How Australia Can Legalise Recreational Weed Within Five Years
With the help of some legal experts we created a five-year plan.
This article is part of Weed Week: an examination of marijuana's persistent status as an illegal drug in the lead up to 4/20.
It's 2017, and while lawmakers around the world are realising recreational pot will raise tax and reduce crime, Australia's politicians are not. We're making leaps and bounds on medicinal marijuana because, you know, medicine, but the idea of pot-for-pleasure is still coated in stigma. So how can we get past that? How can we solve every part of the problem, starting with legislation and ending with social acceptability?
To find out, we asked lawyers, academics, lobbyists, and a former political advisor. Then we took their advice and bundled it all together to establish both the problems and solutions. Here's what we came up with:
One: it's All About Numbers
The first thing a politician calculates, on any issue, is whether their decision will play well to their voters. To be convinced, they need the numbers to show a high level of public support. That means getting an organisation like Roy Morgan to organise public polling that shows the people of their electorate aren't going to crush them at the next election for taking a bold position.
Once politicians see there is public support for an idea, the next thing the idea needs is a dollar value. Dollars talk, and they speak loudest when backed up by economic modelling from a group with credibility, like global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. What they would need to produce is an inch-thick document with a short, 150 word executive summary and a table outlining how much money a government could make from taxing and regulating weed. To be safe, it would also be worth pointing out how retail sales of recreational marijuana in Colorado hit $1 billion in 2016 and the state is making a killing in tax revenue.
Two: the Law Needs Changing
Each state has some version of a Controlled Substances Act, which basically lays out what happens if you're caught with different quantities of different drugs. The first step in making pot legal for fun and profit is to delete those sections that deal with cannabis. Then you'd need to pass that amended bill with a vote in both houses of parliament. That's the easy bit.
Three: the Hard Bit
It's easy to sit on a porch somewhere, or a beach, and talk about how great it would be if weed was legal and no one worried about getting busted by cops, who in turn caught more murderers or found more missing persons. But what no one talks about is the half-century of written law that would need an overhaul once the Controlled Substances Act was amended.
"It would take a total rethink of a lot of the criminal laws that exist," said Casey Isaacs, a criminal defence lawyer and partner at Caldicott Lawyers. "Once you make it legal, it affects drug driving laws, it will affect a lot of the provisions of the Sentencing Act."
This was also the first thing that Rachel Shaw, a criminal defence lawyer and a partner with Shaw and Henderson said.
"Transport, packaging, posting it in the mail—all of these things have to be considered," she said. "At the moment, the legislation is all about what you can't do, but my suggestion is that you create a law about what is permissible, what you can do."
Dealing with this is not impossible, but the nightmare scenario is just pushing delete without doing anything else. This would create a whole new Wild West of weed production and sale, almost overnight, with no one from judges down to the cops knowing what to do about all the boring, technical stuff.
Then there is the bigger picture stuff like health. Smoking weed also means inhaling burning plant matter, just like tobacco. Selling too many brownies to fresh 18-year-olds who don't know better is going to send them to the emergency room. Just like tobacco and alcohol, weed will need to be taxed, controlled, and made uncool.
And then there is the environment. Hippies may have given weed an environmentally-friendly vibe, but if left unchecked, the actual production of weed can be landscape-scarring, energy-sucking, water-draining and wildlife-killing, just like any other industrial operation.
Both Casey and Rachel suggested that the best way to deal with this is to let medical marijuana do the heavy lifting. Medical marijuana raises all the same issues as decriminalising recreational pot, and places like South Australia and Victoria have recently reformed their medical marijuana law. These could later be expanded to include recreational weed.
Four: Weed Needs a PR Overhaul
For politicians, and a good chunk of the public, there is something dirty about weed. Weed is the drug of the lower classes. Bikies grow it. Unemployed people smoke it. It's a gateway drug. It also hasn't helped that, traditionally, the loudest voices in support of decriminalisation don't look like they've got their lives together.
"Old clichés die hard," said Nola Ries, Associate Professor of Newcastle Law School who specialises in health law. "Advocates for change certainly need to deal with the arguments from the opposing side, whether it's coming from the police or healthcare providers."
Most of all, weed needs to be boring. And that means having a spokesperson who looks professional, has a stable nine-to-five and doesn't believe in conspiracy theories. This person would be a politician, someone who was elected to the upper house of state parliament as an independent, or a member of a minor party, who could put pressure on the government by building a broad coalition. They would need to stand in front of TV cameras and answer questions. They would be the ones to help write the new laws and build support.
In Canada, this role was filled by the eye-catching Justin Trudeau. In Colorado, it was reluctantly filled by Governor John Hickenlooper, who had originally started out saying that recreational pot was a terrible idea, along with every other politician in the state.
Five: Get the Pitch (and Timing) Right
Since Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten won't be fighting for legal pot any time soon, it's going to be the states who move first. The most obvious candidate is South Australia, given its laid-back attitude to minor possession and its recent medicinal marijuana reform.
It also helps that there is money to be made. Opium poppies, the stuff morphine is made from, is a major cash crop for Tasmania which supplies half the world's demand for medical opiates. Weed could do the same for South Australia, a state facing the decline of its traditional manufacturing base.
So far South Australia has been looking at risky strategies like fracking and nuclear dumps to keep money coming in, and recreational weed, by comparison, seems like an easier sell. All it needs to get started is a bipartisan inquiry in the Legislative Council looking how to expand medical marijuana laws to include recreational use. As that played out, the whole idea of legal weed would end up being seen as obvious, uncontroversial and most of all, dull.
But under no circumstances should this happen before the 2018 state election. With Cory Bernardi prowling around, making recreational weed a controversial, partisan issue would kill the idea immediately, derailing the whole thing in the same way marriage-equality was derailed.
If this can be avoided, and South Australia were to get it right, by 2023 other states would start looking for their cut of a huge new industry. The hard work will have been done, and anyone else interested would be left with a risk-free copy and paste job. After that, the dominos would fall as other states signed on and Australia could end up cornering the market on a cash crop with global demand.
And right then, we might just find ourselves standing around and wondering aloud about why we hadn't done it sooner.
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