Everything You Need To Know About The Plan To Legalise Cannabis In Australia

On April 16, Greens leader Richard Di Natale announced the Greens plan to legalise cannabis for adult use in Australia. Though the Therapeutic Goods Administration decriminalised supply and use of medicinal cannabis in 2016, recreational use is still illegal across the country. The Greens want to change that.

We’ve collated everything you need to know about legalising cannabis in Australia.

What is cannabis?

The short: A flowering plant that contains a psychoactive ingredient known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When the flowering head or leaves of the plant are dried out, they give you marijuana, which is usually smoked in a joint or a bong. In this way, THC enters the body and is the chief reason for experiencing a ‘high’ associated with weed. It acts on specific receptors within the brain that affect mood, behaviour and consciousness. You may have also heard the terms ‘hash’ which refers to the plant’s resin, which you can mix with tobacco or bake into a cookie.

What is the Greens plan?

Citing that the “war on drugs has failed”, Richard Di Natale announced that the Greens want “real reform” in the way that Australia approaches and treats drugs. In their Cannabis: Just Legalise It brief, they detail several measures they would take if cannabis was legalised.

1. Create an agency: The Greens aim to create the “Australian Cannabis Agency” (ACA), which would allow experts, regulators and state and territory governments to issue licenses to produce and sell the drug, monitor and enforce those licences and conduct ongoing reviews.

2. Plain Packaging: The ACA would be the wholesaler of cannabis and sell plain-packaged products to retail stores. This packaging will also display clear information about the THC and CBD levels and their “street name”, according to the plan.

3. Cannabis retail store laws: The legal age to buy cannabis would be 18, with retail stores requiring ID to enter. All staff would need to undertake a responsible sale of cannabis course, which the Greens suggest would be similar to the responsible service of alcohol course.

4. Production: The ability to grow up to six plants at home – as long as they are used for personal use only and you can’t sell. Regulations will also be in place for the amount that can be purchased and how much you can carry. The ACA will also, presumably, monitor the types of strains that are produced.

5. No advertising: Advertising will not be allowed at any point.

6. No cafes: Unlike the coffee shops in Amsterdam where you can purchase and smoke weed, the Greens plan does not initially allow for this and would adhere to current smoking laws.

Why do the Greens want to legalise cannabis?

The chief argument here is that cannabis prohibition has failed – more people are using cannabis and more people are being arrested for cannabis-related crimes. The data suggests that over one-third of Australians have used cannabis before and that in 2015-16, nearly 80,000 arrests were made.

If one-third of the population is already using cannabis, that means they’re likely growing plants at home illegally or buying it from drug dealers. The Greens, citing data from the USA, Spain and Uruguay, state that this would ‘bust the business model of criminal drug dealers’, allowing for protections to vulnerable cannabis users and allow for the expenditure on responding to cannabis to be redirected to drug treatment, education and harm reduction programs.

What are the current laws?

Using, growing and selling cannabis is illegal across Australia. However, laws for dealing with cannabis-related offences vary by state and different penalties are applied for possessing different amounts of the drug, based on where you live. It is important to note that, across the country you cannot possess, use or sell cannabis. That’s a blanket law that covers you no matter where you live – however personal possession of small amounts has been decriminalised in some states.

We’ve detailed the laws below:

Illegal to administer to someone else, posses any quantity of it, cultivate it or supply and sell it. Small amounts can attract fines of $100 and range, for major indiscretions, up to $250,000 and life imprisonment. Where it is deemed for personal use, a person can possess 50 grams of dried cannabis or two plants but will be ordered a penalty order fine that must be paid within 60 days. It’s not legal – but it is decriminalised.

South Australia
Have also decriminalised personal cannabis possession and use and allow you to pay an on-the-spot fine, rather than be criminally convicted. It is still illegal to keep, use, grow, sell or give away cannabis or cannabis-related products and equipment.

Northern Territory
Cannabis possession is still illegal, however it has been decriminalised so that you will receive a $200 fine for posessing up to 50 grams of marijuana or two non-hydroponic plants, similar to South Australia.

Western Australia
Decriminalised initially with a civil penalty scheme up until 2008. In 2011, this was overturned. For small quantities, users found in posession of will 10 grams or a used smoking apparatus also must attend a cannabis intervention session.

New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria
Small amounts in these states all result in criminal convictions but it is usually up to the police officer to charge them. But the rules get murky.

In Queensland, the limit is 50 grams of cannabis. A first time offender is offered a diversion to an intervention program – the police do not get to decide in this case to convict immediately. Only one offer is allowed per person.

IN New South Wales, 15 grams of cannabis is the limit that officers may only caution offenders. This caution includes an information pack and either a number to call for drug-related information or a referral. Only two cautions can be given to the same person before a conviction.

Tasmania allows three cautions over a ten year period with escalating scales of intervention provided for each subsequent conviction.

Victorians aged 17 years and older that possess or use a small amount of cannabis (50g) can receive two caution notices and can be diverted into the Cannabis Cautioning Program. You also must admit to the offence and consent to the caution and only two cautions can be given.

What about medicinal cannabis? Is that legal?

Medicinal cannabis was legalised in 2016, after Amendments were made to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 and achieved bi-partisan support, sailing through the Federal Government. The laws for prescription and use of medicinal cannabis also varies state by state.

  • Australian Capital Territory: Medicinal cannabis may be prescribed to those who fit a certain criteria for several conditions including multiple sclerosis and cancer chemotherapy
  • New South Wales: The Medicinal Cannabis Compassionate Use Scheme is a guideline for police to use their discretion around whether or not adults with terminal illnesses (and up to three carers) should be charged with possession if they take part in the scheme.
  • Northern Territory: Access can be granted by an NT doctor and is restricted to appropriate patients with “certain medical conditions where there is evidence to support its therapeutic use.”
  • Queensland: Must provide clinical evidence that supports the use of medicinal cannabis and the type proposed.
  • South Australia: Medical practitioners decide whether cannabis is an appropriate treatment option
  • Tasmania: Has a controlled access scheme in place – if a GP considers that unregistered cannabinoid products may help, they refer you to a specialist and then you may be prescribed cannabis
  • Victoria: Any patient with any medical condition can access medicinal cannabbis where their doctor believes it is appropriate
  • Western Australia: An authorised specialist doctor can prescribe and a pharmacist can dispense depending on the patients condition.

What are the proposed positive benefits of legalising cannabis?

It’s obvious that the state-by-state jurisdiction over recreational cannabis use results in great fragmentation and misunderstanding by the general public.

Currently, nine US states have taken action to legalise cannabis and Spain and Uruguay have done the same. Canada announced sweeping reforms recently that will legalise cannabis use there, too. Jacinda Arden, PM of New Zealand, is ready to send the idea to a referendum in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

The Greens point to recent studies in Uruguay and the US that show crime rates are down and early evidence that opiate overdoses and alcohol consumption are also reduced.

In Australia, the most arrests regarding illicit drugs are related to cannabis and the criminal conviction places a strain on the offender that they carry for the rest of their life. It is no clearer than in the UN’s Australia Drug Policy document that the criminalisation of marijuana possession can have overall negative effects and that offenders are more likely to have problems with employment and get caught up in a cycle within the criminal justice system.

The Greens plan to regulate and tax cannabis and provide another revenue stream for the government. Some of this money would then be diverted back into drug treatment services, mental health services and drug education programs – resources which are currently poorly funded but that we have an escalating need for. Additionally, taking the issues out of the hands of law enforcement frees them up to concentrate on different crimes.

Harm minimization has been one of the key aspects of the national drug policy since 1998. The Greens aim to continue this approach and continue to provide protections to those at risk – young people, addicts and vulnerable populations.

What are the negative effects of legalising cannabis?

For a long time, the idea that cannabis is a ‘gateway drug’ – that is, a drug that leads users onto more dangerous, more addictive drugs – has persisted. It’s interesting to note that there is often a correlation between marijuana use and harder drugs such as methamphetamine, but that correlation does not necessarily show causation. The Greens suggest that cannabis is definitely not a gateway drug and that the link “comes from the drug dealers”.

On a biological level, THC may increase the vulnerability to harder drugs in adult rats in specific scenarios, for instance, but the data that exists doesn’t necessarily support this assumption one way or the other. Indeed, organisations and governments are now coming around to the idea that no strong evidence backs up the ‘gateway drug’ theory biologically – but that perhaps societal and environmental factors contribute to the correlation that is seen. Still – it needs to be considered in the debate.

However, there are health risks associated with cannabis use and this remains one of the core arguments for those that oppose drug reform at this level.

What are the health issues associated with cannabis?

More research than ever before is going into cannabis and cannabinoids, with a cursory glance at online medical journal database PubMed showing a growing number of search results year-on-year. This is a good thing – we’re trying to understand the ways that cannabis and its psychoactive consituents affect the human body – whether that be positively or negatively.

Currently, data supports the idea that cannabinoids may be able to help with conditions such as osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Those with sleep disorders may also benefit from using cannabis or cannabinoids.

However, a recent review of the medical literature also found limited evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids were able to improve appetite or show positive effects with anxiety, PTSD, cancer, IBS, epilepsy and neurodegenerative disorders.

Importantly, the Australian Medical Association has ruled out supporting the greens plans – in their 2014 report, cite serious physical and mental health impacts of cannabis. In their report, the short-term effects of large doses suggest panic reactions, vomiting, loss of consciousness and confusion are the most common seen. The long-term effects relating to dependence, deficits in memory and increased risk of heart attack (for those who have had a heart attack previously) cannot be discounted.

Smoking cannabis has not been conclusively proved to be a risk factor in developing lung cancer, but previous studies have limited evidence and small numbers of participants. A tenuous link still needs to be proven – not that causing lung cancer seems to affect the legality or sale of cigarettes and tobacco.

Our compatriots in the US have written many guides on medical marijuana and cannabis use, since US states began to legalise it. They provide a good overview of the health effects associated with medical cannabis use, but also have resources on the effects of recreational use.

What happens now?

Whether you support the drug law reforms proposed by the Greens or not, in the short-term, nothing changes. The Greens have elevated drug reform into the national spotlight, but whether there is any significant movement in the near future will depend on how the public respond at a national election.

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