The cannabis debate: money in the pocket or money down the drain

Buying cannabis in a regulated way would remove some risks. Photo by GreenForce Staffing on Unsplash.
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Strong reforms to Victoria’s cannabis laws and a move into government production would alleviate our strained justice system and mental health services. Loren Botica reports on the Cannabis Use Inquiry, which is drawing to a close

Decriminalising the personal use and possession of cannabis could relieve Victoria’s overcrowded justice system and steer users away from trying “harder” drugs, speakers at a cannabis use inquiry said.

Victoria Legal Aid executive director for criminal law Dan Nicholson spoke at a public hearing for Victoria’s Inquiry into Cannabis Use, the first such inquiry in Australia.

Mr Nicholson told the inquiry that the ability to buy cannabis in a regulated way would remove some of the associated risks.

“If a person were able to obtain it in a different way, in a regulated way, then that risk of being upsold to drugs that are more addictive and that are associated with more high-harm offending, like ice and heroin, would be removed or significantly reduced,” he said.

Mr Nicholson said it would be better to refocus the system toward a health-first approach, diverting offenders out of long court proceedings and allowing users to seek the help they need.

Quick diversion out of the system, strong referral pathways and incentives to do that, making it as easy as possible … ‘Easier to divert than to charge’ should be our aim.

“Getting police out of being the first responders and getting a health response in there.

“It is not just about drug and alcohol treatment; it is about referrals to mental health services,” he said.

The relationship between mental health, and crimes committed under the influence of cannabis, weren’t represented in the data, but inquiry witnesses suggested the stigma inhibited users’ ability to seek help. 

The cannabis debate: money in the pocket or money down the drain
In the Netherlands, cannabis is legally sold in cafes. Picture by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash.

Victorian Legal Aid managing lawyer of summary crime Sharon Keith said cannabis cases clogged up the courts and corrections system.

“The number of people and the associated costs of that are enormous, particularly when the likely outcome for somebody who would be arrested would be release and a fine, without any sort of interaction with support services or treatment options,” Ms Keith said.

“Compared to somebody who would be immediately linked into that support service from the first interaction. It does not make sense.”

If it was decriminalised and people were able to access treatment and health within the wider community and not in a court or police-mandated program, then you have much broader options in order to be able to access that treatment.

South Eastern Metropolitan MP David Limbrick, who participated in the inquiry, asked Ms Keith if she thought people who used cannabis to cope with mental health issues would only have those issues exacerbated by being exposed to the justice system.

“I think that at any point if you do not feel safe, if you feel that you are at risk, that you cannot safely tell people that you need to that there are issues and that this is perhaps how you are managing those issues, then I think that it could only help,” she said.

“It takes enormous courage to share when something is wrong and that you need help with something.”

A 2019 Victoria Police report submitted to the inquiry said people presenting with mental health needs and drug-related diagnoses had increased.

About 28.7 per cent of Victorian family violence incidents in 2018-2019 recorded drug use by the offender, the police submission said.

Marijuana Anonymous Australia facilitator Ange, who did not want to give his full name, said he was fearful of where decriminalising cannabis would lead.

“We’re going to have a world full of people in 20 years’ time suffering drug-induced psychosis,” Ange said.  

Ange discovered addiction at the age of eight, consuming sugar to cope with depression caused by a violent home life. 

“I didn’t know these were the conditions I was suffering from at the time because I was probably around 13, 12 years old,” he said.

In his early teens, Ange’s friends—who were also growing up under rough conditions—introduced him to cannabis, which he used daily for 28 more years.

“I lost my businesses. I lost my wife and children. I lost my house. I pretty much hit rock bottom.”

Ange lives in South Australia, where cannabis use is decriminalised, and daily use is high.

A wastewater analysis from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s National Drug Monitoring Program 2020 showed that cannabis use in South Australia had steadily increased since 2018 and was generally higher in regional areas.

The cannabis debate: money in the pocket or money down the drain
Cannabis use has increased across most age brackets. Source: AIHW report Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia released April 2021.

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Australia, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study updated this year reported. Use is increasing and had risen to 11.6 per cent of the population by 2019.

The report found that 41 per cent of Australians supported decriminalisation in 2019.

Victoria could follow in the footsteps of American states such as California, which has made more than $1 billion in taxes since the legalisation of recreational use for adults in 2018 became effective. 

Public health research and drug policy organisation the Penington Institute backed the idea of a government-regulated cannabis supply.

“The current approach to cannabis use in Victoria is not working,” the institute said in a submission to the inquiry.

Enforcement-based approaches that focus on criminalisation cost around $1.7 billion each year and have proven ineffective at reducing the availability of cannabis and levels of cannabis use in Australia.

“Criminalisation exacerbates minority over-representation in the criminal justice system, removes any possibility of product quality control and means limited opportunities exist for education about prevention and harm reduction.”

The institute made the following recommendations:

  1. The Victorian Government develops a regulated cannabis market that adopts a public health approach and that prioritises prevention, education and treatment.
  2. The cannabis regulation model adopts the following principles designed to counter current harms:
    1. Policy addressing cannabis use in Victoria is based on sound evidence.
    1. Cannabis use is treated as a public health issue, in the same way as alcohol and tobacco are treated.
    1. The focus of the approach is on protecting public health by minimising potential risks and harms.
    1. Active prevention, education and treatment are key, with a particular focus on preventing or delaying cannabis use among young people.
    1. Baseline data and ongoing surveillance and research activities are used to monitor and evaluate the impact of reform.

The inquiry is due to report back on August 5.