The Animal Justice Party (AJP) supports decriminalising the use of cannabis and calls for regulations to enable a lawful and safe supply. The AJP acknowledges the evidence of adverse side effects and believes education, health care access and safe regulation are essential tools in addressing this. On balance, we believe that the harm caused by criminalising cannabis is worse than the side effects of consuming it. We also support further efforts into investigating the medicinal properties of cannabis and making it available to those who may benefit, both human and non-human.
The AJP will defer to the considered opinion and judgement of an appropriate authority to decide how supply should be regulated and managed in a similar manner to tobacco or alcohol. It is vital that an independent agency be responsible for harm minimisation. Enforcement should focus on producers and suppliers and not consumers.
The AJP considers that the government response to cannabis should be based on evidence and rationality, focusing on harm minimisation and general social attitudes, rather than personal moral values. Furthermore, as a safe and resilient crop for food, textiles and other uses, the Australian hemp industry should be actively supported by the government.
The debate around the use of cannabis is hindered by a lack of robust information and, in many cases, active disinformation by advocates both for and against the drug. The AJP is guided by our Core Value of Rationality in forming a sound position on the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis and therefore supports the harm minimisation approach. This approach, as explained by the Department of Health, ‘rests on the assumption that we cannot stop all people from using illicit substances. However, while people continue to use drugs, some will continue to experience harm. Importantly however, harm minimisation is not restricted to reducing individual levels of harm. It takes a systems approach and considers potential harm to the community as a whole as well as the individual.’
Harms may involve health, personal, social and economic harms including those affecting the family and the wider community. The AJP believes that the harms caused by criminalising cannabis outweigh the harms caused by its use.
Health and personal harms
As is the case with other substances, whether or not cannabis is ‘good’ for human health is complex and nuanced. The Australian Medical Association (AMA) is of the considered position that ‘cannabis use is harmful and can lead to adverse chronic health outcomes, including dependence, withdrawal symptoms, early onset psychosis and the exacerbation of pre-existing psychotic symptoms.’ However, ‘[b]ased on current use patterns, alcohol abuse and tobacco pose much greater harms to individual and public health in Australia than cannabis’. So while cannabis can cause harm it is comparable to or maybe even less harmful than other, legal, substances including alcohol, tobacco, highly addictive prescription drugs, and processed meat.
With regards to medical benefits, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) cautions that ‘[a]t present, the evidence base for the use of medicinal cannabis products is limited’ and lists the quality of evidence supporting various medical claims. However, there is certainly some evidence for the benefits of medicinal cannabis.
A review of the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the US found substantial or conclusive evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are an effective treatment for chronic pain, reducing nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy treatment and improving multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms. The review found moderate evidence for improving the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. A recent systematic review of medicinal cannabis treatment for all major psychiatric disorders found encouraging evidence for the treatment of schizophrenia, social anxiety, ADHD, PTSD and insomnia. Another systematic review suggested that cannabis can relieve chronic neuropathic pain in situations where other treatments fail.
Both the AMA and RACGP call for further research and trials into medicinal benefits, with the AMA noting that ingestion by means other than smoking would be preferred.
Social harms; legal and economic impacts
The criminal justice system is intended to reduce unconscionable harm in society and prevent acts which are deemed socially unacceptable. Currently, while recreational use of cannabis is illegal in Australia (except the ACT), it is legal to grow the plant for medical and scientific purposes. Some low Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) hemp food is also legal. Otherwise, supplying the drug attracts criminal penalties and personal possession attracts a mix of civil and/or criminal penalties depending on the state or territory. The legalisation of personal use in the ACT is at odds with federal law. There are several overseas jurisdictions where cannabis use has been decriminalised.
The number of arrests relating to cannabis use are staggering, and the impact on individuals detained is potentially life-destroying. In 2018-2019, there were 71,151 Australians arrested for cannabis related offences and over 90% of those arrested were consumers. Being arrested and charged for drug offences may have negative financial and social consequences including job loss and losing social ties. There is also the cost of operating the justice system. For many people, the harm caused by consuming cannabis would be far outweighed by the harm caused by their arrest and associated consequences.
Some social groups are targeted by law enforcement more than others, which is known as discriminatory policing. In New South Wales, more than 80% of First Nations people with small amounts of cannabis were prosecuted through the courts while non-Indigenous people were 4 times more likely to get away with cautions. The Aboriginal Legal Service says that discriminatory policing is ‘systematic racism, perpetrated by individuals, and it is forcing, absolutely forcing, Aboriginal kids, young people and adults into contact with a criminal justice system that they will potentially never get out of again.’ Marginalised social groups are being further stigmatised with effects that may last for generations.
Meanwhile, social attitudes concerning the use of cannabis are inconsistent with the current prohibition. One third of Australians have consumed cannabis and more than 10% consumed it within the last year. This indicates that supply is strong despite the prohibition and that Australians are somewhat accepting of the drug. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019 found that more people support its decriminalisation than oppose it, with only 22% believing that possession should be a criminal offence. Furthermore, it is irrational that cannabis is outlawed where tobacco, alcohol and other drugs are not.
Offences relating to cannabis and driving are ‘out of date’ and not fit for purpose. Drivers can test positive and be charged days after consumption of cannabis, even though their performance is no longer impaired.
It must be concluded that, in relation to cannabis, the criminal justice system is not preventing but actually causing harm, and is not accurately reflecting social attitudes. This suggests that reform is required.