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The politics of pot

Ed Miller reports on the push for marijuana legalisation in Australia.

Illustration by Aimy Nguyen. Illustration by Aimy Nguyen.
Illustration by Aimy Nguyen.
Illustration by Aimy Nguyen.

I was introduced to illicit drugs by a yellow giraffe named Harold. Inside a dark trailer parked across our handball courts, Harold – a hand puppet – delivered stern counsel to my year four class: stay away from weed.

Young and impressionable as we were, Harold didn’t care too much for details. Cannabis, he told us simply, would lead to impaired development, mental health issues, and – in what I can only imagine was a nod to the teachers present – poor academic performance.

The public debate on the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana has not exhibited a great deal more sophistication over the last fifteen years. Drug reform is one of many issues in Australia where ideology plays as much of a role as scientific evidence, and public attitudes are as important as expert opinion. But the increasing number of jurisdictions around the world taking steps to legalise and regulate the production and consumption of medical and recreational cannabis may herald an inevitable change in Australian law.

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Possession and use of marijuana is considered a criminal offence in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania. That’s bad news for the 700,000 Australians for whom marijuana use is a weekly habit. According to the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household survey, cannabis is the most widely used drug in Australia. 36 per cent of Australians have tried marijuana at least once in their life. 26 per cent of 17-year-olds have lit up.

Those statistics should make us pause. Criminalisation is meant to roughly reflect a society’s condemnation of certain behaviours, yet sometimes laws get out of sync. Imagine if copyright infringement suits were actually brought against every Australian who illegally downloaded the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Our legal system would be unable to handle it. What then, is the purpose of a law that, if enforced, would punish the one in three Australians who have found weed acceptable enough to try themselves?

That is a question that Graham Askey, the National Secretary of the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party, would like answered. “The current laws are unfair to everyday Australians and this idea that decriminalisation is a sufficient answer is complete bullshit,” argues Askey. “Something either has to be banned or not banned. Alcohol prohibition in America was an example of decriminalisation and it didn’t stop the drinking at all, it just ensured more dangerous alcohol and funding for organised crime.”

It’s not just micro-parties that are pushing for reform. Last year in NSW, a cross-party Parliamentary Enquiry unanimously endorsed the legalisation of medical marijuana. Askey tells me he was expecting a 4-3 split but was pleased when it was announced that the LNP members added their votes to the recommendation. “The right wing parties usually want to look tough on crime,” he tells me with a hint of irony in his voice. “If you’re a drug dealer in this country, you vote for the Liberal party. Prohibition is the business model of criminals.”

There is growing support outside the sphere of politics as well. A survey done by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that medical cannabis has 69 per cent community approval. There is growing consensus within the medical profession as well, with a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that in the hypothetical case of a 68-year-old woman with advanced cancer, 76 per cent of clinicians would recommend medical marijuana.

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There are of course, genuine risks associated with legalising marijuana. Studies have shown that even casual use can physiologically affect the part of the brain that controls feelings of motivation and desire. Studies have linked use of the drug to the development of mental illnesses in those who were genetically predisposed to them. There is always the possibility that legalisation and acceptance of marijuana will make it easier for more people to get their hands on it, and that it could act as a gateway to more dangerous substances.

These are all risks that demand consideration and balancing, not prohibition.

22 American states have legalised medical marijuana, with Colorado and Washington permitting recreational usage. Portugal, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are signatories to the same prohibitionist drug treaties as Australia, and yet have used the discretion afforded by those treaties to either decriminalise or legalise marijuana.

The war on drugs has failed. In 1998 the UNODC adopted the slogan, “A drug free world, we can do it!” In the last 40 years the US is estimated to have spent $1 trillion dollars, and incarcerated 500,000 people. Since 1998 global opium production had increased 103 per cent, cocaine production had increased by 20 per cent and cannabis production had increased by 36 per cent. The purity and potency of each drug had improved significantly at a street level. This failure can’t be ignored when considering the future of Australia’s policy settings.

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I haven’t smoked a lot of weed. The few occasions I have, it has made me sleepy, hungry, and peculiarly aware of my contact lenses. These aren’t tremendously enjoyable effects. But I understand that for many, smoking pot is a means to curating emotional and psychological experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. We all do this in some way. When we listen to music in the car, or eat leftover Easter chocolate for breakfast – we’re trying to steward ourselves to a heightened sense of pleasure. Sure, doing so may distract us from traffic conditions or cause us to be overweight, but that’s a trade-off we’re ultimately allowed to make for ourselves.

Answering the question “how should we regulate drugs” speaks a lot to one’s perspective on freedom. Is freedom an inherent right that the state has to justify taking away, or is it freedom only a licence granted by the state that can be offered on their terms? If this is the debate we are having, then we should have it.

H.L. Mencken said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins.” Too often drug users are painted as irrational victims of addiction, rather than rational individuals freely shaping their conscious experience of the world. Their subjective experience of drugs isn’t included in the policy calculus of leaders who are trying to do the right thing. “There’s still a real stigma for us who smoke weed,” Graham tells me, “but when you think about it, there are far worse things you could do with your time.”