As of Friday, cannabis is now legal for personal use in the ACT.
It is a genuinely momentous act - especially when one considers the strong historical current the ACT is swimming against.
The regulation of drugs in in the 20th century can, with a small number of exceptions, be reduced to one word: criminalisation.
Unfortunately, criminalising drugs - and, by extension, the people who use them - has, by every available measure, made things worse. Today in Australia, there are more types of drugs, more dangerous drugs, more drug use, and more fatal overdoses than when the war on drugs was launched 50 years ago.
The costs of our current cannabis laws are enormous.
They unnecessarily bring thousands of people into the criminal justice system for using a drug that has a relatively low risk profile compared to other psychoactive substances.
They also move vital policing resources away from more important domains.
In Australia, almost half of the more than 148,000 drug arrests in 2017-18 were for cannabis-related offences. Those 72,000 cannabis arrests are 30 per cent more than just a decade ago. There is no good reason to maintain this imbalance.
More than 35 per cent of reported sexual assaults are never solved. There are many reasons why this is, but one of them is because of how many policing resources are allocated to enforcing our outdated drug laws.
All the while, these same laws enable ruthless organised criminal groups to threaten our security by manufacturing and importing drugs while gorging on obscene profits.
By legalising and commercialising the sale of cannabis, [US] states have ... effectively transferred money away from criminal groups and into public coffers.
Penington Institute's submission to the ACT's Inquiry into Drugs of Dependence (Personal Cannabis Use) Amendment Bill 2018 touched on these issues while also identifying shortcomings of the proposed legislation.
Many of those same problems were still present in the bill passed by the ACT Legislative Assembly.
The most important is this: the law does not adequately address issues of supply.
How does it make sense to jettison criminal penalties for the possession of cannabis while retaining penalties for the distribution of small quantities of it?
Distribution doesn't only mean sale. People will continue to share or exchange cannabis. People will continue to be caught sharing or exchanging cannabis in return for non-money goods, or just because they are friends.
Arguing for legalisation of supply is not an endorsement of drug dealing or consumption - it is an acknowledgement of the widespread use of cannabis and the harms caused by criminalising otherwise law-abiding citizens.
6.9 million Australians have used cannabis and 10 per cent of all Australians have used it in the past 12 months.
There is a world of moral difference between someone who cultivates small amounts of cannabis in their home selling or giving away their product and a criminal group selling high-strength cannabis to bankroll their ice, heroin or fentanyl operations, which disrupt and destroy exponentially more lives.
Our submission recommended the ACT Legislative Assembly clarify which modes of supply are protected by the bill, retain penalties for supply to a minor, and support legal means of access for those people unable to grow their own cannabis.
The model pursued by Canada and some American states may be instructive in this regard.
They have legalised the sale of cannabis in small quantities, creating legal markets that earn millions in tax revenue.
This approach is not perfect.
But by legalising and commercialising the sale of cannabis, states have increased their criminal clearance rates and effectively transferred money away from criminal groups and into public coffers, where it can be better spent on drug treatment and recovery services.
The same could be done here.
The scrupulously independent Australian Parliamentary Budget Office determined a legalised market could raise in the order of $4,1 billion over four years, and lead to additional savings for law enforcement, including by the Australian Federal Police.
Legalising supply also does more than provide an additional source of revenue. It shifts quality control from gangsters in the illegal market to the agricultural and medical research sectors. Currently, quality assurance and safety (for example, THC/CBD concentrations) are left to the underworld. A taxed and regulated sector is a win for government, entrepreneurs and community health and safety.
Despite valid criticisms of the ACT law, we should not downplay the significance of what has been achieved.
Changes from drug law enforcement to health-centred approaches are victories for rational policy.
This cautious but significant law change will improve the lives of thousands of Australians.
Although there are still challenges ahead, especially the potential clash between the ACT and the Commonwealth, we stand at the cusp of a milestone moment for drugs and public health in our country.
- John Ryan is chief executive of the Penington Institute.