Dr Nicole Lee on Australian Cannabis Legislation

As countries around the world legalize cannabis, what's next for Australia? We chat to drug and alcohol expert Dr Nicole Lee about the Australian climate and when we can expect legislation shifts Down Under – when will Australia legalize cannabis?

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Dr Nicole Lee is an Adjunct Professor with the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University and Director at 360Edge. Her work covers research, education and policy recommendations based on scientific evidence.

In Australia, recreational cannabis use is illegal in all states except for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), who legalised personal use earlier this year. Only the Northern Territory (NT) and South Australia (SA) have decriminalized cannabis use – and that was around 30 years ago. Why has nothing moved forward since then?

We chat to Dr Lee about the current situation, what's holding us back, our troublesome relationship with alcohol and what we might be able to expect in the future.

What's going on right now in Australia?

Medicinal cannabis is legal Australia-wide with a doctor's referral, but recreational use is a different matter. Currently, most Australian states have cannabis listed as an illegal drug, including the three most populous states. The result of this, as is also seen in some states in the US, is that money and resources are tied up in policing a drug which is pretty popular and relatively harmless.

"There's a lot of resources taken up with policing cannabis and other drugs, but particularly cannabis," says Lee. "That's the drug that takes up the most criminal justice time and money. There are hundreds of thousands of seizures and arrests every year. No drugs are harmless, but that's a lot of effort and resources that could possibly be better utilised elsewhere, for a drug that has relatively few harms and a drug which most people use only occasionally."

The money involved with making these arrests and housing these 'criminals' is a drain on police and social resources. "The legal status of the drug at the moment, in my view, is creating more problems than the legislation was intended to resolve, and more harms," says Lee. "I think when you're in a situation where the legislation is causing more harm than the drug itself, it's time to rethink and look at changing that legislation."

How the ACT might be paving the way

Earlier this year, the ACT legalized personal growing and consumption of cannabis – the first Australian state to do so. "They've taken that next step which is the first jurisdiction in Australia to have done that and so it's a pretty significant move," says Lee. "They've taken a very small step, and a very cautious step, and they've put a lot of caveats around the personal use, but essentially I think it solves some of those problems that I mentioned before around criminal justice time for a drug that so many people use. I think it's really great that we've made that first step."

When compared to countries like the US, where recreational legalization started in 2012, this small step for Australia doesn't exactly put us at the forefront of drug reform. "In the context of the rest of the world, Australia used to be well ahead with drug and alcohol policy and now we're really lagging behind so I think this is really good news that the ACT have introduced [legalization] this year," says Lee.

Much of the general conversation around cannabis legalization talks to two extremes: either it will have a greatly positive impact, or a greatly negative one. Lee argues that this has rarely been the case. "As far as we can tell, there has been very little impact good or bad from [the legislative] change. I think that is what we've found in other jurisdictions as well – all of the people that said it would be so fantastic, that hasn't really been borne out, and all the people who said it's going to be an absolute disaster, that hasn't been borne out either. It's pretty much business as usual in most jurisdictions."

What legalization model might be suitable for an Australia-wide cannabis reform?

At present, the ACT legalization model doesn't allow for any purchasing or gifting of cannabis – only personal consumption of home-grown flower. Would introducing legal dispensaries alter the 'business as usual' situation?

"It's hard to tell because we've only got models in the US really that are pretty heavily commercialised models, and at the other end places like Uruguay which are really tightly controlled, and I suspect that Australia wouldn't do either of those things. So it's hard to tell," says Lee.

The introduction of dispensaries would greatly increase the availability of cannabis, and has the potential to create a new-user market. Lee, however, doesn't believe this would result in a blow-out of cannabis users. "The thing that I say to people when they're worried about explosions in use as a result of legalisation is that 40% of the adult population have tried an illicit drug at some point in their life, and most of those have tried cannabis, but most of them don't continue to use it. Just because something's available, doesn't mean that everyone is suddenly going to want to use it," she says. "And remember that it is already available and only 10% of the population have used it in the last 12 months, increasing the level of regulation probably won't change that much, it just reduce the risks and harms of coming into contact with the justice system.

"There might be an increase, among some people who would like to try it but don't because it is illegal, but that might also be counterbalanced by people who currently do it because it is illegal and it might not be as fun anymore if it were regulated. Regulation also potentially reduces access by young people. I think that it's hard to tell what will happen in the future if the laws change, but the indications are that it won't be a huge shift in either direction."

Just because something's available, doesn't mean that everyone is suddenly going to want to use itDr Nicole Lee

When might the other states catch up with the ACT?

It's been less than a year since the ACT's laws have come into effect, but will this put pressure on the rest of the country to start changing their legislation? "I do hope so but it's hard to tell because as you mentioned, ACT, NT and SA have all had cannabis decriminalisation for about 30 years and nobody else followed," says Lee. "Around the same time, about 25-30 years ago, they all shifted and then nothing else happened until the ACT changed their legislation just this year."

What is interesting within other Australian states, however, is the social and policing shift which has not been echoed in legislation. "All the other states have gone a different kind of 'de-facto decriminalisation' route. In particular, diversion by police – so police have discretion to caution or divert people into treatment or education and that acts as a decriminalisation process, but it's up to police discretion so it's not ideal – it's not the same as having legislated decriminalisation." 

This lack of legislation leaves much to be desired. Each police person has the right and the ability to act as they see fit in each situation which creates an arbitrary and inconsistent series of actions. "Individuals come with their own lens to everything so if you leave it up to people's discretion you will get different answers depending on who you talk to so one person from the police might be more libetarian and another might be more hardline and the consequences for you will be different between those two people so it's less than ideal in terms of a strategy.

"It's better than it was, but proper decriminalization would be a relatively straightforward option right now. There's precedent, and it doesn't take a huge change in laws. Most people in Australia support decriminalization of cannabis so that would be an easy thing to do. Legalisation is another matter because there are lots of different models and not everyone is on board with that idea in the community. That's an important consideration for lawmakers – it would take some significant shifts in legislation to make that happen."

How has the country's relationship with alcohol shaped cannabis reform?

It's no secret that Australia loves a drink. From the first days of colonisation, alcohol has been a key part of Australia's culture and favourite pastimes and even with its countless problems, it is still the country's favourite drug. "One of the arguments people put forward for not legalizing other drugs is that the two drugs that are legal are the biggest problems that we've got and the most harmful drugs that we've got and cost the most in society," says Lee of alcohol and nicotine.

In forming new legislation, however, there is a chance to tread carefully and test the waters. "I think we have to remember that, particularly with alcohol, we have an entrenched history, right back to the Rum Rebellion," says Lee. "We've had to reign in alcohol legislation as we've gone along whereas we have an opportunity now to start small and loosen the legislation if we need to. It would then be less likely that we would have the problems that we have with other drugs and with alcohol."

The sheer number of adult drinkers in Australia also suggest that cannabis and other drugs would not lead to similar problems that we see with alcohol and nicotine. "80% of the population drink, whereas only 10% of the population use cannabis, for example, and only 2-3% use other drugs," Lee says. "So in terms of alcohol itself, the wide availability of alcohol is probably one of the biggest problems because it is so easily accessible and on top of that we've got cultural views about drinking and getting drunk and that it's a bit of a badge of honour to drink a lot." 

These damaging cultural views seem to be on their way out, though. "If we look at data from 10 years ago, fewer young people are drinking at all and those that are drinking are drinking less than we were 10 years ago," says Lee. "There is that attitude shift over time, and I guess that will hopefully continue. There is a shift in people not only understanding about the effects of alcohol and the problems with it, but also ways to help support them giving up or changing the way that they drink."

So what's the future for Australian cannabis legalization?

Modern globalization means Australia can't ignore the legislative shifts in overseas countries – particularly in the US and New Zealand, where recreational cannabis laws are coming into effect in the next six months. Seeing similar societies legalizing cannabis and not burning to the ground could be the push Australian governments need.

"I think that the more this happens around the world the easier it is for our politicians and our lawmakers to see that it's not a disaster and they might be more inclined towards it," says Lee. "I do think that there will be some kind of shift as we go along over the next 5-10 years, but it's hard to tell – we've got some very conservative governments at the moment in relation to drugs so I feel there won't be much of a shift in the next couple of years." 

With the constant strain on police resources for minor drug offences and low-level incarcerations, nation-wide decriminalization would be an important and simple step for our government. And although full legalization doesn't look like it will be happening anytime soon, the ACT has been a key marker for other states, who hopefully follow suit.

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Laura Desmond
Laura Desmond

Laura Desmond is an Adelaide-based writer with a keen interest in the arts, gender politics and social change. She is currently working to obtain a Master in Writing through Swinburne University.

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