Cannabis use is reportedly costing Australia $4.5 billion a year, according to a new study attributing more than half the cost to prohibition policing and imprisonment.
In what is the first national estimate of the social and economic costs of cannabis use in 13 years, the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University in Perth revealed cannabis use was responsible for $4.4 billion in direct tangible costs to policing, healthcare and productivity in 2016.
Led by the Perth-based NDRI, researchers from the University of Adelaide, UNSW, Flinders University and the University of Queensland contributed to the study.
In the last 12 months, more than 2 million Australians had used cannabis, according to 2016 data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, while figures from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed a spike to 7.6 million cannabis users.
The same survey also revealed the social costs of alcohol misuse in Australia in 2019 was estimated to be $14.35 billion, with 79% of Australians consuming alcohol. In comparison, cannabis use grew from 10.4% to 11.6%.
Globally, there were 192 million cannabis users in 2018, according to 2020 statistics from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Coupled with the Australian survey projecting nine million drug users (and counting), research conducted by NDRI's Professor Steve Allsop aims to quantify the social costs of cannabis use to Australia in 2015/16.
Associating cannabis-related problems with an increase in demand across the healthcare system, the report estimates more than $700 million is spent on the illicit drug. Despite no deaths being attributed directly to "cannabis toxicity," the report attributes cannabis to 23 deaths "predominantly from road traffic accidents". Estimated at a further $100 million in intangible costs, these deaths were identified from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, bringing the total to $4.5 billion.
The report claims the use of cannabis, "especially in the first three hours after consumption, has been identified as increasing the likelihood of being an 'at-fault' driver in a road accident." Sourcing 2009 data from the Bureau of Infrastructure Transport and Regional Economics, the report was unable to "estimate the involvement of cannabis" in any of the road accidents.
"I think it's important to recognise that those costs don't just impact on the individual user," said Prof Allsop speaking to the AAP.
"If somebody's using cannabis and they're driving a vehicle, they're not just putting themselves at risk."
In comparison, alcohol use was responsible for almost one-third of the burden of road traffic injuries in 2018, 1,366 registered alcohol-induced deaths in 2017; the highest in 2 decades (1,156 deaths in 1997), with an additional 2,820 deaths where alcohol was mentioned as a contributory cause of death.
Despite the devastating road toll, the largest cannabis-related cost to Australia is spent on enforcing prohibition laws. The estimated cost of crime resulting from cannabis use equates to $2.4 billion. A number that could be much higher had the report been able to provide data from the either Australian Federal Police activities or of Australian border controls relating to cannabis.
In their 2018/2019 annual report, the AFP seized 14.9 tonnes of illicit drugs at the border or domestically, avoiding an estimated $5.8 billion worth of harm. An additional 40 tonnes of illicit drugs were also seized by overseas police services with assistance from the AFP.
Acknowledging that "the legal status of cannabis is in flux," the report indicates that there are "potential adverse health and economic consequences of using cannabis."
"Given the prevalence of cannabis use and its current legal status, it is unsurprising that the criminal justice system is a major component of the Australian social impacts of cannabis, with a total cost of $2.4 billion."
Professor Allsop reckons a good portion of this number may be from "people who are found in possession of small amounts for personal use".
"I've worked in this field for 40 years … if someone's found with small amounts of cannabis for personal use, we shouldn't potentially do more harm," he said suggesting non-punitive methods would be more effective.
"The evidence tells us we're going to have a better chance of success if we have a health response as opposed to a criminal response as our first response."
Just under 50% was for imprisonment, which involved over 3,400 prison sentences, leading to further costs for administering community supervision orders relating to cannabis offences.
Whether or not the costs to society would be lower if cannabis was decriminalised, could not be extrapolated from the data, said Prof Allsop.
The report is the fourth in a series assessing the societal costs of using specific drugs to Australia, Curtin University has already investigated methamphetamine, tobacco, and extra-medical opioids.
Replicating the "the analysis of opioid-related costs" the report "focused on the costs in a specific year regardless of when exposure or harms occurred".
The report concludes that "despite the greater prevalence of cannabis use, compared to other illicit drugs, the identified social and economic impacts of cannabis consumption, at $4.5 billion, is far lower than costs associated with extra-medial opioid use ($15.8 billion), and methamphetamines ($5 billion)."
With 41% of the population now in support of cannabis legalisation, compared to the 37% against, and the market set to reach $2.162 billion by 2024, perhaps these societal costs could be paid for by proper regulation of this booming market.
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