Cannabis bans are ignored — so ditch the law and save money

14th Nov 2019

While most of Australia is a legal backwater these days, in the ACT a rational law reform initiative last month reminds us that all is not lost in this nation where the Prime Minister embarrasses us all with a puerile speech about ocean pollution being more pressing an issue for humanity than global warming.

But while Mr Morrison was inexplicably tying himself to the populism of US President Donald Trump, in the ACT life was getting harder for drug traffickers and the law was catching up with reality. Possession and use of cannabis is no longer a criminal offence in the ACT. This is welcome at a number of levels, not least because it means that at last one Australian government is bringing us into line with Canada, vast swathes of the US, Latin America and Europe.

Cannabis is much less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. It is only illegal because the 1968 campaign of then Republican candidate for the US presidency, Richard Nixon, needed to go after the anti-Vietnam War movement and the rising counter-culture. It has remained illegal not because of any great public health risk, but simply because prejudice and the Washington empire has been allowed to dictate drug policy for 40 or more years.

Laws are only of worth if they are respected by the community. If they are regularly flouted this is telling us the law has lost its authority and should be repealed.

This is the case with cannabis laws. The prohibition of the use of cannabis is ignored by most of the population in Australia. There are many lawyers who use cannabis. There are politicians who use cannabis. And of course cannabis is a fine antidote to pain, and much less addictive than opioids. It is a drug which is enjoyed because, like alcohol, it relaxes people. It is not a gateway drug as some people who should know better argue.

There is zilch evidence that use of cannabis leads to harder drug use.

While some might start with cannabis and then move on to harder drugs like ice, it is not the use of cannabis that links the two events. And unlike some drugs, cannabis does not kill people.

In Canberra, just as in Tasmania, cannabis users have been ignoring the law. But the difference is that in the former jurisdiction the government is smart. It knows that taxpayer funds are wasted by prosecuting people who use cannabis, and police time wasted in charging them. Smart policy means legalising, regulating, and taxing the product to enable revenue to be raised. The only group that likes the idea of prohibition are drug traffickers who thrive in the black market. The best friend of drug traffickers are politicians who oppose legalising cannabis.

Along with the gateway drug nonsense goes the idea that legalising cannabis will encourage use and send the wrong message. This is, once again, rank fantasy. Writing last week for The Conversation and reflecting on 12 months of the Canadian legalisation, Michael Armstrong of Brock University reflected that ‘legalisation has been a muddled mess of compromises and glitches. It still needs years of work. But at least it happened. And it’s taken a bite out of black markets. So it should be considered a typical Canadian success story.’ And that is the point of course.

In the US, 11 states have fully legalised cannabis, most recently in Illinois where newly-elected governor, JB Pritzker, made it a key campaign pledge. Economic growth, a large revenue stream and safer product all make sense to the voters of that state. The impact on crime in US states where cannabis is fully legal is intriguing. According to Liberty Vitert, from Washington University in St Louis, in ‘states with legalised recreational marijuana, police now no longer spend time on marijuana arrests and can spend more time on solving [violent and property] crime. FBI data from Colorado and Washington show that crime clearance rates — the number of times that the police solved a crime — increased for both violent and property crimes after legalisation.”

In the ACT you can expect to see similar results. That is, police time being spent on real crime that impacts people. You can expect to see trafficking in cannabis fall off substantially.

Unless of course Peter Dutton, the minister for locking up children in detention and administering the gulags of Nauru and Manus, makes good on his juvenile threat to block the ACT law. Mr Dutton will be cheered on by traffickers of course because prohibition is their lifeline.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to enjoy a substance that brings pleasure, relieves pain and is less harmful than alcohol. The law on cannabis possession and use has zero deterrent impact and that is because it is a law which makes no sense whatever. Viva ACT!

This is an edited version of an article originally published by the Mercury on 30 September 2019. It has been republished with the author’s permission. The original article can be found here (subscription only).


Greg Barns is a criminal justice spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance and a barrister.


The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: ACT Greg Barns Law reform drugs Criminal law