Cannabis use is viewed by some in our community as harmless, and they often confuse the positive effects of medical cannabis with the potentially very harmful effects of illicit cannabis with its high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. ACT Labor and the Greens’ desire to legalise cannabis and make it more accessible fails to consider the harm this may cause to vulnerable cannabis users who could develop mental illness as a result.
According to the ACT Government, cannabis was the primary cause of death in 19 drug related fatalities in the ACT from 2014 to 2018, making it six times more deadly than cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy combined over the same period. Cause of deaths data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found cannabis was the second most common drug identified at toxicology for transport accident deaths.
What is also of great concern is the long-term hidden damage where people have died or become critically ill as a result of psychosis triggered by cannabis use.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “ongoing and regular use of cannabis is associated with a number of negative long-term effects. Regular users of cannabis can become dependent and commonly reported symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, sleep difficulties, appetite disturbance and depression.”
The 2016 National Drugs Strategy Household Survey found a, “significant increase in the proportion of past month and past 12-month cannabis users that reported mental illness and ‘high to very high’ levels of psychological distress.”
The Australian Medical Association does not support the legalisation of cannabis. It found cannabis can cause a five-fold increase in users developing psychosis and that maternal and paternal use can lead to similar risks for unborn children. The AMA also points to the negative impact on vulnerable groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
A traumatised mother who saw her son’s life destroyed by cannabis contacted me recently pleading that we do not see cannabis made legal and more available. She said, “I have a son aged 38. He was an excellent student, a high achiever, with good prospects for a successful life. At the age of 19, he and his friends thought it was cool, and became cannabis users. After one particular time my son over indulged, and became psychotic, developing schizophrenia. That is almost 20 years ago. Since 1999, he has been incapable of working, has no friends, and has a very poor quality of life. His psychiatrist told us that one in 10 cannabis users were likely to develop short term psychotic illness, many going on to develop schizophrenia.”
In the recently released book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, Alex Berenson exposes the high incidence of violent behaviour caused by cannabis. He cites numerous studies which all point to cannabis as contributing to increased violence - including domestic violence.
Given such alarming statistics and evidence, why would we want to increase the availability of such a potentially harmful substance?
ACT Labor argues cannabis users are still being caught up in the criminal justice system. However, very few people are actually being penalised for personal cannabis use in the ACT and most of those who faced penalties were facing other charges. For example, they may have been found in possession of cannabis when being arrested for assault.
I suspect that more young people and vulnerable groups will be caught up in the justice system as they mistakenly believe cannabis use now to be legal and will be less cautious about using it.
Good drug strategy involves the three elements of supply, demand and harm minimisation. The legalisation of cannabis will lead to increased supply and demand and ultimately cause more harm in the form of mental illness.
Our current laws strike the right balance in deterring cannabis use, particularly among younger people, without destroying lives with overly harsh penalties.
Jeremy Hanson is the ACT shadow attorney-general