Decriminalising cannabis could save billions, experts argue

Pot of gold: legalising cannabis could generate billions. Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem from Pexels.
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Victoria is holding the country's first inquiry into the use of cannabis—with fierce arguments on all sides. Hannah Fortune reports.

Victorian mental health services could see a substantial change “if we stop funding criminals and start funding health”, experts say.

Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) state secretary Paul Healy said decriminalising and taxing cannabis could see the government making billions of dollars for the mental health sector and reduce the number of people tied up in the justice system.

“The government would have to grow it, license it and tax it, and that is where the $2 billion comes from,” Mr Healy told the parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Cannabis in Victoria last month.

We have lots of data from mental health services across the state that says that the lack of rehabilitation services are having a really poor effect.

“We acknowledge that it costs a lot of money to do that, so we see that as a really great way to start,” he said.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) 2019, reported that 36 per cent of Australians, 14 years and over, had used cannabis at least once in their lifetime and 11.6 per cent had used cannabis in the last 12 months. Mental health conditions were also reportedly higher in recent cannabis users, 27 per cent, compared to non-users, 15.4 per cent.

ACT MP Michael Pettersson told the inquiry that people who wanted to use cannabis knew how to source it “through the black market”.

“Australia’s current approach to drug policy concentrates on the idea that drug use is a moral failing and a criminal issue—this subtracts from the idea that drugs use is first and foremost a health issue,” he said.

Decriminalising cannabis could save billions, experts argue
Burnet Institute Associate Professor Peter Higgs. Picture by Hannah Fortune, via Zoom.

Burnet Institute Associate Professor Peter Higgs said cannabis needed to be controlled in a way that “reduces the illegal market and reduces people’s contact with the criminal justice system”.

“I just see cigarettes and alcohol as the biggest markers of that,” Prof Higgs said.

“We’ve already got examples of what happens when you move substances into a regulated and taxable market and governments can have control.”

“Consumers can be more confident with what they are purchasing and can make more informed choices about the harms that they are giving themselves.”

Decriminalising cannabis could save billions, experts argue
Gary Christian says cannabis is causing too much harm and the media isn’t talking about it. Picture by Hannah Fortune, via Zoom

Drug Free Australia research director Gary Christian said decriminalisation or legalisation was “just going to increase drug use exponentially”.

“People need to know that 44 congenital abnormalities show up as caused by cannabis in the United States,” Mr Christian said.

All of these things have massive impact on people’s lives. Why doesn’t the media want to come on board and tell the truth about cannabis?

Mr Christian said he thought the “tough on drugs” strategy implemented during the Howard government should be an alternative outcome to the inquiry.

“They did more with education, and they actually had television campaigns against drug use and in that time, we saw drug use go from 22 per cent down to 13 per cent,” he said.

Decriminalising cannabis could save billions, experts argue
ACT’s change of legislation allows users to possess up to 50g of dried cannabis or up to 150g of fresh cannabis and grow up to two cannabis plants per person, with a maximum of four plants per household. Picture by Terre di Cannabis on Unsplash

ACT Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Association CEO Devin Bowles told the inquiry that Canberra had seen no change to cannabis usage since decriminalisation in 2019.

“Legislation that criminalises an activity that anywhere between a third and half of Australians have engaged in clearly needs rethinking from a human rights perspective,” Dr Bowles said.

“Disadvantaged people are arrested at much higher rates for the same activity,” he said.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s Illicit Drug Data Report 2017-18 reported that cannabis accounted for the greatest number of drug-related arrests nationally and that 90 per cent of all cannabis-related arrests were users, as opposed to cannabis suppliers.

“While the sky hasn’t fallen in, people who need access to treatment are better able to achieve that access and the taxpayer is saving money,” Dr Bowles said.

“You don’t even need to care about people, you can only care about money and it’s really obvious.”

Decriminalising cannabis could save billions, experts argue
HACSU says the government could be making billions on cannabis sales.  Picture by Harrison Haines from Pexels.

Reason Party leader Fiona Patten received strong support from the Victorian Government for her motion which resulted in Australia’s first inquiry into cannabis.

The inquiry’s terms of reference include:

  • Preventing young people from accessing and using cannabis.
  • Implementing health education campaigns to ensure young people are aware of the dangers of drug use.
  • Assessing the health and social impacts of cannabis use on those who are using, and their families. 
  • Preventing criminal activity in relation to the illegal cannabis trade. 

The final reporting date for the inquiry has been extended to August 5.