(Private Members' Statement, 30 March 2017, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The possession and use of cannabis for recreation purposes remains a criminal offence in Australia with New South Wales having one of the strictest applications of this law. But internationally many jurisdictions are relaxing cannabis laws and a number of constituents have contacted me in support of sensible cannabis reform.
I welcome the government’s advancement with medical marijuana with further reforms proposed by the Opposition, but this is only for very ill people and we need to ask whether current laws that criminalise people who use cannabis recreationally are fair and effective.
The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research identified that there were 26,767 recorded incidents for cannabis possession and use in the 12 months to September 2016 – this is comparable to the previous 12 months however the year before that an increase was recorded. The number of recorded incidents for cannabis are significantly higher than for other drugs, representing almost double the combined number of incidents for use and possession of the amphetamine and ‘other drugs’ categories.
This is not surprising given Cannabis use is much higher in the community than other drugs. The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household survey identified that 35 per cent of the Australian population over 14 had tried cannabis in their lifetime with 10.2 per cent having tried it recently.
Despite the high level of use within the community, particularly in comparison to alcohol and tobacco, the contribution of cannabis to poor health and injury is small. Tobacco’s contribution to disease has been estimated at 40 times greater than that of cannabis, despite low and declining smoking rates.
Clearly the threat of criminal prosecution has not reduced access to cannabis or willingness to use it. Given what is happening internationally, we need to ask whether the criminal approach remains appropriate.
Cannabis use does not harm third parties: it does not arouse aggression and is not addictive or expensive enough to encourage crime or impact on most people’s work or social life. Most cannabis users consume the drug occasionally.
Criminal sanctions and the cost of fines and legal representation can have major repercussions, including on a person’s job prospects and liberty. The enforcement costs to the state from policing, court time and legal aid are high and divert resources away from more serious crime including drug trafficking.
In New South Wales, police can use discretion and issue a caution but this is not the default position and is limited to two cautions per person – one can still receive a conviction for the personal possession and use of marijuana.
Cannabis use has been decriminalised in South Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.
In the United States, recreational cannabis use has been legalised in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Massachusetts, Nevada and recently California.
The California laws apply to people over 21 and ban smoking in public however in the future there will be licensed premises for smoking cannabis where alcohol will be prohibited.
Portugal decriminalised recreational drug use in 2001 with even the possession of hard drugs attracting a small fine and referral to a treatment program. Drug use has not soared as a result, HIV infection has dropped and the use of legal highs is lower than any other European country. While many factors make it difficult to confirm how drug use has changed as a result of the laws, the fears that it would escalate have been disproved.
There are many reasons why people take mood enhancing and illicit drugs. The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 66 per cent of people say they first tried drugs to see what it was like, with 30 per cent continuing use to enhance experiences and 17.5 per cent to do something exciting.
There is a growing acceptance that this is not criminal activity and one in four Australians believes that personal use of cannabis should be legal.
It is acceptable for adults to want to use cannabis and for them to do so in a responsible way. The risks of legalising or at least decriminalising cannabis use and possession are low but the gains are high with fewer resources wasted in the criminal justice system for recreation drug use and fewer impacts on people’s lives.
I call on the government to consider a more appropriate approach to cannabis use that does not criminalise recreational users or squander state police and court resources on a widespread activity that harms few.