Is Australia Ready To Legalize Marijuana? Not Yet, It Seems

Photo Credit: Peter Parks

For a brief moment on Monday, marijuana users rallied around a proposal from the Greens party to legalize the drug’s use for recreational purposes in Australia.

But those hopes were quashed the next day, as Greg Hunt, the minister for health, said the government would oppose the plan. Marijuana, he said, was a gateway to other drugs like methamphetamines.

“Our job is to protect the health of Australians,” he said on Tuesday. “This action by the Greens risks the health of Australians.”

Here’s what you should know about the marijuana debate in Australia.

How might marijuana legalization work?

The Greens plan envisions a government-regulated system in which a newly created agency would act as wholesaler, buying marijuana from farmers and selling it to licensed shops. The proposal would also allow adults to grow up to six plants for personal use. And it would ban purchases by those under 18, and prohibit advertising of the product.

As with alcohol and tobacco, cannabis sales would be taxed. Revenue would go to the federal budget to fund education, treatment and harm-reduction programs.

“Quite simply, the war on drugs is really a war on people,” Richard Di Natale, the party’s leader, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We need to get real about cannabis use in Australia.”

What’s the current situation in Australia?

Possession of marijuana for recreational purposes is illegal in Australia. It’s the most widely used illicit drug in the country. According to a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in 10 Australians have used cannabis in the last 12 months.

In some states, like the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and the Northern Territory, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been effectively decriminalized, with offenders facing civil penalties like fines and being ordered to undergo counseling.

In other states, like New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, police officers often issue warnings to those facing minor drug charges, with offenders diverted to education programs.

Cultivating, selling or transporting marijuana, however, can incur criminal charges anywhere in the country.

“If somebody is found with small amounts of cannabis for personal use, the primary response for me isn’t a law enforcement response, it’s a public response,” says Professor Steve Allsop of the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University. “Putting people into the criminal justice system creates harm.”

In 2016, Australia legalized marijuana for medicinal use. But patients say that they face steep challenges trying to obtain the drug, including limited supply, uninformed doctors and high costs.

Worldwide, where is marijuana legal?

Currently, marijuana is only fully legal in a few places: Uruguay and parts of the United States. In Uruguay, which became the first country to legalize marijuana in 2013, it’s even sold in pharmacies.

But dozens of other countries have relaxed their marijuana laws over the years, legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing recreational use or easing the enforcement of possession laws. Argentina, Cambodia, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Peru and (somewhat surprisingly) North Korea are just some of the countries that don’t criminalize marijuana use.

One notable example is Portugal, where the use of all illicit drugs was decriminalized in 2001 and drug users are mainly sent to treatment programs or fined. Since then, the country’s prevalence of HIV infection, drug-related imprisonment and overdoses have dropped.

Jamaica, a country long associated with marijuana and Rastafarianism, also recently relaxed its laws around marijuana possession in 2015.

So will Australia’s marijuana laws change?

For now, Australia’s government says no.

And being careful and conservative in legalizing marijuana might not be such a bad thing, Professor Allsop said.

“If you legalize a form of drug use — once you’ve done that it’s very hard to go backwards,” he said. “There should be carefully evaluated steps to change rather than a great leap into the unknown.”

It’s unlikely the issue will go away, particularly since legalization has the support of a major political party like the Greens. Professor Allsop, who supports a model like that of Portugal’s, says the push to see drugs as a public health issue seems to be gaining momentum over the long term.

“I think there is an appetite to do that,” he said.