Legalise It: The War on Weed needs to end

Drug prohibition does not stop drug use.

Art by Khanh Tran.

It is indisputable that drug prohibition does not stop drug use. Anyone who has ever been a young adult can attest that not once in the annals of history has drug prohibition succeeded.

In passing conversations with my peers and acquaintances, I was surprised to learn that many of us, though vaguely aware of the cultivation of cannabis in ancient societies, were unaware that the current, near-global blanket ban on cannabis is in fact a product of the last century.

To stand against unjust laws and systems, we must wrap our heads around the historical forces that have motivated them.

With the rise of British imperialism, Eurocentric logic has become deeply embedded in our understanding of cannabis, and indeed the frameworks of its prohibition. The prolific spread of cannabis across the globe is largely the result of European colonisation and the slave trade. In the Americas, some of the earliest users were enslaved peoples from western and central Africa. Cannabis was first brought to Australia with the invading First Fleet as a commercial crop, and was widely used for around 150 years.

So why the change of heart? Much of the global politics and legislation around substance use have been coloured by the US government’s War on Drugs. The early-to-mid 1900s saw waves of anti-cannabis sentiment, laying foundations for cannabis prohibition influenced by xenophobia and fear-mongering. The word ‘marijuana’, derived from the Mexican Spanish marihuana, shot into mainstream use during the early 1900s because anti-cannabis lobbies wanted to emphasise the foreign ‘Mexican-ness’ of the plant.

Swept in by fear and stigma rather than research and science, the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs solidified a global distaste for cannabis. Soon after, Victoria ushered in the Poisons Act, becoming the first Australian state to make recreational cannabis possession illegal. By 1959, when Tasmania passed prohibition laws, it had become criminal across all of Australia to possess recreational cannabis, drawing heavy fines and jail time.

Of course, wild cannabis continued to grow, unbeholden to the oppressive laws that governed its consumption. After cannabis was criminalised across NSW in 1935, the NSW government spent the next thirty years undertaking a (literal) scorched earth approach to eradicating cannabis, a plant that thrives in the Australian climate.

Today, weed remains illegal for recreational use, in all states and territories except the ACT, though there is limited access to medical marijuana through prescription. Criminalisation is unevenly and unjustly enforced; cannabis prohibition has become one of the many tools in the arsenal of racially-motivated policing. For anyone in Australia, the harsh penalties for possessing even a smidge of weed can ruin lives. But not everyone receives these penalties equally. 

In 2020, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that during a five-year period between 2013 and 2017, police were four times more likely to issue cautions to Indigenous people caught with cannabis than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Additionally, 82 per cent of all Indigenous people caught with a non-indictable amount of cannabis were pursued through the court system, compared to 52 per cent of non-Indigenous people in the same situation.

There are no current statistics on how many people have been incarcerated for cannabis use or possession in Australia, but recent research sheds light on the enormous social costs of cannabis criminalisation. According to the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, cannabis-related law enforcement cost Australians an estimated $2.4 billion between 2015 and 2016. While this cost area covers police, courts, prison and victims of crime, nearly half of this amount was dedicated to imprisoning people.

Despite political barriers to success, efforts to legalise cannabis have garnered significant public support across Australia. According to the 2019 National Drug Use Household Survey, 40 per cent of Australians have used cannabis. More than 60 per cent of Sydney residents want cannabis legalised.

This support is spotlighted by the Greens in their Just Legalise It campaign. Headed by Greens Senator David Shoebridge, the Just Legalise it campaign recently made headlines after obtaining new constitutional legal advice that cannabis legalisation can be achieved on a federal level, overriding state and territory laws that have controlled cannabis access for the past 90 years.

The revelation that it is possible to legalise cannabis federally opens up an exciting new door in the fight for cannabis legalisation in Australia. Federal legalisation would bypass the intransigence and conservatism of individual states and territories. And while the decriminalisation of cannabis in the ACT is certainly cause for celebration, decriminalisation has a far more limited scope than legalisation. Even with decriminalisation of possession and personal use, it would still be illegal to possess and use cannabis.

Without a continent-wide legalisation policy, the treatment of cannabis users would vary by jurisdiction and create a new dimension of systematic inequality. In their campaign explainer, the Greens argue that “without a national push the bulk of Australia might be a decade or more away from legalised cannabis”.

Of course, legalisation cannot be the end of activist work around cannabis or drug legalisation more broadly. It is impossible to end illicit drug use, so the focus must shift to non-judgemental research that seeks to understand how illicit drugs work and how to best promote drug safety.

The world cannot wash its hands of the harm caused by drug prohibition, and the lives that it has and continues to destroy. We need to establish compassionate and strong support systems for people who have been traumatised by incarceration or are struggling with addiction. At all levels of our society, people who have been incarcerated face barriers of access to housing, employment and community. The cruelly punitive nature of cannabis prohibition and the myriad ways in which these policies are felt by non-white communities show us that the criminal justice system is far from just.

While some — more affluent, more white — drug users continue to live with relative impunity, what of the thousands of people across the world who languish in prison for minor drug possession charges?

In Australia, how many of those incarcerated for cannabis-related charges are Aboriginal or from working class backgrounds? 

How many lives and futures have been shattered by minor drug charges? How many will struggle to find housing and employment because of a few grams of cannabis?

While legalisation is certainly a net positive, we must also be prepared to confront the challenges of cannabis becoming a capitalist industry run with a profit motive. Rose Delights, a cannabis brand based in Los Angeles, argues that “99% of everything visible in the world of cannabis reflects the culture of capital, not the culture of cannabis.” 

Specifically, they express concerns about capitalist cultures of tiered access and the detrimental effects of large-scale industrial production to the environment, evident in a variety of industries including cannabis. 

“It won’t be long before consumer choices are entirely in the hands of corporate power,” they say. 

“If we want to restore and give room for cannabis to define its own culture, we have to… entrust production and manufacturing to a large network of smaller, independent businesses [to] support more environmentally responsible methods of cultivation, manufacturing and retail sales.”

Cannabis, as a beloved plant and as a global movement, brings us in close proximity with a diverse range of experiences that we otherwise may never cross paths with. It gives us a unique vantage point to express solidarity with people who experience the world differently to us — policing, prisons and poverty are all issues that are intertwined with cannabis prohibition.

If the last century has taught us nothing else, we should know that the stigmatisation and prohibition of cannabis is not based in science, research, or safety. Prohibition only drives drug use underground, making it more stigmatised and less safe. The War on Drugs, and indeed weed, needs to end.