Some of the Most Conservative Corners of Regional Australia Support Legalising Cannabis

From Dickson to New England, here's how some of Australia's most conservative electorates feel about cannabis.

The legalisation of cannabis was once an issue condemned to the wings of radical progressive politics. As conservative leaders continue to rail against its legalisation, sentiment among the broader Australian population is shifting—markedly. Now, even the most conservative pockets of regional Australia are warming to the idea. 

Earlier this month, the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released new data that showed attitudes towards cannabis legalisation have shifted exponentially over the last decade, with 78 percent of Australians surveyed in support of the decriminalisation of cannabis possession. 

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The data, which compared community sentiment toward cannabis, tobacco, alcohol and other illicit substances between 2010 and 2019, emerged as part of the results of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which is conducted every three years. 

The results published this year paint a striking portrait of Australia’s changing perceptions of cannabis—and other illicit substances. Most striking of all, perhaps, is how those attitudes have started to shift throughout some of the nation’s most conservative regions.

In the Queensland seat of Dickson, for instance, which is currently held by opposition leader Peter Dutton, the survey’s results suggest a community sentiment at odds with the law and order fanfare sold to the nation in parliament. 

There, those who think cannabis should be legalised make up 40 percent of those surveyed in the electorate, nearly double the cohort who felt that way in 2010. 

Criminalisation of cannabis possession in Dickson is steadily losing support, too. Only 18 percent of those surveyed there said they supported criminalisation, down from the 35 percent who did nearly a decade earlier.

What’s more: Nearly two thirds of those asked said they’d prefer police take no action at all—at most, though, a warning would suffice. 

In National Party strongholds across New South Wales and in Queensland, the prevailing feelings among voters share a similar throughline. 

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In the NSW seat of New England, which covers Dubbo and Broken Hill and is held by former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, support for cannabis legalisation has more than doubled over the last decade. 

As with Dickson, a shrinking set of Joyce’s constituents think cannabis possession should be a criminal offence, while a firm majority of 51 percent agree that police should only issue a warning to those caught with the drug.

In the Queensland seat of Maranoa, held by Joyce’s National Party leader successor David Littleproud, the same is true again. There, as many as 44 percent of those surveyed threw their support behind legalising cannabis, up from the 20 percent who did so in 2010. 

A smattering of other conservative electorates have seen outsized movement on the issue as well, even if only at an incremental pace. One of them is the seat of Hume—held by shadow treasurer Angus Taylor—where less than a third are in favour of the criminalisation of cannabis possession, and more than a third think it should be fully legalised. 

In response to the survey’s findings, Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council CEO, Professor Scott Wilson, said progressive legislative movement on the issue seen overseas could be impacting the way Australians perceive the consumption and regulation of drugs.

“As a society we've received messages that there's medicinal uses of this product, so I think over time that's helped get the general public to change their attitudes to cannabis use,” he said.

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But the shifting sentiment isn’t lost on all policymakers. 

In the Australian Capital Territory, legislators have moved to enshrine a flurry of progressive health policies into law, in response to calls from harm reduction advocates and community feedback. 

Ultimately, it’s state and territory governments that have most power on the issue anyway. That was the advice given by ACT health minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, to other governments interested in following a similar path, after Canberra opened its doors to Australia’s first fixed-site drug testing facility earlier this month. 

The program was a fixture of the territory government’s 2021 budget handed down in October last year, and adds to a flurry of recent harm reduction efforts mounted by the ACT government over the last few months. 

Most recent among them were new “personal possession” laws, which will see those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs like ice, heroin and MDMA, soon escape criminal charges. 

Like the results of the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey, the ACT’s recent crop of harm reduction policies lagged far behind the progressively shifting perceptions of drugs across the territory, which showed support for legislation like this years ago. 

It could be many more before state and federal law makers around the country follow suit. 

Follow John on Twitter.

Read more from VICE Australia.

Tagged:

Cannabis, Drugs, Australia, NEW ZEALAND, Politics

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