show that tourism increases occurred in areas with cannabis legalization, coupled with increased revenues for hotels situated near cannabis dispensaries. Then there’s the fact that cannabis is the #1 job creator in the U.S., as well as being one of the few industries continuing to thrive while others collapse amid the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. states such as Oregon have generated over $100M in tax revenue in the five years since non-medical cannabis was made legal in the state, and Illinois is generating over $34 million every single month in cannabis sales.
And for those who have fears that cannabis legalisation will encourage adolescents to try the plant, it’s beginning to look like that belief may be wrong too. Early studies in Canada show that teenage cannabis consumption actually decreased in areas where the plant was made legal, in addition to a reduction in both opioid use and prescriptions as medical marijuana increases in popularity for symptoms such as chronic pain.
So not only does cannabis not induce “reefer madness” in areas where it is made legal, but generally speaking, the state or country which does so reaps both economic and social benefits.
Now let’s contrast this with Australia’s current policy.
Cultivating Criminals at a Cost
Instead of creating a vibrant cannabis industry that generates thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue each year, Australia has taken the opposite tack; keep the plant illegal everywhere but the ACT where it remains in legislative limbo. The issue with this approach is that it’s particularly expensive, given that Australia ranks among the top 10 countries for cannabis consumption, meaning that there’s a lot of policing involved in order to maintain Australia’s anti-cannabis crusade.
In fact, according to Drug Policy Australia, of the 154,650 drug arrests in 2016–17, over 50% were for cannabis-related offenses, of which 91% were for simple marijuana possession. You then have to factor in the measures in which these arrests were made, which can often involve the use of sniffer dogs. These dogs, as we discovered last year in our interview with David Shoebridge from Sniff Off and the Australian Greens Party, can cost individual states close to $9 million per year to maintain.
And what does Australia have to show for the tens of millions in taxpayer funding, as well as the countless hours of manpower used to maintain the war on weed?
Very little, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, who reports that over the past decade, Australia’s cannabis consumption has remained “relatively stable,” with roughly 10% of the population reporting “recent use” of cannabis.
Not only is Australia’s excessive policing expensive and time-consuming, but it’s hardly making a dent in the number of Aussies who continue to use cannabis on a regular basis. Instead, it’s giving people criminal records, potentially impacting their future employability, due to the possession of a relatively benign plant.
And thanks to our stagnant, anti-pot position, it looks like we’ll lose the first-mover advantage within the Oceania region as New Zealand gears up to legalize the plant in September.