IT DIDN’T take long for the government to launch a scathing attack on a new plan by the Greens to legalise recreational marijuana.
The party’s leader Richard Di Natale unveiled a new drug law reform policy yesterday to decriminalise the drug for adults in Australia, saying those convicted of drug use had to live with a criminal record that hurt their ability to get jobs.
In an interview this afternoon, Senator Di Natale told news.com.au the current approach to drugs had been a “dismal failure” and forced “seven million ordinary Australians” to deal with criminals.
He has now revealed that he wants Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to adopt the Greens’ policy position then “take it to the Australian people”, perhaps in the form of a plebiscite.
“I’d be very confident of success,” he said. “I believe we’d win, absolutely.”
“This is pushing the profits into the pockets of criminal syndicates and gangs, so it makes their choices riskier, it gives them the possibility of a criminal record and that prevents them from job opportunities in the future,” he said.
“It’s a dangerous choice because we’ve decided to allow the criminal syndicates to control this market rather than taking it away from the dealers and putting it in a tightly controlled health framework.”
The government, meanwhile, has spent the past 24 hours attacking the plans.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has been the most vocal critic, telling Sky News today the Greens’ initiative that legalising “gateway drug” would create physical and mental health problems.
“Marijuana is a gateway drug. The risk of graduating to ice or to heroin from extended marijuana use is real and documented,” Mr Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.
“We do not believe it is safe, responsible or something which should be allowed.”
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Hunt said the Greens’ cannabis policy would mean it was “open slather for a highly dangerous and addictive drug”, which he said was also a “gateway to even more dangerous drugs”.
“At the very time the world is facing an opioid crisis, the Greens want to give a blank cheque for another deeply addictive and dangerous drug,” he said last night.
“The ridiculous Greens argument that we should give unrestricted access to drugs that are prohibited applies equally to ice and heroin, and should strike fear into the heart of every parent.”
Senator Di Natale countered that the war on drugs had failed.
“As somebody who has worked as a drug and alcohol doctor, I have seen the damage this ‘tough on drugs’ approach is doing to people,” he told news.com.au.
“It’s time we changed.”
And if this all sounds a little ambitious from the minor party, Senator Di Natale insists it is anything but.
“The public is way ahead of the politicians on this,” he said. “Polls have consistently shown that Australians would like to see cannabis taxed and regulated.
“Only a small amount of conservatives oppose this. People have been overwhelmingly positive on this, but some politicians like Greg Hunt choose to deliberately misrepresent the evidence and our policy.
“They resort to the same old falsehoods conservative politicians trot out every time it comes to having a sensible conversation.
“Greg Hunt fears having an adult conversation about this because he is on the wrong side of it.
“This is something which is happening right now.
“Millions of Australians are buying a substance of unknown quality and they are buying it from criminals who want to boost their profits and will be pushing dangerous substances.
“Cannabis, like all drugs has the potential for harm — relative to alcohol it is actually a safer drug — but people are already making these choices.
“Would you rather it was drug dealer selling them it or a trained professional?”
He says cannabis has been selectively bred to eliminate a component called CBD — which he says actively prevents psychosis — and dealers are creating strains that are more harmful.
“This is not promoting or condoning its use, but accepting that people use it and putting it in a more regulated environment,” Senator Di Natale said. “Criminals are the biggest losers if cannabis is regulated.”
THE GATEWAY DRUG ARGUMENT
Senator Di Natale says the “gateway drug theory” is nonsense and a “falsehood” that has been peddled with no evidence.
“However, if you have weed in the hands of black markets then there is a tendency by dealers to push consumers towards more dangerous and lucrative substances,” he said.
He believes that those in opposition of drug regulation are taking a moral stand — but he argues they “ignoring the current reality” — which is that people like to smoke weed in Australia and have done for decades.
WHAT THE GREENS WANT TO DO
The Greens want to redefine cannabis as a legal substance, with licences issued for its production and sale.
A national agency would be established to issue those licences and oversee regulations.
It would also act as the single wholesaler for cannabis — buying cannabis from producers and selling it in plain packaging to retail stores.
Up to six plants could be grown for personal use.
And, has Senator Di Natale tried cannabis himself?
“Yes, I am one of the seven million Australians who have tried cannabis,” Mr Di Natale said. “But unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale.”
Although experts have found consistent links between cannabis use and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, there is differing research over whether it causes the disorders or triggers a pre-existing vulnerability.
A report by University of NSW psychiatrist Matthew Large found cannabis use was associated with an earlier age at onset of psychotic disorders.
“The use of cannabis and other illicit substances was associated with an earlier age at onset of psychotic disorders,” he wrote in 2011.
“The results of this systematic review and meat-analysis represent strong scientific evidence for an association between substance use, particularly the use of cannabis, and an earlier age at onset of psychotic illnesses.”
However, the negative health impact of the drug have been described as minimal in the world’s most comprehensive study into marijuana which was released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
After examining more than 10,000 scientific abstracts dating back to 1999, the extensive 395-page report unearthed more than 100 conclusions about the health effects of recreational and therapeutic cannabis use — many of which support arguments it should be legal.
“The evidence suggests that smoking cannabis does not increase the risk for certain cancers (i.e., lung, head, and neck) in adults,” one of the findings read.
The Greens leader, a former drug and alcohol doctor, pointed to a recent poll showing 55 per cent of Australians believed cannabis should be regulated and taxed like alcohol or tobacco.
He expects the plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, helping fund treatment, education and other harm reduction programs.
Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm said his party had long-held the position of legalising marijuana, criticising the 80,000 cannabis-related arrests each year.
“This is an appalling waste of Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force resources to the tune of almost $100 million a year,” Senator Leyonhjelm said, citing Parliamentary Budget Office costings commissioned by his party.
Crossbench Senator Derryn Hinch also backed the Greens’ push, saying “you’d ban alcohol and cigarettes” too if the argument was that it’s bad for you.
Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, welcomed the announcement.
“Banning cannabis hasn’t reduced its use or availability, yet it has distracted police from following up more serious crimes, harmed a lot of young people and helped make some criminals rich,” Dr Wodak said.
Our country is slowly taking steps to change its stance on weed, with Victoria becoming the first state to legalise marijuana for young children suffering from epilepsy, while NSW also allows use for patients suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.
Queensland’s laws are the most flexible in the country, which grant patients of any age or suffering from a range of illnesses access to medicinal cannabis products.
While the use of medical marijuana is a step in the right direction, we also need to be talking about legalising it for recreational use, which would bring us on par with a number of countries across the world.
In January, weed was made recreationally legal in a number of US states including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington DC.
This brought America in line with Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Greece, parts of India, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Myanmar, Netherlands, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uruguay — all of which have made recreational weed use legal or decriminalised.
— with Matthew Dunn and AAP