Australia: Legalizing Marijuana Is A Lot More Complex Than You Might Think

Photo Credit: Patrick T. Fallon

Legalizing marijuana would boost the public coffers to the tune of $3.5 billion, according to a costing of the Greens’ recently proposed marijuana legalization policy. This includes direct taxes and reduced law enforcement spending, as well as an influx of “marijuana tourists”, ready targets for fancy cannabis package deals.

This specific policy won’t get up: both major parties oppose it, as does the Australian Medical Association.

But factors like new revenue streams and increasing recognition that the “war” on drugs hasn’t worked out so well are driving marijuana law reform globally. Uruguay, Catalonia in Spain, and nine US states plus Washington DC have already legalized recreational marijuana use. Canada is hot on their heels, and New Zealand will likely hold a referendum.

In Australia, 32 per cent think recreational marijuana use should be legal. (Support for medical marijuana is far higher, despite limitations in the evidence for its effectiveness.) Given shifting public sentiment internationally, there is a whiff of inevitability. It seems likely that marijuana will, sooner or later, join the small list of socially sanctioned intoxicants in many developed countries, Australia included.

This calls for urgent community discussion.

Recreational marijuana laws in other countries are recent, so the jury is still out as to whether they will affect use rates. However, medical marijuana has been legal for much longer in some places, with evidence that it may lead to increased use. Thus, legalizing recreational use may also increase the number of people who use marijuana, at least to some extent.

Young people are the most vulnerable to marijuana-related harms. Despite the apparent increase in overall use in places with medical marijuana laws, there is no evidence that such laws increase use in young people. The effects of recreational cannabis legalization on young people and other vulnerable groups, such as people with mental illness, are not yet clear. However, to date there is no indication of increased use in vulnerable groups after marijuana law reform.

Most people who use marijuana do so occasionally, without problems. For some, the drug is less benign, causing a range of issues. About 9 per cent of regular marijuana users develop substantial problems. Increasing the population of users will likely also increase the numbers who have problems. This will in turn raise pressures on the alcohol and drug treatment system, already woefully under-resourced.

Marijuana use is linked to increased risk for mental illnesses like psychosis (although the exact nature of this relationship continues to be debated). Whether marijuana law reform shifts community levels of mental illness is not yet known. Other potential harms include accidental childhood exposure, and driving-related risks. Drug-driving is a particular issue because current roadside tests do not measure levels that cause impairment, but rather any exposure. An urgent question will be how to detect impairing levels of exposure, if use itself is no longer illegal.

Opponents of legalization have used the gateway theory of marijuana to argue that marijuana use leads to use of “harder” drugs, such as methamphetamine or heroin. There is clear evidence for a progression of drug use, with people who use harder drugs often starting with cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. However, most people who use marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs. Even in those who do, there is no evidence that marijuana is the cause.

Legalization could substantially reduce harms caused by marijuana’s illegality. It would reduce the high personal costs of criminal justice involvement for individuals and community costs incurred for policing use. Regulation of production and supply would improve control over the contents and dose of marijuana used.

Another argument in favor of marijuana legalization is that regulating and taxing marijuana would destroy the black market for the drug. Although this may be true in time, it will depend on the model adopted. If the cost of legal marijuana is too high, or the quality not sufficient, illegal supply will persist.

A major issue in the USA is “big marijuana”. This has led to a proliferation of marijuana products, including extremely potent “edibles’”, flavored products likely to appeal to children and young people, and even artisanal cannabis. In Australia, lessons from cigarette and alcohol regulation must be applied to reduce the potentially harmful influence of powerful corporate interests in an emerging legal marijuana industry.

Australia is in a great position to wait and see what happens in other countries that are legalizing cannabis before deciding on a specific model.

There are many approaches to reforming marijuana law. The question is not simply one of whether to legalize marijuana use. Ultimately, whether the overall outcome of law reform is harmful or beneficial will depend on how it is done. The devil will be in the details.