The Penington Institute has backed Green Party proposals to legalise cannabis in Australia after insisting prohibition has allowed the illicit market to thrive and prevented a public health-led approach to dealing with drug misuse.
But the organisation stopped short of endorsing the current plans, suggesting online sales should initially be banned in a legal market while high-THC strains should be discouraged.
The broad aims of the bill were praised, however, with the institute calling it an “important step forward in Australia’s gradual recognition of the failure of cannabis prohibition and the advantages of a regulated adult-use cannabis market”.
“While Penington Institute neither endorses nor rejects passage of the Legalise Cannabis Bill 2023 in its current form, we strongly endorse the development of a legislative and regulatory framework for the implementation of a legal, regulated adult-use cannabis regime,” it said.
“The common thread is our preference for a model that prioritises public health
and favours a cautious approach.”
Althea also came out in public support of the bill, arguing that jobs, tax revenue and economic growth would all flow from a regulated legal market.
Backing for Senator David Shoebridge’s bill follows opposition voiced by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) who argued legalisation would send the wrong public health message.
Conversely, Penington Institute believes an end to prohibition would benefit public health by bringing cannabis use out of the shadows.
“Like it or not, drugs are a part of every society. It would be naïve to think otherwise and cruel to ignore it,” Penington Institute chief executive John Ryan wrote in the body’s submission to the Senate Parliamentary Inquiry into the Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023.
Outlining its general support for the bill, Penington said: “Cannabis prohibition doesn’t work: it fails to control supply, leaves the market in the hands of criminals, and costs billions of dollars in enforcement, all while hindering a public health-led approach to managing the health harms that are associated with problematic cannabis use.”
But further debate is needed, it added, with Penington using the submission to recommend amendments to the Greens’ bill.
They include a ban on online sales during the early stages of a legal market, with the institute citing concerns over the “potential for delivery to underage consumers, the potential ease of exceeding purchasing limits, and the potential for relatively rapid market concentration by dominant online sellers”.
“[Online sales] may disrupt the managed planning of a retail outlet sector,” the submission said. “In Canada, consumers have reported difficulty distinguishing between licit and illicit online sellers, and the illicit market has increasingly moved online.”
It also questioned the Green’s pledge to ban the participation of tobacco and alcohol firms in a legal cannabis industry, arguing that while the aim was “laudable, it would be ‘difficult in practice’ to enforce.
Rather than blanket exclusions, Penington recommended that any future regulator of a legalised cannabis industry should conduct a “fit-and-proper persons test” that would examine the merits of their involvement.
Other amendments suggested by Penington included regulations to discourage the use of highly potent products. That could involve purchase limits, providing training for dispensary employees and strict penalties for inaccurate label information.
In addition, the strength, packaging, form and purchase limits of edibles should be carefully controlled, with Penington warning of an “established link” between products with a candy-like appearance and hospital admissions for children.
Providing greater assistance for indigenous and other disadvantaged communities and considering alternatives to the proposed 15% tax levy were also areas that should be addressed, the submission said.
“The Legalise Cannabis Bill 2023 represents an important step forward in Australia’s gradual recognition of the failure of cannabis prohibition and the advantages of a regulated adult-use cannabis market,” it added.
“We applaud the bill’s presenters for their determination to move Australia towards a regulated model and view many features of the bill as sensible and responsive to both consumer preferences and harm-reduction imperatives.
“However, we also recommend amendments to ensure a coherent, flexible cannabis regime that prioritises public health and safety for both individuals and the broader community.”
Meanwhile, Althea Group also publicly backed the plans, saying it “proudly and unequivocally supports The Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023”.
Jobs, tax revenue and economic growth would all emerge from a legal industry while eliminating the need for an underground illicit market, the ASX-listed firm said in its submission.
“We firmly believe this legislation presents an opportunity for economic progress and innovation while ensuring responsible regulation.
“We stand ready to contribute our expertise to foster a thriving, well-regulated, cannabis industry that benefits all Australians,” it added.