World has left Victoria behind on drug reform

Despite the Andrews government’s best efforts, it’s a topic that is not going to go away. Drug reform, including the legalisation of marijuana, has been debated in Victoria for many years. In 1996, then Liberal premier Jeff Kennett set up a drug advisory council and was supportive of decriminalising the use of cannabis, only to be overruled by his own party.

In more recent times, Fiona Patten, who just lost her seat in the state’s upper house, led a two-year parliamentary inquiry into cannabis policy. The majority of evidence from Australian and international health and legal experts to the inquiry favoured decriminalising cannabis for personal use. However, some experts, along with Victoria Police, opposed such a move, arguing the drug can exacerbate mental health problems, antisocial behaviour and road trauma.

A shift on cannabis policy is unlikely in the foreseeable future despite evidence presented to the inquiry.Credit:Reuters

While Patten pushed for the report to recommend legalising cannabis in Victoria, pressure from Labor resulted in it being watered down, with it finally proposing the government “investigate the impacts of legalising cannabis for adult personal use in Victoria”. Despite the setback, earlier this year Patten introduced a harm minimisation bill, intended to end the war on drugs in Victoria by diverting users or possessors to education and treatment programs instead of the criminal justice system.

But even before the bill hit the floor of parliament, Treasurer Tim Pallas quashed the idea, declaring that “our position is we have no plans to decriminalise”. He went on to add: “Decriminalising dangerous drugs sends the wrong message and won’t help Victoria recover and rebuild.”

For a government that is often described as “progressive”, and has championed such policies as supervised injecting rooms and voluntary assisted dying laws, the decriminalisation of marijuana was not a line they were willing to cross in the same year they would face an election.

And yet, for all of Labor’s efforts to shut down the debate, one of the big surprises of the recent election was two candidates from the Legalise Cannabis party, Rachel Payne and David Ettershank, being elected to Victoria’s upper house. Both attracted strong voter support in their districts, which eliminated the need for preference deals to get them over the line.

Rachel Payne and David Ettershank, who are both members of the Legalise Cannabis Party, have been elected to the Victorian upper house.Credit:Simon Schluter

While the two new members will have limited political sway in the upper house, the Andrews government is likely to be put under increasing pressure to reconsider its opposition to drug reform. New upper house member Georgie Purcell, from the Animal Justice Party, and Liberal Democrat David Limbrick have also backed legalising cannabis, as do the Greens, who now hold four seats.

The recreational use of cannabis is illegal across Australia, although minor offences were decriminalised in South Australia and Northern Territory many years ago, with fines replacing criminal convictions. In 2020, the ACT went further down the decriminalisation path, allowing adults to grow up to two plants at home and possess up to 50 grams without penalty, but it is still illegal to buy or sell cannabis.

Multiple countries – including 21 states in America, Uruguay, Spain, Malta, South Africa and Canada – have taken the next step and legalised the personal use of cannabis over the past decade. But as the Patten report details, there is no one-size-fits-all model. While no country takes a free-for-all approach, the level of regulation and associated public health measures can differ a great deal.

In Canada, the government has introduced regulations that allow for the use, supply and sale of cannabis. In Spain, it’s illegal to cultivate cannabis – although people are rarely charged – but the law does allow for the establishment of cannabis social clubs, where the drug is grown collectively and distributed to members for personal use.

In 1998, Victoria Police introduced a new program to divert adults charged with use and possession of cannabis offences away from the criminal justice system. Under the program, if an adult is found with no more than 50 grams of marijuana, and no other offences have occurred, police have the discretion to give a person up to two cautions rather than a criminal charge. They can also be directed to attend a drug education program. In many respects, this was the state’s first tentative step towards the decriminalisation of the recreational use of cannabis. Little has happened since.

Meanwhile, in countries such as America, legalising cannabis is now supported at the highest levels of government. It has taken many years of lobbying and a growing acceptance that the old “war on drugs” was no longer viable. In the US, it proved expensive, ineffectual and too often targeted minority groups. There are certainly some parallels of this experience in Australia.

When Kennett proposed decriminalising cannabis use, it was probably before its time. Victoria is now well behind on drug reform and there are many more steps that should be taken.

That may eventually lead to legalisation and will take time. Any change should be accompanied by a range of measures that help minimise the potential harmful impacts of cannabis. There are now many nations proving that the benefits of reform far outweigh the drawbacks and from which we can draw valuable lessons. Let the discussion begin.

Michael Bachelard sends a newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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