Why Is Pot Illegal in Australia?

As in other places, marijuana users and some former law enforcement officers have called for legalization in Australia, but the country is lagging behind the US when it comes to weed reform.

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Oct 21 2014, 5:30pm

Photo courtesy of the Nimbin Hemp Embassy

The medicinal cannabis debate has been at the forefront of a media debate in Australia for the past few months—as it should be, since like everyone else, Australians love themselves some weed. The 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in the country, with around 1.9 million people having used it in the 12 months prior to the report. And while the health effects of cannabis have been questioned, studies have shown that the effects of alcohol are more detrimental. Some members of law enforcement have also questioned the resources being used to enforce the laws. In other words, the marijuana debate here has gone along the same lines as it has elsewhere in the world. So why are Australia's anti-pot laws so harsh?

Former police officer Damon Adams. Photo courtesy of Damon Adams

Damon Adams is an former police officer who uses cannabis both recreationally and medicinally. Last year he ran as a candidate in the state senate for Drug Law Reform Australia, calling for cannabis to be legalized and regulated. And in his opinion there are many cops who agree with him.

“Any time you have to seize any plants, whether it's one plant or a hundred plants, it's probably one of the most time consuming jobs you can do as a cop. You've got to get it all transported back to the station and they've all got to be catalogued,” Adams said. “A lot of cops would like to see it legalized and regulated. It’s going to mean a lot more time for them on the streets to do proactive policing and go after criminals that actually have legitimate victims.”

Adams, who worked as a cop in South Australia, the first state to decriminalize cannabis in 1987, believes that the success so far of the legalized markets operating in the US states of Colorado and Washington are proof such schemes could work. He’d like to see medicinal cannabis legalized first, however, before establishing a market for recreational use.

“It's still illegal in Australia because a lot of people don't know why it was made illegal in the first place,” Adams added. “They haven't really wanted to re-educate themselves on something that they don't really know about.”

Dr. Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. Photo courtesy of Dr. Wodak

According to Alex Wodak, the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, what initially led to cannabis being made illegal in Australia was the 1925 Geneva Convention, organized by the League of Nations. The meeting was convened to consider the use of opium and coca, but when the delegates arrived, cannabis and its derivatives had been added to the agenda.

“The meeting agreed to ban the recreational use of these three plant based drugs while not interfering with their medical and scientific use,” Wodak said. “After the meeting, the Commonwealth [of Australia] wrote to the states requesting them to prohibit recreational use of cannabis. The various states enacted legislation banning cannabis over the following years. The decisions agreed under the League of Nations were subsequently included in the United Nations 1961 Single Convention.”

Wodak thinks that the prohibition of cannabis would be justified if it proved beneficial to society, but in the time that it has been illegal there's been tons of evidence to the contrary.

"The taxing and regulation of tobacco, a much more dangerous drug than cannabis, has seen smoking prevalence in Australia halve over the last 35 years,” he said. “The more dangerous cannabis is considered to be, the stronger the arguments for control by taxation and regulation rather than by outsourcing regulation to Al Capone and Robert Trimbole.”

Ben Mostyn, a lawyer and founding member of the Australian Drug Law Reform Initiative at the University of New South Wales, said at the time cannabis was made illegal in Australia, most of the population had never heard of it. In agreeing to the terms of the 1925 Geneva Convention, Australia was simply bowing to international pressure from the United States and the League of Nations.

“Basically, the Australian politicians had this attitude: Well, drugs aren't a problem in Australia, so we may as well just do what the international world order is doing," Mostyn said.

Photo courtesy of the Nimbin Hemp Embassy

Yet according to Mostyn, evidence shows that once a drug is prohibited its use “skyrockets.” This was the case with cannabis in Australia, as widespread use amongst young adults didn't occur until the late 1960s, several decades after its prohibition. The initial response was to increase penalties for personal use, but a 1977 Senate committee recommended the removal of criminal penalties for personal use and possession. This resulted in the decriminalization of cannabis for personal use in several states and territories, including the Australian Capital Territory in 1992 and the Northern Territory in 1995.

Although not decriminalized in New South Wales, Mostyn pointed out that a cannabis cautioning scheme was introduced in April 2000, giving cops the discretion to issue "cautions" to adults for possession of up to 15 grams. While only two cautions can be issued before charges must be filed, a 2011 auditor general’s report found that those cautioned are less likely to re-offend than those who have been arrested.

In Victoria, there is a similar system, where police caution people who are found with up to 50 grams of cannabis. A spokesperson for the Victorian Police Force told VICE that the department is obliged to work within the legislation.

“The simple fact is that cannabis is illegal in Victoria, and it is an offense to possess and introduce a drug of dependence to another person," they said. "Police have the ability to exercise discretion in some cases but when an indictable offense is brought to our attention, we must act and investigate.”

Hempy has been a grower and recreational smoker of cannabis for over 30 years and has recently started using it medicinally. He doesn’t grow for profit but for his own use and that of other people who need it for medical purposes. He believes it should be legal for everyone, not only the terminally ill.

“In a social and recreational aspect, it's less harmful than anything else. I just see it as a plant. It’s free. People should be able to grow it. People should be able to use it,” Hempy said. “The medical benefits for it are phenomenal and if you look at it seriously, even recreational smoking is a medical thing because it's a preventative.”

Though he lives in relatively weed-friendly South Australia, Hempy says that the government is actually cracking down more on users, underscoring the need for some serious legislation on the state or national level.

“The fines are getting bigger and punishments are getting worse," he said. "They’ve gradually increased since 1987 to a point where it's really oppressive,” he said. 

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