“Come quick! We just got an ounce from our guy. It’s. So. Beautiful. I just want to hug it.” This was a call I received recently from a close friend. If you sit within the 15-25 year old age bracket, you no doubt share a strong, unmistakably fragrant bond with many; we all have friends who are stoners, or we are stoners ourselves. And with the buds of green increasingly easy to obtain, it seems that even our beloved Government is putting in their two cents on the marijuana debate. The big question is: should we do as the Dutch do and make weed legal? Or should we continue to shake our heads and keep it under the heading of ‘illicit substances’, forever to be snuck into festivals, house parties and Brunswick cafes in the pockets and handbags of our friends?
To date, marijuana has always been classified as ‘illicit’ in Australia, as with most of the world. In spite of this, it is the most widely used drug both in Australia and worldwide. According to a study by medical journal The Lancet, consumption in Australia is three times the global average, indicating that illegality does little to deter users. The Netherlands is a rare exception to global patterns of use. The country decriminalised the sale and possession of cannabis sativa over thirty years ago in a bid to prevent trafficking of the drug and reduce potential harms to users. Regulations are still in place on the amount of cannabis which can be possessed and sold.
The primary argument against legalising marijuana is that, at the end of the day, it’s a drug and has harmful consequences. Immediate effects can include delayed reaction times, anxiety, paranoia and increased heart rate and, more seriously, potential schizophrenia. It’s also addictive and has withdrawal effects, for example shakiness and nausea. The Government believes that by keeping cannabis illegal they are sending a strong message that it is harmful and not to be indulged in, even recreationally.
Although possession, cultivation and selling of cannabis are illegal in Australia, the ACT has decriminalised possession of buds and plants, as have South Australia and the Northern Territory. People who are found to have cannabis in these places won’t go to jail, but can be fined up to $100. It’s kind of like getting a tram fine. Except cheaper. The legal consequences of possession are weak at best, and certainly not adequate disincentive for the 35.4% of Australians aged over 12 who were found to have taken cannabis in their lifetime in a 2010 survey on household drug use by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The same survey found that cannabis use increased from 9.1% of the population in 2007 to 10.3% in 2010, and that societal tolerance for the drug had increased.
In comparison, a 2009 report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that only 5.4% of adults in the Netherlands used cannabis.The system in the Netherlands clearly works. The crime rate has dropped, use of marijuana amongst locals has decreased significantly and social services are under less pressure, as people are suffering fewer drug related health problems and dealers are not being prosecuted.
Advocates for legalisation argue that, in addition to the failings of the current system, there is a discrepancy between the regulation of cannabis and other harmful substances such as alcohol and cigarettes in Australia. The effects of marijuana aren’t significantly worse than alcohol or cigarettes, and deaths resulting from cannabis are rare; significantly more so than from legal toxins. According to National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre Professor Louisa Degenhardt, alcohol accounts for 0.8 per cent of deaths, whilst tobacco accounts for 11.7 per cent. Illicit drugs collectively account for only 1.3 per cent.
However, the argument that marijuana should entail the same freedom of access as cigarettes is hindered by increasingly stringent regulations on the latter. As demonstrated by the recently passed Plain Packing law, the accessibility of cigarettes is being progressively limited due to a wide recognition of harms.
The distinction the Government currently makes between cannabis and smoking really focuses on the slippery slope into an increase of overall drug use. Cannabis is often seen as a ‘gateway drug’, in that users become disenchanted or bored with the effects and look to other, more dangerous drugs for different highs. Legalising cannabis could also encourage its consumption by people who haven’t previously taken it due to the legal disincentive, although the outcomes in the Netherlands speak against this. Tellingly, the decriminalisation of marijuana in the Netherlands has not opened the floodgates of hard drug use. The country boasts the lowest drug use and crime rates in the world for people between the ages of 18 and 25, and according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addictions, in 2010 only 94 people died in the Netherlands from drug related causes.
Taboo aside, there is little to suggest that marijuana should not be legalised. In the meantime, young people will continue to smuggle it into parties and the Government will continue to look like an overbearing parent who has lost touch with reality.