Nearly half of all Australian electors are in favour of legalising cannabis, as a recent survey by Australian National University shows. 43% of respondents are in favour of legalisation and only 32% believe cannabis should remain criminalised. This means pot is more popular than either Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten. Similar levels of public support triggered a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. With more and more jurisdictions seeing the green light on cannabis, why are Australian politicians lagging behind on legalisation?
Cannabis is the fourth most popular recreational drug in the world after alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. Its use has been documented in humanity’s earliest writings. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently found that five percent of the world’s population have used cannabis in the previous year. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that locally, more than ten percent of Australians have used cannabis over the same period. Studies ranking the comparative harm posed by recreational drugs consistently show cannabis to be very low in terms of potential harms to users and the broader community. Despite the prevalence of cannabis use in the community, neither acute nor chronic cannabis use has been responsible for a single attributable fatality.
This stands in contrast to the high levels of danger associated with tobacco and alcohol use. A study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation found that chronic disease and injury caused by alcohol has significantly increased from a decade ago, causing 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations each day in Australia. While consuming alcohol remains a legal and socially acceptable form of recreational drug taking, cannabis is still laughably classified as a ‘dangerous drug.’
Cannabis is noted for its varied therapeutic applications. The anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anticonvulsive properties of cannabis have been widely documented. In jurisdictions where it is permitted, physicians prescribe cannabis to treat conditions as diverse as cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. The lack of noteworthy contraindications for cannabis makes it a highly-regarded complementary treatment.
Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once said that, “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel”. Dr Friedman sums up the result of the prohibition of illicit substances by use of the ‘Baptists and Bootleggers’ concept. It is a truism that if you criminalise a particular substance, then the individuals who trade in that substance will be criminals.
The nature of the legislative environment in which a market operates, directly affects the manner in which agents in that market conduct their business. In an open market, buyers and sellers enjoy the right to freely trade, resulting in a market where successful providers hold competition at bay through a combination of innovation and efficiency. Producers that provide greater value to their customers gain market share, and producers who are reluctant to meet the needs of consumers will fail. Conversely, a market where both buyers and sellers are criminalised, offers little incentive for producers to ward off competition using anything other than violence and intimidation, as was seen during the prohibition era, when organised crime cartels soon became heavily involved in the supply of liquor. Similarly, the drug trade is dominated by crime syndicates at every level. The illegal nature of the operation ensures a high profit margin for those who are prepared to get involved.
Cannabis users in Australia come from many walks of life: teenagers, retirees, those who seek relief from chronic pain and those who simply enjoy the psychoactive effects of tetrahydrocannabinol. Few of these cannabis users are habitually engaged in any other criminal activity. Forcing cannabis users to deal with criminals simply to obtain their drug of choice, not only artificially inflates the price of their recreational drugs, but places them in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with people for whom extortion, intimidation and assault are considered tools of the trade. Cannabis consumers enjoy none of the consumer protections in place that ensure that alcohol drinkers receive a product of known quality and potency. Not only must users fear police harassment and possible arrest, they also face the possibility of being ripped off (or worse) by unscrupulous and unaccountable drug dealers. Elderly pensioners should not have to deal with thugs in order to obtain their glaucoma medication.
The cost to taxpayers of enforcing out-of-touch drug laws in 2013 was estimated at $1.5 billion annually. Of prosecuted drug offences in Australia, 70% are cannabis related. This puts the cost to the Australian taxpayer of chasing down and prosecuting cannabis users, growers and sellers, at over $1 billion per year. The over-representation of cannabis in drug prosecutions is due to the physical nature of the plant in question; cannabis is bulky and infamously smelly, making detection relatively simple. An unintended consequence of this is that the difficulty involved in transporting cannabis without detection drives the uptake of more dangerous, yet more easily-concealed drugs.
Other than providing an incentive to use more easily-concealable drugs, cannabis prohibition does little to reduce the demand for cannabis. Few people in Australia who wish to use cannabis are dissuaded by its illegality. Some are put off by the inconvenience of having to step outside the bounds of legitimate society, but none are swayed by the government’s finger wagging. Almost every adult Australian who wishes to use cannabis already does so. They simply do so at a far greater personal (and societal) cost, and under the threat of criminal prosecution.
The possession of nearly any amount of cannabis is regarded as a criminal offence in all jurisdictions in Australia. From low-level summary offences to indictable offences attracting heavy jail time, the penalties attached to cannabis offences are disproportionate to the harm caused by the offender. In most jurisdictions, no provision is made to delineate the drug(s) involved when mounting a prosecution, leaving those arrested for selling cannabis tinctures to the parents of children suffering debilitating epilepsy subject to the same charges as those arrested for dealing heroin. A criminal record for drug crimes diminishes the user to a second-class citizen in many aspects of life. Convicted cannabis users experience difficulty gaining or keeping some jobs, obtaining clearance-based qualifications such as the ‘Blue Card’ and travelling internationally. The stigma associated with having a criminal record often drives further descent into poverty and criminality. The war on drugs does not target criminals, it creates them.
The annual market for illegal drugs in Australia is valued at $17 billion. The amount that would be saved by not wasting police resources on cannabis enforcement would be dwarfed by the benefits to the economy stemming from the redirection of cannabis sales into legitimate businesses. The positive benefits to the community of re-legalising cannabis are not a matter of conjecture. We need only look to other jurisdictions where cannabis prohibition has been repealed to appreciate the potential benefit to Australia.
Following the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado, crime data from Denver showed a drop in violent crime of 5.2% and a drop in overall crime of 10.1% in the first year. With the availability of legalised cannabis, not only are cannabis users no longer being arrested for possession of cannabis, they are less likely to turn to other, more easily-concealed drugs such as methamphetamine, the use of which is often linked to criminal behaviour. With police resources no longer occupied in prosecuting cannabis users for minor infractions, more time can be devoted to serious criminal matters.
The positive effects to the economy do not end with lower crime rates. The Colorado cannabis industry employs over 10,000 people and delivered more than $10 million in taxes to state coffers in the first four months following legalisation.
In Portugal, where all drug use was decriminalised in 2001 the results have also been positive. Deaths from drug overdoses have fallen, drug usage rates have fallen, and drug-related HIV cases have also fallen. Portugal has not yet decriminalised the supply side of the drug trade and does not experience quite the economic benefits that Colorado has seen, although the reduced strain on the healthcare and justice systems does constitute a net benefit.
Cannabis is far safer than existing, legal recreational drugs. The drug war has failed to have an impact on the rates of use, addiction and other harms associated with drug use. In many cases it has simply made matters worse. Regions that have re-legalised cannabis have seen a universal benefit in both monetary and social terms. It’s time to end this absurdity. Legalise it.