In the second of a two-part series, Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen examines the models around the world for legalising recreational cannabis and what they might mean if applied in Australia.
Let’s assume you’re someone who believes we should legalise cannabis for recreational use. Or you might prefer the terms ‘social use’ or ‘adult use’.
You might already have a clear idea about what legalisation looks like. And if you do, that’s probably based on what you’ve heard about or seen in other places that have already legalised cannabis, like California or Canada.
The idea of walking into a swanky, upmarket venue where you’re greeted by a smiling employee ready to inform you of today’s specials might appeal to you. Or maybe you’ve always dreamed of turning your family farm into a high-tech cultivation facility.
On the other hand, you might not have a pre-conceived notion of what legalisation looks like. You might simply believe – as do 78% of Australians – that the possession of cannabis should not be a criminal offence. Or you might support people’s right to use cannabis in principle, but have reservations about commercialising it.
The point I’m making here is that ‘legalisation’ is not a generic, well-established, pre-made policy that can be turned on like a light switch. Legalisation does not automatically mean party bus tours or billboard advertisements.
There are a whole bunch of different ways to regulate cannabis. One useful way to think about these approaches comes from a publication by John Caulkins and colleagues. In this diagram, broad categories of cannabis regulation are shown on a spectrum. On the left is one extreme – the status quo, but with more people going to jail. On the right is the other extreme – commercial legalisation without regulation.
In between are a bunch of viable alternatives, each of which could be implemented in any number of different ways. The approach most pro-legalisation Australians would be familiar with is the second from the right – the ‘standard commercial model’. Hardly ‘standard’ as it includes a bunch of US States and Canada, each with their own unique features and quirks, but moving on…
The variety of these options can make legalisation debates confusing. But it is important to remember that what ‘legalisation’ looks like is not set in stone. In terms of a potential Australian cannabis framework, everything is on the table. Theoretically speaking, at least.
Theory is great but, in practice, what type of cannabis framework is most likely to be implemented in Australia? Looking at that diagram, I reckon we can discount the models that would require the government to get their hands dirty cultivating or dispensing cannabis themselves.
In some places in the US and Canada, State/Province governments already ran liquor stores, so they ended up running cannabis stores. But direct public ownership is, to put it mildly, unfashionable in Australian political circles. We don’t do it with alcohol, we didn’t really end up doing it with medicinal cannabis (that’s another story), and I don’t think it’s likely with recreational cannabis either.
We can also probably rule out the Dutch model, where illegally grown cannabis sold through store fronts is tolerated by the police. That was a compromise born out of necessity, and unlikely to be repeated.
One plausible scenario is that, should cannabis be legalised, a strongly regulated private sector dominated by a few, large companies would do the heavy lifting in terms of cultivation, manufacture/packaging, distribution and retail. That could occur in combination with strictly limited personal cultivation, but that’s not guaranteed.
This might include limited, specialist store fronts; no public consumption; age restrictions; a ban on advertising; plain packaging; potency controls; daily purchase limits… I’m basically just imagining the New Zealand framework but more conservative, probably without consumption venues, and complicated by State/Territory variations.
The upside of this approach is that it facilitates easy retail access to a wide variety of products, and potentially generates a lot of economic value. Store fronts, employees, businesses etc. The downside is the commercialisation of cannabis, and all the potentially nasty stuff that brings. Cannabis companies – like all for-profit companies – have a vested interest in selling more products to more consumers, which isn’t always a good thing.
For medicinal cannabis patients, the commercial legalisation of recreational cannabis might have additional drawbacks. In Canada, many companies threw their time and energy into the recreational sector at the expense of patients. And lingering issues such as the unfair taxation of medicinal cannabis products are still unaddressed.
The New Zealand model (if it had been implemented) might have navigated some of those issues. But there are other possibilities that don’t require massive countervailing regulations to keep a recreational cannabis industry in check.
Legalising the consumption, possession, and personal cultivation of cannabis is one alternative. And the ACT has shown us that, so far, this is a modest step with no obvious downsides.
In the 12 months since the ACT decriminalised cannabis, we have not yet seen any increase in hospital admissions, drug-driving offences, rates of cannabis use, or organised crime. Police and the courts have saved time pursuing low-level cannabis offences. And people have been able to grow and use their own cannabis.
But not everyone has access to an appropriately sized plot of land. And I for one can’t even grow dirt. So clearly this framework can be improved on. We could also legalise the non-commercial sharing of cannabis. Or even allow people to form not-for-profit organisations that cultivate on behalf of their members.
These kinds of cannabis ‘social clubs’ are widespread in some parts of the world, most notably in Spain. The advantage of this approach is that it facilitates access to the kinds of cannabis products and services most appropriate for members without introducing commercial incentives.
A club comprised mostly of members living in the middle of the city could cultivate somewhere rural and send cannabis to members through the post (this already happens with medicinal cannabis shipped to patients from pharmacies, so it’s not as wild as it sounds). Another club based out of Mullumbimby, for example, might prefer to not only cultivate closer to home, but have a community space for members to socialise and use cannabis together.
Cannabis social clubs tend to do a surprisingly good job of regulating themselves in the absence of a formal legal framework because they are comprised of people who are accountable to each other. You wouldn’t spray harmful pesticides on your neighbour’s veggie patch, and you rely on your fellow club members to behave in a similarly supportive fashion. But we could also build as much wrap-around regulation as we want or need. It’s all up for debate.
I’m not necessarily saying that cannabis social clubs, or the New Zealand approach, or whatever’s going on in Colorado, are better or worse than each other. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of NZ. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed visiting the US and Canada and can totally see the attraction of various North American models.
The bottom line for me is this: commercial legalisation can appear (to the public, politicians etc) quite risky. There are some potential downsides for medicinal cannabis patients. Designing and implementing a commercial framework is time consuming and difficult. And it would probably be impossible without both Commonwealth and State/Territory support.
On the other hand, non-commercial legalisation of some kind is already in place in the ACT. Building on that model would be comparatively easy. And there’s nothing stopping the other States and Territories from following suit. It’s a quicker, simpler, less contentious approach. And who knows, down the track, we might commercialise cannabis as well. That’s not off the table.
But this is all just my opinion. What do you think?