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Poke greed every day

Liam Donohoe considers why Australia hasn't kept up with drug reform abroad.

Image: a bong with the words 'LEGALISE ME' emerging from the cone piece. Image: a bong with the words 'LEGALISE ME' emerging from the cone piece.

On the first day of this year, California legalised the recreational usage of cannabis, in the process creating the largest market of its kind in the world. The move came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the decades-long effort to reverse the ‘War on Drugs’–California was also the first American state to institute a medicinal marijuana program, way back in 1996. In the intervening years Australian cannabis activists and stoners alike have only watched on with envy, frustration, and perhaps a measure of sadness as other jurisdictions’ laws have relaxed at a far faster rate than our own. Just this week, the NSW parliament amended their regulations of medicinal cannabis usage to improve accessibility and speed up processes, though even that update lags behind California’s initial regulations in ’96.

Anywhere between 7 and 10 per cent of the Australian population has smoked cannabis in the past year, and people our age (roughly 18-30) punch above their weight. And though those usage rates are actually a decline on ’96, public support for legalisation has certainly increased, with polling consistently showing that more Australians support decriminalisation than not. In that context, it seems puzzling that there is not more momentum to change laws that are amongst the most punitive in the Western, neo-liberal sphere.

For Dr. Alex Wodak, the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, it’s “only a matter of time” before we catch up. “Drug law reform is a slow process… [though] we actually have strong support for the regulation of recreational cannabis.” Greens Federal Senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon agrees, noting “what happens overseas will circulate down to Australia through pop culture and other mechanisms”. But despite Essential Media polling data Wodak quoted, which indicates support for legalisation exceeding 50 per cent across most demographic groups, he recognises the disconnect between the electorate and the major parties. “The battle is not between the political parties anymore, but within the political parties. Each party is looking at the polling data and making careful judgments based on how many people would change their vote on this issue”.

Dr. Wodak touches on an important point. In two-party representative democracies possessing majority support for a specific change is often not enough. In Australia, key swing electorates are often especially conservative, meaning that the cost of a change in social policy is often far greater than any benefit. “Labor are terrified of moving first on the issue and being kneecapped by the Coalition” he would suggest.

There is something troubling about this. Though Dr. Wodak seems right to suggest that the “intellectual argument has been won”, that proposition begs a further question: what mechanisms are interfering with the formation of opinion, especially in those electorates. For Michael Balderstone, the President of the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party and Nimbin HEMP Embassy, 30 years of campaigning for drug law reform has yielded a variety of answers.

“We have no bill of rights,” Mr. Balderstone began. “Australia was probably the last country the White Colonists took over and by then they worked out to give you no freedoms at all … we are totally in a legal corner.” While the legal challenges seem obvious, supporters of reform often cite the absence of citizen-initiated referenda as inhibiting reform. While there is no doubt that cannabis reform in America would not have been possible without citizen-initiated referenda, Ms. Rhiannon worries that this mechanism “can be distorted by the wealthy and powerful”, fearing with good reason that broader structures would threaten this route to change.

But whereas Ms. Rhiannon was unsure about the role police and prison groups have played, Mr. Balderstone offered reason to believe they’ve been roadblocks. “The prison guard unions were the biggest opponents of changing cannabis laws in America. There’s a bunch of opponents with their snouts in the trough who are powerful.” He would later add that while America’s Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) has “1000s of ex-cop and prison guard members”, the Australian equivalent has “just four.” It’s not just that they are shying away from promoting progressive change, however. Mr. Balderstone alleged that WA police accosted a former Seattle police chief after a speaking engagement where he promoted reform, labelling him a traitor after initiating a private dialogue under false pretences.

The media may be as much, if not more, of a roadblock. Dr. Wodak, Ms. Rhiannon, and Mr. Balderstone all agreed that representations of drug activists and users are often unfavorable. Mr. Balderstone, who was himself called “conspiratorial” by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, noted the additional influence of “religious institutions” and the education system in distorting people’s thinking on the issue. Of course, one need not accept that these groups are openly coordinating their efforts to recognize both that they often misrepresent facts and that they can convince a lot of people to believe those misrepresentations. Given this, the challenge of changing minds seem more like a fight against a structure that benefits from inaccurate education and the conservative thought that dominates key positions of power.

But if these institutions act as resistance to the swift bullet train of progress, then what Greens Federal Senator Lee Rhiannon calls the “objective conditions” ensure it never even comes close to full speed. “From what I see most people who are smoking marijuana don’t have issues with the law. They grown their own, they’ve got their dealer, or they have arrangements with friends, so for most people it’s not a big deal.”

Mr. Balderstone is also quick to emphasise the impact of this “apathy”. “We’re too rich, too spoilt, and too conservative. From what I can see the rich countries have enough money to hire heaps of police and bureaucrats and bullshit to do this stuff.”

[People] are scared to put their hand up. And fair enough—you lose your job, you lose your license, your family. Nimbin is full of that—casualties of the drug war.”

The tension between comfort and fear on the part of users mixed with misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and party politics makes for “objective conditions” that fail to inspire the “critical mass” Ms. Rhiannon thinks necessary for change. Importantly, the absence of this “critical mass” not only reflects how far Australia is from consensus on the issue. Without a critical mass people are far less likely to commit to cannabis activism, as the probable risks do not seem worth achievable rewards, dampening resistance to dominant narratives.

It increasingly looks like firms and investors will break this political deadlock, accelerating the pace of change with ostensibly convincing economic arguments. In fact, their lobbying efforts probably have something to do with the fact that reforms are at least on the agenda now. That conservative politicians are now talking about medicinal usage is, for Ms. Rhiannon, a “big step”, and, she notes, often the “first step” towards broader reform.

And yet, it is easy to see the danger in integrating tools of escape with private firms and their profit motives. Mr. Balderstone suggests that this danger is already emergent, alleging that pharmaceutical representatives are “fighting tooth and nail” to influence the Therapeutic Goods Admission’s cannabis regulations to suit their interests. The timing and choice of reform, he thinks, reflects their corporate whims. Just last Wednesday, he would go onto say, “scared and confused” asbestos victims told him that they’d have to wait 7-9 months before they can access medicinal cannabis, by which time they might be dead.

Even without collusion, however, recent history warns of what can happen when you mix capitalism, alienation, and escapist substances, a fact not lost on Ms. Rhiannon. “We need to watch out for the penetration of big tobacco and pharma.” That influence may well jeopardize the inclusion of essential policy details Dr. Wodak thinks critical to legalisation, including “consumer product warnings, health warnings, rehabilitation assistance”, and restrictions on advertising and age of access.

But while the reasons as to “why people want to support this” aren’t important to Dr. Wodak, an undue focus on economic arguments could also betray the social justice concerns that have animated many of the issue’s most committed activists. In all American states where recreational cannabis usage has been legalised, bar California and Oregon, legalisation has not been accompanied by procedures for the commutation of cannabis-related prison sentences. There does not appear to be much utility in legalisation that maintains the disgracefully disproportionate number of, say, Indigenous and low socioeconomic status people in prison. For this and other reasons, the choice between political deadlock and putting another brick in the capitalist hegemony’s wall is a tough one for many Australian stoners. Against this backdrop, left wing activist groups, especially more organised parties, seem uniquely placed to accelerate the pace of change while also securing ideal regulations.

Though ‘the Left’ makes its support for drugs clear, drug reform does not appear to be near the top of any agenda, and many of the more visible reform-oriented actions do not appear to be organized by traditional proponents of ‘direct action.’ This is curious – issues with drug reform neatly intersect many of the structures the Left wants to dismantle. Campaigning around the issue has the potential to reveal how racism, alienation, classism, and behavioral controls are embedded in the apparatus of state control and the forces of Capital As such, it seems a useful issue for the promotion of consciousness and perhaps more importantly as a touchstone for recruitment purposes.

While the question of cannabis reform has become a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, the focus now needs to be on accelerating the process and ensuring legalisation is done right. Securing that is, as Dr. Wodak suggests, “an issue for our generation.” Many of us will have to deal with the social costs that stem from drug use being painted as deviant. Many of us are already dealing with the legal costs that inhere a punitive system, especially those among us from historically marginalized backgrounds. And many of us have already paid the ultimate cost, with countless preventable deaths and injuries resulting from unsafe drugs that ought to have been regulated out of the system.

So while stoners and advocates alike may not be able to make history under self-selected circumstances, a good deal more motivation will be needed to make sure things are done right. Perhaps they should buy some sativa next time.