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High time cannabis was legalised, so let's weed out the problems


Alex Wodak

"The stronger the evidence that cannabis is harmful, the better the case for regularting its supply."

"The stronger the evidence that cannabis is harmful, the better the case for regularting its supply." Photo: Rob Carew

Voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives on November 6 to tax and regulate cannabis in those states. This means legalisation of cannabis is now inevitable in many countries in the world. It will take time and there will be numerous steps.

Perhaps Australia is still a few royal commissions away from legalising cannabis. Several opinion polls show that there are now more supporters of regulated cannabis in the US than opponents. It's only a matter of time before supporters outnumber opponents of legalised cannabis in Australia.

So what would legalised cannabis look like?

Some will argue for high taxes for cannabis on the grounds of suppressing consumption of a drug with health costs. But if the tax is set at too high a rate, a black market will be stimulated, defeating the benefits of regulation. Although cannabis is an easy plant to cultivate, it's likely that most consumers would prefer to buy their supplies rather than grow their own. But high taxes will also stimulate domestic cultivation.

Governments will no doubt welcome a new source of taxation revenue, especially as Australian governments are under growing pressure to raise sufficient revenue from existing taxes. Some of the revenue from cannabis taxation could be dedicated to specific expenditure such as alcohol and drug prevention and treatment or building schools.

Growers, wholesalers and retailers should be required to pass strict probity checks and have a short-term licence, preferably one that is difficult to get but easy to lose, without appeal if the licensee does not follow stringent regulations. Those buying cannabis should be required to prove they are above a stipulated age and these arrangements should match the equivalent requirements for alcohol.

Plain packaging should be required (matching cigarette packets) with health warning labels, information for those seeking help to cut down or stop and consumer information about the percentage of psychoactive and other ingredients in the cannabis.

We should learn from the mistakes made with regulating alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis advertising and promotion of all kinds should be banned from the outset, as should donations from the cannabis industry to political parties and politicians. The number of outlets and their conditions should be as restricted as possible without stimulating a black market.

Some will argue that as the evidence for cannabis causing schizophrenia gets stronger, legalising the drug is the last thing we should do. But this assumes that the 2 million to 3 million Australians who use cannabis every year are safer obtaining their supplies of a potentially dangerous drug from Al Capone's contemporary counterparts. Surely, the stronger the evidence that cannabis is harmful, the better the case for regulating its supply.

Another concern is that any liberalisation of supply will expand consumption. The problem is that decades of effort to find evidence to support this concern have come up with next to nothing. This has not stopped opponents of cannabis reform asserting this often and with supreme confidence.

The argument that regulating cannabis will prevent prosecution of cannabis-intoxicated drivers is also invalid. We will continue to have difficulty prosecuting cannabis-intoxicated drivers whether cannabis is supplied by regulated sources or, as it is today, by criminals and corrupt police. The issue is getting strong enough scientific evidence to reliably separate the intoxicated from those exposed to cannabis but not intoxicated.

Apart from the tobacco companies, most Australians are proud that we will soon become the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes. We should be cautious whether we are the first or the 200th country to legalise cannabis. But being first should not stop us legalising cannabis any more than being first in an Olympic event should deter us from top-level sport.

Some say we shouldn't introduce another drug when alcohol and tobacco cause so much damage. Introduce another drug? Cannabis was introduced in Australia more than half a century ago. It's already here. The Prime Minister and current and previous leaders of the opposition have all tried it. So have the current and previous two US presidents.

The case for legalising cannabis in Australia is overwhelming. But don't expect anything to happen quickly.

Dr Alex Wodak, AM, is the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. This is an edited version of his address to the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs.

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