A feature for The Vine. Excerpt below.
A Guide To Cannabis Law In Australia
“Marijuana Use Most Rampant in Australia,” read a New York Times headline in January 2012. Cannabis – marijuana, weed, pot, hash; whichever other name you prefer – remains the most widely used illicit substance in Australia today by a big margin. Approximately 1.9 million Australians aged 14 years and over have used cannabis at least once during the past year; more than a quarter of a million smoke cannabis every day, according to data compiled by the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC). Keep in mind, too, that these figures were taken as part of the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey; plenty more users were either unaccounted for, or chose to lie about their drug usage, so the true figures are probably even higher. This reality can be viewed one of two ways, depending on your personal politics.
Either: it’s great that so many Australians enjoy the occasional puff, as its illegality is an arbitrary hangover from conservative generations past, and its negative effects are significantly less serious than those incurred by alcohol abuse or tobacco addiction.
Or: it’s outrageous that so many Australians smoke up, as cannabis is a devil weed whose availability should be pushed further underground lest its psychological and subversive effects further corrupt otherwise sensible citizens.
Illicit drug use is not a topic that attracts moderate views. Weaned on the powerful moralising of media sensationalism, political cowardice, and harsh words from the police force, many Australians are raised to believe that drugs are bad; the province of losers and law-breakers.
Progressive views are slowly prevailing across the Western world, though, as many realise that the Nixon-led ‘war on drugs’ – which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 – did very little to break the cycle of power, violence and addiction that has forever plagued illicit drug culture. (For a succinct primer on the topic, my brother Stuart McMillen recently published a 40-page comic, ‘War On Drugs’, which outlines why drug prohibition hasn’t worked.)
Immediately following the 2012 Presidential Election results in November, cannabis users worldwide rejoiced at the surprising news that two states in the war-on-drugs heartland, Colorado and Washington, had voted to legalise recreational use under state law. Colorado users will be able to grow up to six plants; in Washington, users will buy from state-licensed providers, and the sale of cannabis will be taxed and regulated, much the same as alcohol and tobacco already is. If you’re over 21, the drug will be legal to sell, smoke and carry – as long as you don’t drive while high.
Australian pot smokers wondered whether they might see a similar decision – if not soon, then at least in their lifetimes. TheVine snooped around on your behalf, with a view to determine Australia’s current cannabis laws on a state-by-state basis and look to its future legal status.
Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, points out that Australian states don’t have ballot initiatives like the one that led to the recent weed votes; in fact, most US states don’t. “Australia will not see ballot initiatives on taxing and regulating cannabis like Colorado and Washington states,” Wodak tells TheVine. “Our cannabis reforms started in the 1980s in South Australia. We have had two decades of creeping liberalisation of our cannabis laws at the state/territory level. I think this process will accelerate now, but that it will still take a couple of decades before Australia taxes and regulates cannabis in all states and territories.”
Legal weed in Australia? “It’s now inevitable,” continues Wodak. “There are so many contradictions and issues undermining cannabis prohibition. Sooner or later, the bosses of one or the other major [political] parties will realise that it is in their interest to get there first. But all social policy reform is slow.”
To illustrate, Wodak points out that 2012 is the 40th anniversary of South Australia becoming the first state to begin reducing the emphasis on the criminal law in relation to homosexuality. Jailing someone on the basis of the sexuality is a social policy that looks completely abhorrent and archaic nowadays. “I might be wrong,” he says, “but I think taxing and regulating cannabis will be slow to happen in Australia, and we will first go through many stages of watering down our criminal laws.”
So what is the current state of Australia’s cannabis possession laws? The answers might surprise you. As The New York Times put it earlier in 2012: “The prevalence of marijuana use in Australia is widely accepted, if not openly condoned, and at least three states have moved to decriminalise the possession of small quantities for personal use.”