It’s 2 am at Victoria Park and you’re walking back from a death metal gig at The Lansdowne. You decide to lay by the glistening Vic Park pond and want to light up your last blunt as the remnants of the gig are still playing in the back, and boom, a cop clad in a trashy neon jacket shows up at your corner announcing that this shit’s illegal and what not.
This buzzkill is the reality of many blunt euphorias, where every whiff is loaded in whether there’s some police (and their loser sniffer dog), security or a party pooping, law abiding citizen out there to report you. When you look at it, it’s nothing too deep: blobs of dried up herb ready to be burnt or cooked up and invariably consumed. It’s, on its surface, not deeper than a shot of whisky on ice or a pack of nicotine on the table. The criminalised aspect of the herb can then be attested to two things — one, a lack of understanding of the safety of its bodily impact and two, a moral code embedded in the skeleton of the current legal system that decides what products, activities, and lifestyles are appropriate.
The debate of legalisation vs decriminalisation
The path to legal cannabis consumption in Australia is multifaceted, primarily divided over the argument of whether we should pursue mere decriminalisation or legalisation. While these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, as legalising processes can start with the decriminalisation of drugs, public policy spaces sometimes find themselves stuck in a limbo between the two, and which they should be working towards.
Decriminalisation means that whilst use would no longer be an offence, there would still be a chance of a person to be fined for cannabis possession and consumption (around) but no criminal conviction for the same. However, under a legalisation model, there are no sanctions or fines as products being openly sold and cultivated under government legislation.
Honi spoke to Professor Donald Weatherburn, former Executive Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, who explained that “the principle difference is that when you decriminalise something, you remove the criminal sanctions that would ordinarily apply.”
Earlier this month, NSW introduced a “two-strike” system in the build up to Labor’s overhaul of the current state Drug Law system. Under this scheme, people caught with drugs of any form might be fined approximately $400 up to two times depending on the severity of their conduct and then made to undergo a compulsory training after which their fines will be wiped out. The failure to reform behaviour after the training means that the person will have to pay the required fees.
While this system reduces the number of people charged under criminal law, by sticking to a fines-based system paired with community training, it still does not remove all of the criminal connotations and surveillance power over the communities. In ACT, where weed is currently decriminalised, smoking is restricted to private consumption at home with potential for fines over smoking in public.
Ben Mostyn is a former Legal Aid Solicitor and researcher working in the field of Drug Reform in the USA and Australia. In a system where weed is legalised, “we would fully regulate the growing and supply of cannabis. I think 21 states in America now do where you can basically walk into a shop, buy cannabis, the cannabis is regulated, you pay tax on the cannabis,” said Mostyn.
The moral compass around drugs
Cannabis legalisation and drug reform is not just a legal issue, but broadly a moral issue too. While overtly secular, the Australian legal system, like any other colonial western power, is entrenched in Christian puritanical values of morality. Legal philosophy scholar Professor Augusto Zimmerman talks about how “Christianity was included in the law of the land applicable to the situation of the colonists.” The ignorance of Aboriginal customary law happened with the slow and imperialising in interpreting “divine law” into the political and legal fabric of the country, creating stringent moral boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Let’s face it. Most of us have been around stoners. While it might be personally annoying to be around those stoned motherfuckers, life still ran fine. I do not make this argument to negate any possible health issues and safety around the consumption of drugs of any kind, but to put in perspective the way smoking weed is depicted as such a criminal catastrophe when in reality it’s a simplistic lifestyle choice.
Smoking weed in public, and as a form of socialising, is erased from the public landscape with the heavy policing of marijuana. NSW Council for Civil Liberties (CCL) member Josh Pallas agrees that the prohibition on smoking in public feeds the stereotype of police being a “fun police”. He says that “constructing a society of civil compliance subjects of the state is pretty problematic.” The way we look at public spaces then is interesting, because there is rarely any public health discourse around smoking cannabis and how we can facilitate safer spaces for consuming marijuana. Rather, we exclusively focus on removing it from the social fabric of society.
Youth culture has always been influenced by drugs, to some extent, and the criminalisation of drugs does not stop their consumption, but encourages more illicit usage. People do nangs at house parties in the backyard, cocaine lines in the bedroom, and blunt rotations on the balcony. This isn’t an isolated experience; these exchanges happen on every level and have since time immemorial. Pallas provides a civil liberty perspective, saying we should “legalise all drugs and treat them as a health issue rather than a criminal issue”.
The concept of limiting the consumption of cannabis to personal space, rather than in public, essentialises the behaviour of those who consume weed as delinquent. The chances of these delinquencies are higher when weed is stigmatised beyond the public purveyance, which functions to treat it as inherently secretive. Pallas says that we “don’t have sophisticated discussions around drug reform, considering how paternalistic notions of statehood are”. He discussed the way there is a “parochial, top-down hierarchy of moral values” in the way people operate their lives and that this extends to things like sex work, queer relationships, and protesting actions of the state. The stereotype of a lazy and unproductive stoner also feeds reluctance to regulating the recreational use of cannabis.
In 2019, lesbian, gay and bisexual people consumed more drugs (30%) than heterosexual people (16.1%) in general. These communities are then more often involved in the process of engaging with a dealer and communicating through encrypted chatting sources like Telegram, Whatsapp and Wickr to receive the goods, leading a life of further secrecy and “illicit” consumption. In the event of legalisation, these underground networks would not be present and cannabis would be sold through legitimate suppliers, supplier networks and established shops.
Ben Mostyn encourages us to imagine what a legalised landscape would look like. According to him, we need to consider ways in which weed is regulated for public consumption as this diverts focus beyond a criminal angle and what the community needs. “The selling of cannabis should be kept on a community level,” added Mostyn.
“We wouldn’t want big tobacco to get involved. We would probably try to keep it at a bit of a community level. Small coffee shops are a good option. People could probably only own one or two coffee shops. We wouldn’t allow chains to spring up. You would probably only maybe want one or two per suburb. You know, assuming it follows the same rules as cigarette smoking now.”
Why do students smoke?
USyd is a hotspot for stoners and I am always impressed by how well people escape the eye of the cameras and security. Anytime I smell some devil’s lettuce while walking past Manning around 9pm or a little puff, puff, pass happening in the dark gazebos of the Law building, I cannot do anything but laugh.
Honi conducted a survey asking students about their patterns around smoking weed. When asked about how often they consumed weed, the majority of the people (35.9%) smoked everyday and around 23% did once or twice a week. A third of respondents (33%) wanted to smoke on campus but were afraid of security, although approximately 22% had smoked on campus at times.
Whilst not included in the survey, the concerns around security and policing are more elevated for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour and queer people who consume weed in general.
About 80% of the people were fervently in support of weed being sold in cafes in different forms. Almost 45% of them were afraid of being caught when meeting up with their dealer. People who are dealers also need to remain mainly anonymous, use pseudonyms and are under hypervigilance about what they do. This illicit “dealing” can be dehumanising on many levels, especially for people who are small-scale dealers with other primary jobs and selling drugs like cannabis for extra money.
Josh Pallas describes the criminalisation of drugs as having a “homogenising effect” which “serves the end of constructing the society that it wants through prohibiting things that it doesn’t want”. Enforcing ideas of what one should and shouldn’t do, and how they should live their life permeates student communities and puts them in a surveillant environment meant to monitor their every step.
If universities are meant to be safe spaces, should they not facilitate an environment without policing?
Mostyn also focused on the problem of strip-searching of young people for weed at events and concerts, which Mostyn called a disproportionate method and “out of touch with community standards”. The campus is full of signs notifying that you’re on CCTV and being surveilled every step on the way. Students then turn to more secretive forms of having weed as the police presence deviates from its safety, providing structure and monitoring violence created by drugs, but performing violence on those engaging in an innocent consumption of drugs.
Health-based v/s crime approach
In one of the responses, a few doctors recommend patients in need of medical marijuana to get it from the “community”, meaning localised dealers, as it’s a more affordable and accessible option. A shift from crime-focused angle to a health-focused one is integral because it broadens the conversation around drugs and makes people think how we can make drug use a safer, regulated option rather than something that is inherently a crime.
When asked about why they consume drugs, most students usually smoke for a mix of medical and recreational purposes. For several people it was a social lubricant, relieved anxiety, was a muscle relaxant, regulated their periods, helped deal with panic disorders, insomnia, eating disorders and depressive episodes. In the interviews, people’s focus kept going back to interactions with the police and sniffer dogs in public places rather than the positive experiences of smoking marijuana.
Mostyn opines that “no one takes marijuana just for medical purposes, recreation plays some part in it”. And rightfully so. The supposed mutual exclusivity of two factors and taking away the factors of pleasure, fun, and socialising from cannabis means that our policy makers are out of touch with reality. According to Pallas, “all drugs should be a health issue” because there are serious health concerns around drugs like ice, cocaine, and ketamine which might induce psychosis and subsequent violence among consumers.
Cannabis legalisation in NSW is currently in limbo. The Greens introduced a Legalise Cannabis Bill 2023 to parliament in August this year, which would legalise the supply of cannabis products in all forms in the state. This bill is yet to be passed but will be incomplete without looking at ways to form equitable consumption patterns and destigmatising the product.