Penington Institute CEO John Ryan has said prohibition of adult use cannabis is unfair, ineffective and economically unsound and doctors have a role to play in reducing its harm.

Launching the harm-reduction organisation’s second Cannabis in Australia report, Ryan said the country’s prohibition model means “we leave ‘quality control’ for [its] production, composition and distribution… largely to criminal gangs, whilst punishing people who use [it] with criminal sanctions”.

Penington Institute CEO John Ryan

Based on roughly 218 million occasions of cannabis use and 66,000 cannabis-related arrests per year, Penington estimated that for every 10,000 times the substance is used in Australia, there are only three arrests.

Ryan noted that the risk of encountering law enforcement is “clearly ineffective” at preventing people from consuming cannabis, and urged Australia to emulate the growing number of countries implementing alternative models to regulate its use.

“By shifting from a criminalisation model to a regulated framework, we could see economic development, job creation in regional Australia, and substantial tax revenue to fund treatment and prevention of harm programs,” he said.

Writing in the foreword to the report, Ryan said around 90% of all cannabis-related arrests between 2011 and 2021 were for the possession of small amounts. 

“Law enforcement related to cannabis alone costs Australia $1.7 billion annually – money that could be far better spent tackling serious crimes,” he said.

“The economic value of a legal and strictly regulated framework could vastly exceed expenditures on law enforcement, as has already happened in Canada.” 

Meanwhile, the report flags a steady expansion of the medicinal cannabis sector, although affordability and a lack of knowledge among healthcare professionals continue to hamper access.

Ryan said: “Access to medicinal cannabis has steadily increased in 2023, more than doubling the previous year’s tally. Penington Institute estimates Australians spent approximately A$210 million on medicinal cannabis products in the first half of 2023.” 

Penington board member and specialist in addiction medicine Professor Nicholas Lintzeris said the growth was indicative of the untapped potential of the medicine in treating various health conditions, including cannabis use disorders.

“A prescription for medicinal cannabis allows medical professionals to engage patients about their health; monitor potency, dosage, and frequency of use; and offer products free from toxic contaminants found in illicit cannabis,” he added.

Ryan agreed healthcare professionals should be encouraged to use medicinal cannabis as a harm reduction tool.

“For people who are heavy or dependent cannabis users, a prescription means a medical professional engaging with them about their health, including dependence issues,” he said. 

“Prescribing cannabis with medical supervision also reduces the harms caused by the ongoing criminalisation of non-prescribed cannabis.” 

Ryan said despite the growth in prescribing of medicinal cannabis, most features of the Australian cannabis landscape held steady in 2023, and contrasted that stability with the “ongoing surge” of reforms in the US, Canada and Germany.

However, he warned Thailand’s approach should send a signal to other countries to tread carefully when it comes to adult-use regulation.

“Thailand is an unusual case that proves the importance of carefully considered reforms,” he said. “The emergence of a legal grey zone last year resulted in a rush of mostly unregulated cannabis commerce, which is now in the process of being reined in.”

Prior to launching Cannabiz, Martin was co-founder and CEO of Asia-Pac’s leading B2B media and marketing information brand Mumbrella, overseeing its sale to Diversified Communications in 2017. A journalist...

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