A growing body of evidence from overseas could inform Australia’s recreational cannabis laws, says UNSW’s Dr Vendula Belackova.
Discussions about legalising recreational use of cannabis have circulated in and out of public debate this year. With the ACT legalising cannabis cultivation for personal use, a change in regulations in other Australian states and territories might be around the corner.
But which model of recreational cannabis regulation would suit Australia best?
We have a growing body of data and knowledge to lean on from studies in the US, Canada, Uruguay, the Netherlands and Spain, just to name a few.
What is the status of recreational cannabis legislation?
Most Australian states and territories currently use de facto police diversion schemes for recreational cannabis possession, which means that people who are deemed eligible (e.g. first or second-time offenders, caught with a small amount of drug only) can avoid criminal proceedings.
Police diversion schemes position cannabis use as a health or social issue rather than a criminal one. These schemes generally see police referring first-time offenders to education or treatment instead of arrests for simple possession.
The benefits of such a scheme include reduced burden and cost to the police and criminal justice system.
However, with de facto measures, as opposed to decriminalisation by law, the caution is at the discretion of police. They aren’t required to offer a diversion to everyone caught in possession of cannabis and can opt for a criminal charge instead.
A downside of de facto diversion is that cannabis use and possession remain a crime and there can be inequalities in the use of police discretion.
Illicit vs fully legalised – two ends of the spectrum
The production, distribution and sale of cannabis for recreational use remains illegal throughout Australia.
Besides medicinal production, the circulation of recreational cannabis comes from the illicit market.
There are harmful consequences when the illicit market controls cannabis production, such as increased criminal activity, increased access by young people and no quality control, meaning no opportunity to manage impacts on physical and mental health.
On the other end of the spectrum, in the US, there is a full-legalisation model, which sees commercial, profit-driven production of cannabis in a private market setting. This has been implemented in 19 states and the District of Columbia to date.
Commercial legalisation can look appealing to both business and consumers and offers taxation revenue possibilities.
But commercialisation does come with some risks. We should consider government interventions like bans on advertising or plain packaging so as to not increase cannabis consumption.
Canada also embarked on a regulated model four years ago. As opposed to the US, no major increases in cannabis use have been observed there so far, but it’s too early to draw conclusions.
Non-profit model – a middle-ground option
Illicit and fully legalised markets both essentially operate as for-profit, in which players have incentives to maximise revenue via increased cannabis consumption. They might also supply cannabis that is cheaper to produce, but riskier to consume (e.g. containing pesticides or other adulterants). But cannabis law reform could embrace a middle ground option involving a non-profit, consumer-centred model.
The non-profit model involves restricted cannabis supply and regulation, which has the potential to undermine the illicit market and in turn promote the health of people who use cannabis while not increasing consumption.
The non-profit model includes cannabis social clubs, for example in Spain or Uruguay. These are private co-operatives collectively cultivating and distributing cannabis for each member’s personal use. There is no advertising to the public or the members, and only existing users have access. It is reported that there are now cannabis social clubs in 17 other countries, with each varying its approach in the specific legal and policy context.
Cannabis social clubs not only circumvent illicit production, they also offer public health benefits by providing members with information on safer use.
A non-profit model which sees the operation of cannabis social clubs is worth exploration by policymakers considering recreational cannabis reform.
What’s next for cannabis policy reform in Australia?
From tolerated personal use to regulated and fully commercialised legal markets, there are various policy choices for reforming cannabis laws.
A survey from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare shows more Australians support cannabis legalisation than those who oppose it, and also that support for removing criminal sanctions towards cannabis might be on the rise.
There is room for improvement in our recreational cannabis policies and it’s now up to the decision-makers whether they choose to assess alternative options based on the evidence available.