Cannabis policy: what’s next?

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the 1st international Cannabis Policy: Where to from here? workshop, hosted by the Microeconometrics Unit at the University of Melbourne.

According to the organisers, the aims of the workshop were

  • to shine a light on Australian cannabis policy within the context of international moves towards cannabis law reform
  • provide an opportunity for vigorous interdisciplinary discussion about some of the latest research findings
  • facilitate debate about Australias current cannabis policy environment

As would be expected the workshop had an economics feel, which novel for me. My background is in sociology and psychology, although I did do economics to Year 12 level at school. That helped slightly 🙂

Economic analyses that were presented included: (1) cost benefit analyses (CBA) of cannabis regulation/legalisation, both in the UK and in the Australian state of NSW, and (2) the use of household survey data from Australia analysed as a pseudo-cohort to answer questions about what might happen if cannabis were regulated/legalised.

It was interesting to reflect upon the way economists use this method to determine the balance of costs/benefits of a policy change to society at large. So, what could be seen as a benefit from the government’s perspective, increased taxes from regulating cannabis, is not counted as a benefit. Rather it is seen as a transfer (of money from individuals to government): it benefits government but taxes individuals, benefits and costs cancel each other out.

Another intriguing feature of CBA is that the benefits of drug use to the individual drug users must be accounted for if using the method as intended. Stephen Pudney noted that most CBA in drug policy are conservative in that they only consider the external costs/benefits (ignoring the internal costs/benefits). In economic terms, drug use has ‘utility’ to the drug user and this has to be taken into account to assess the true C/B of a new drug policy. I would agree!

Interestingly, using these models with their various caveats, a regulated cannabis market was of only a slight benefit to society (both in the UK and the NSW models). The group was expecting the economic benefits to be larger.

It was interesting that many in the room assumed that it was a given that cannabis use would increase in a regulated/legalised environment. Information was presented at the workshop that pointed towards the likelihood of increased use. Data in the National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicate that a fair proportion of people who have never used cannabis would try it if it were legal. But when I thought this through, I imagine that many of these people would try it but are not necessarily going to go any further. The idea that prohibition is holding back a floodgate of people from using drugs doesn’t seem valid to me.

Another problem we had was the examination of how decriminalisation of cannabis affects its uptake in Australia. Anne Line Bretteville Jensen‘s analysis of NDSHS data using a pseudo-cohort design indicated that in states where cannabis was decriminalised, people who used cannabis were more likely to try it at a younger age compared with states where cannabis was depenalised (that is, prohibited with a cautioning system). There was no evidence of greater prevalence of cannabis use solely due to decriminalising when taking into account that the states that have decriminalised already had higher rates of use.

It is concerning that such policies to decriminalise have been associated with an earlier uptake of use because earlier uptake (especially in early teens or younger) is strongly associated with greater harms.

The second day of the workshop involved some interesting presentations, including one from my supervisor Simon Lenton on the state of cannabis law reform in Western Australia and from Canadian professor Benedikt Fischer on the Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines.

Of most interest to me was the 2 hour panel discussion and participant debate at the end of the workshop. Most of us seemed to agree that some kind of regulated model of cannabis control would be optimal. Of course the devil is in the details: how would that model operate, what would it look like? What are the impediments in Australia? We discussed the international conventions and the global and local politics.

A comment that struck me as pertinent was that the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the US happened at the same time as (or perhaps because of?) the Great Depression. It is likely that we are now the midst of another world depression. Perhaps this event will have a silver lining – it may make it political possible to consider the repeal of prohibition.

Before concluding this post, I want to comment on the involvement of cannabis users in cannabis policy. One academic at the workshop made the point that when law reforms were occurring, cannabis users were not organised in a way that enabled large protests: they were largely not part of the public policy struggle. The comment could be read as meaning that cannabis users don’t care about these issues or aren’t prepared to put in the effort to protest.

However, I think that would be a mistaken interpretation. Drug users are well aware of the stigma of use and the threat of arrest. I think this is why it is very difficult for people who want to protest against prohibition to stand up and be counted. Drug researchers are in a privileged position to be able to legitimately discuss these issues in public. As an example, when I posted this conference invite to the OzStoners forum, members of the forum were interested but would prefer to be able to participate in these kinds of discussions online, where they can remain anonymous and protected. The point was made at the workshop that social media is alive with discussions about drug policy. Social media may be the bridge we need to activate protest, yet protest is still hamstrung in a prohibition environment by the need to remain anonymous.

That said, it was fantastic to see representation of cannabis users at the workshop, including Chibo Mertineit from the Nimbin Hemp Embassy and Matt Riley from Cannabis Law Reform. It was fantastic to meet these two and to have their views represented in an otherwise heavily academic workshop.

Many thanks to the organisers: Jenny Williams, Robin Room and Alison Ritter. I look forward to contributing to the next workshop which was proposed for 2 years from now.

For more on this topic, I recommend reading Cannabis Policy. Moving Beyond Stalemate which was written by participants in the workshop and the conference papers, which can be downloaded from here.

4 thoughts on “Cannabis policy: what’s next?”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting update, Monica. These type of workshops on cannabis policy are important for Australia and certainly help to bring the debate more into the mainstream, which, as we know, is where it needs to be.

    >One academic at the workshop made the point that when law reforms were occurring, cannabis users were not organised in a way that enabled large protests: they were largely not part of the public policy struggle. The comment could be read as meaning that cannabis users don’t care about these issues or aren’t prepared to put in the effort to protest.

    Another possible reason for this is that cannabis users, once identified by the police, are subject to harassment and arrest, which is why many people don’t come forward to protest. People have concerns about their jobs and family etc. and who can blame them? It would appear that many law enforcement chiefs are very zealous about cannabis prohibition and maintaining the government prohibition stance on cannabis. Academics who don’t use cannabis are not subject to the same persecution that cannabis users experience and they therefore can be more publicly vocal in their research and press articles.

    The Australian government’s “National Drugs Campaign” website is full of misinformation about cannabis. At least they are honest enough to admit that they are running a “campaign” – a prohibition campaign. I believe that a coordinated campaign effort is needed to publicly address all of the misinformation on that web site. To do this would be a public service, as well as further moving the Australian campaign for cannabis law reform in a forward direction.

    > it was fantastic to see representation of cannabis users at the workshop, including Chibo Mertineit from the Nimbin Hemp Embassy and Matt Riley from Cannabis Law Reform.

    Matt Riley is an excellent activist and, as LCI Co-Officer for Australia, keeps our group regularly informed of news on policy moves forward in Australia and is very knowledgable about all aspects of cannabis, as well as being a very nice guy.

    Thanks once again for this report, Monica!

    Jayelle Farmer
    Founder & Coordinator
    Legalise Cannabis International

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Jayelle!

    I agree. Researchers (who do not use cannabis or at least do not discuss their use) are in a different and more privileged position to people who are known to use cannabis. They have more power in the debate. However I guess what is becoming clearer to me is that this power is quite limited. Researchers don’t make the policy happen – we can only inform it at different steps in the cycle, and even then, the final decision is never in our hands and is often at the mercy of political cycles we have no control over.

    I also feel that the ‘impartiality’ of researchers is problematic. In my opinion, everyone has their views and their biases. No-one can really claim to be impartial. In fact to me, when it comes to the drug war, how can we be impartial to the plight of children… when I first saw it really hit home that we have a moral obligation (all of us) to end this ‘war’ which will bring an end to so much suffering.

    Glad you have found this site and I look forward to more discussions 🙂

  3. This is very interesting, i think a lot of benefits could come the users in the community speaking up but will not due to the current laws. If it was regulated i believe the war on crime could have a positive effect as people do not have to introduce themselves to dangerous environments to obtain the drug due to criminalization and could buy it in a safe environment. Also you can regulate the age in which a buyer can buy the drug. People could get it pure and not worry about any additives like other drugs and the potency due to hydro.
    Also the cost vs tax benefit is better than the all out cost controlling it and policing it. Yet again this puts police in danger as much; if not more as the buyers. This would also reduce the trafficking of the drug as there would not be so much money in it. This would also reduce the issue around synthetic cannibis and the effects of new substances. Cannibis is natural and been around for a very long time and that it has positive uses which can be further researched. Overall i think community would speak if we did not live in such a strict world where free speech can be used against us. I personally am a tax payer, work full time, Australian citizen. I find free speech and caring about the masses is not there anymore and government has lost touch more than ever!.. GST was a joke! That wont dissapear as it good money maker and we the community pay the price every day while jobs and products are made overseas. I am trying to get to the point. Wake up! We need a real government we believe in! Someone in touch with the community that allows feedback from the masses and suggestions to help you and us. I have lost total confidence in this government and the liberals. I do not see anyone capable of being likable. Kevin was more in touch than any before and to be back stabbed? “Just like on T.V watching you all yell at each other and then i hear this? grow up! you are not kids!”. i don’t blame him from not wanting to come back.. Look at these monkeys fight and not listening to the voice of the community such as this case. We are trying to get a government of sheltered individuals which were brought up in a world of how bad this is and stereotyped these people for so long. Are the indians criminals? Are they naturally violent? “Bet they could give you a KILLER smile though!” Has there been any study into the effects of their community and mental capability? I know users and some are smart! and use after a hard day at work and relax after how over worked we have become.. Many use this in a responsible manner, why should everyone pay the price? If they are caught miss using it like others they should be punished. If you are given a drivers licence you can do what you want? If you can buy alcohol can we drink in public and abuse it? NO! This is where we draw the line with control and detection. I think a lot of things can be solved or reduced with control! Why ban everything we do not understand?

  4. We need a bigger gathering to debate the topic. The lack of information given to the public is scandalous to say the least, criminal at best, given the science now proved Cannabis cures cancer, dementia, mends damaged brain cells and neuro pathways, to name three extremely important areas of medicine. Yet what does the public know about the science, absolutely nothing.

    Our media refuse to report any science, the refuse to report on those countries who have removed themselves from the Single Convention on Narcotics, they refuse to report on any case where the clients are fighting against the injustice of these laws, ie our 5 year fight in the Victorian courts.

    Politicians lie about cannabis, we have a group who is costing the tax payer tens of millions every year, NCPIC, who’s sole job is to ensure Cannabis misinformation is fed to the public and not one genuine piece of science sees the light of day on their sites.

    We have no lawyers who are willing to assist in the fight, they obviously are making far too much from the status quo.

    Personally I am simply angry these days, with every member of the system from the PM all the way down to the cop who came into our home, armed, who ignored our human right to use cannabis for medical and religious purpose, who stole and destroyed our food and medicine when the fight is not yet over, as we are appealing now to the high court against the decisions of the lower courts of Victoria.

    Until people stop being afraid and start standing against these laws, fight them all the way through the system and ensure that the world hears, we might as well surrender and let the tyrants lock us away for life.

    I refuse to lay down, I refuse to surrender, I will fight this battle until we have change and the change I want is.

    Legalise – Educate then Regulate and tax commercial supply.

    End this war against sick and injured people who are simply trying to relieve their pain to enable them to function as normally as possible.

    I continue to grow, possess and use daily, I will do so until I die.

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