Today’s news that Labor senators have watered down recommendations from Victoria’s Senate Inquiry into cannabis laws seems like bad news. But scratch below the surface and there’s still plenty of cause for optimism, says Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen.

The inquiry into the use of cannabis in Victoria published its report today. An Age article this morning, which pre-empted the publication of the report, revealed that Labor senators had ambushed the inquiry at the last minute to remove some of the most progressive recommendations from the final document.

Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen

Choosing to harm young people by refusing to consider evidence-based drug policies is nothing new. All politicians tread a fine line between doing what they know is right and maintaining their personal and political power. So, a compromise was reached. And in that compromise, the nonsense of Australian drug policy is laid bare.

Recommendations to legalise recreational cannabis were watered down by the same Labor senators who had previously contributed to their drafting. Instead of recommending the government ‘introduce a framework to legalise’ cannabis, the report recommended the government ‘investigate the impact of legalising’ cannabis.

By not recommending a new policy framework, Labor senators were able to justify scrapping four other related recommendations, including that, once cannabis is legalised under the ‘recommended framework’, people with historic convictions for minor cannabis offences should have their records expunged.

The criminalisation of cannabis is a scourge on society that must be addressed, with or without recreational legalisation. The report reveals that cannabis use and possession charges represent 41% of all minor drug offence charges in Victoria. Between 2007 and 2017, Victorian magistrates’ courts dealt with 23,340 minor drug offences that only involved cannabis. From 2017 to 2018, Victorian police made 9,760 cannabis-related arrests, 90% of which were for simple possession and consumption.

Predictably, the police and the LNP are opposed to broader cannabis decriminalisation. But it is disappointing to see the Victorian Labor Party argue for these unjust laws to be retained.

Perhaps Labor politicians have been listening to bad advice. For example, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Glenn Weir, who argued that illicit cannabis cultivation and trafficking causes significant harm to young people, and that’s why we should reject policies like decriminalisation and legalisation, that would reduce illicit cultivation and trafficking. You can’t make this stuff up.

But that’s enough doom and gloom for now. In case you missed it, the watered-down version of Recommendation 1 still concludes that the Victorian government should investigate the impacts of legalising cannabis for adult personal use in Victoria, including home-grow and non-commercial sharing. That’s big news.

Better yet, Recommendation 2 is that the government should “consider referring an inquiry to the Victorian Law Reform Commission to investigate state and Commonwealth laws inhibiting the introduction of a legalised and regulated cannabis market, including social clubs”.

“Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Glenn Weir… argued that illicit cannabis cultivation and trafficking causes significant harm to young people, and that’s why we should reject policies like decriminalisation and legalisation, that would reduce illicit cultivation and trafficking. You can’t make this stuff up.”

You might remember the Victorian Law Reform Commission from their pivotal role in the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia. It was the VLRC report that formed the basis of the Andrews government’s move to legalise medicinal cannabis, in the absence of Commonwealth action, back in 2015. The Commonwealth basically lost a game of legislative chicken with Victoria and was compelled to legalise medicinal cannabis at the federal level.

So, now the inquiry has concluded and the report is published, what’s next? The government has six months in which to respond. If the LNP win the state election in November, this report is dead in the water. If Labor are re-elected, however, there are a few possible outcomes we might expect.

The government could flat-out reject most of the substantive recommendations, in which case nothing much would change. Or it could accept them ‘in principle’ and fail to take any action.

Alternatively, the government could accept Recommendation 1, and begin the process of ‘investigating the impacts of legalising cannabis’. This could take the form of another Senate Inquiry, the convening of a drug summit, an interparliamentary working group, or some other process. Any of these would take a few years to execute and report back.

In this situation, it seems likely the government would also take up Recommendation 2 and ask the VLRC to explore how legalisation could be done at the state level in the absence of changes to Commonwealth laws. This would be the trickiest part of any state-led legalisation initiative.

The curse of Federation would make state-led recreational legalisation just as hard, if not harder, than medicinal legalisation. But medicinal legalisation set a precedent – it is possible for states to go it alone on drug law reform and, in doing so, force the hand of the Commonwealth.

In the two-to-five years it takes for this hypothetical scenario to play out, popular support for legalisation is likely to continue growing. A majority of Australians will support legalisation within five years. This will be further boosted by what happens overseas.

In 2013, no-one in the world had legal access to regulated recreational cannabis. Today, some 170 million people across Canada, the USA and Uruguay enjoy that right. The future is uncertain, but some trends are very clear. For Australia, it’s only a matter time and determination.