RESPONSE TO CONCERNS

VICTORIAN PARLIMENT CANNABIS REGULATION DEBATE

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Introduction

It was extremely heartening to hear the openness expressed by the major Australian political parties towards the decriminalisation of cannabis in Victoria, and more broadly throughout Australia. There already exists strong support for the movement from a number of minor parties including the Animal Justice Party, The Libertarian Party, and of course the Legalise Cannabis Party Victoria. 

Comments made by the Labour government with respect to cannabis legalisation stated that they wish to “improve health and social outcomes of Victorians”. Similar comments were made by the Liberal government and those sentiments are laudable and based on valid concerns and desires.

As such we will now present evidence and reasoning that will show that these concerns are unfounded and as such should allow the process of legalisation of cannabis to continue swiftly to improve the lives of the Australian people. 

In fact, the benefits of legalisation are numerous and they include financial benefits, social benefits, fiscal benefits, judicial benefits and economic benefits. We will detail all of these benefits in another paper, as this one is about addressing concerns of the risks that may be associated with legalisation. 

Legalising Cannabis leads to a reduction in alcohol use, particularly binge-drinking

The harms that are associated with alcohol are numerous and the consumption of alcohol in Australia is widespread. It is intertwined with many social and cultural activities. Harmful levels of consumption are a major health issue, associated with increased risk of chronic disease, injury and premature death. In fact, there were 1742 alcohol-induced deaths in Australia in 2022, while also consisting of 42% of treatment episodes treated in publicly funded alcohol and other drug treatment services. But still, consumption of alcohol sits at 10 litres per capita. (Alcohol Overview, 2023) 

Additionally, alcohol is associated with approximately 30% of fatal crashes on the road in Australia. (Understanding Road Safety Statistics, 2023) 

We are not arguing for more restrictions on alcohol consumption, however alcohol is a useful analogy when considering full legalisation of cannabis consumption as it is a product used for recreational purposes, just as cannabis is and will be if full legalisation occurs. 

Research has shown that full legalisation of cannabis has reported binge-drinking by up to 20% (The Public Health Effects of Legalizing Marijuana, n.d.). This would mean that we could potentially save almost 350 deaths per year that are related to alcohol in Australia if we allowed for full legalisation of cannabis!

Not only that, but when people consume cannabis rather than alcohol, we also get a reduction in street violence and fewer alcohol-related admissions to hospitals.  

People consuming less alcohol leads to less violence in the streets and less alcohol-related admissions to hospitals. In 2019-20,  alcohol-related injuries resulted in just over 30,000 hospitalisations (118 per 100,000 population) accounting for 5.7% of all hospitalised injuries (Alcohol-Related Injury: Hospitalisations and Deaths, 2019–20, Summary, 2023)

Cannabis legalisation and increased use of cannabis, particularly underage use

One of the major concerns stated during the parliamentary session was that legalisation would increase cannabis usage, and send “the wrong message” to the public, particularly the public that condones cannabis use. 

It must be firstly stated that it is much easier for underage people to access cannabis now than it would be if it were made legal. The prevalence of black market dealers who do not discriminate based on age means that it’s actually easier for underage people to access cannabis than it is to buy a pack of cigarettes!

Research has actually shown that recreational cannabis laws in the United states have led to an 8% decrease in the odds of cannabis use among high school students and a 9% decrease in the odds of frequent cannabis use (Association of Marijuana Laws With Teen Marijuana Use New Estimates From the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, 2023)

And importantly, research out of Colorado has shown that cannabis legalisation does not create a heightened risk of cannabis use disorder, or cannabis addiction (Marshall, 2023).

Legalising Cannabis leads to a reduction in legal opioid use

When people use fewer legal opioids for pain there is a significant reduction in related deaths and hospital admissions as well as significant increases in quality of life. Opioid use was found to be reduced by 78% in a Canadian study (Cannabis Significantly Reduces the Use of Prescription Opioids and Improves Quality of Life in Authorized Patients: Results of a Large Prospective Study, 2021).

A study in the United States in 2019 found that cannabis use was linked to cessation or decreased opioid use in more than 40% of adults using opioids for pain (Substitution of Marijuana for Opioids in a National Survey of US Adults, 2019)

The evidence demonstrates that cannabis has utility for reducing opioid use in patients that are utilising it for pain by providing a genuine alternative. This can help ensure that situations such as the horrible opioid crisis in the US in the 1990’s are not repeated.

Legalising Cannabis leads to less use of tobacco

Tobacco creates numerous health problems and reducing its use leads to better health outcomes for people. A study on tobacco sales in Washington State found that legalisation of recreational cannabis led to a 12% reduction in demand for tobacco (The Public Health Effects of Legalizing Marijuana, n.d.).

We are all aware of the harms associated with tobacco usage, and even with all of the medical literature confirming the harms associated with it, it is still legal to purchase cigarettes in Australia. We can assist the downward trend in tobacco smoking by allowing a legal cannabis industry to be formed. 

Legalising cannabis leads to lower rates of suicide, particularly among men

Legal cannabis makes it easy for vulnerable people considering suicide to self-medicate, particularly when they don’t want to seek direct treatment with a medical professional for their suicidality. In fact, it can also be noted that cannabis use can make an individual more comfortable with seeking out to seek treatment for suicidal thoughts (Effect of Cannabis Liberalization on Suicide and Mental Illness Following Recreational Access: A State-Level Longitudinal Analysis in the, 2021)

Legalising cannabis provides large economic boosts to the agricultural sector, the manufacturing sector and the retail sector

Canada has added tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to its GDP since recreational cannabis was legalised in 2018. By 2021, the cannabis industry had added $43.5 billion to Canada’s GDP as well as 151,000 jobs (An Industry Makes Its Mark – The Economic and Social Impact of Canada’s Cannabis Sector, n.d.)

The economic benefits extend beyond just doctors, pharmacists and product companies and include many people in rural areas. The farming landscape in Oregon was transformed by legalisation, with the positive effects reported as being diversified and increased income, leading to improved economic viability; increased local cash flow and the creation of new businesses; improved communication between food and Cannabis growers; increased property values; and the possibility of improved safety with the demise of “illegal grows.” (How Has Cannabis Legalization Affected Small Farms So Far?, n.d.)

Legalising cannabis creates jobs, boosts tax revenue and investment opportunities

In 2021, Washington State collected $559.5 million of legal marijuana revenue, over $85 million more revenue than 2020 (The Economic Benefits of Marijuana Legalization, n.d.). Washington had a population of 7.7 million people in 2021, compared with 25.7 million people in Australia. It is not unreasonable to expect that the potential economic benefits for Australia would be proportionally increased from those that occurred in Washington state, meaning revenue of over $2.8 billion Australian dollar could go into the budget.  

In Colorado, the cannabis industry has produced 38,337 jobs as of January 2022 (McIvor, n.d.). The population of Colorado is only 5.812 million people, and so it can be reasonably assumed that Australia, with a larger population of 25.69 million could expect to see 169,455 jobs in the industry. 

According to Magnify Money, 43% of investors they surveyed have at least one cannabis-related stock or fund (McNair, 2021). Expanding the size of the industry would mean that Australia would attract a significant amount of investment which would further boost the economy. 

Legalising cannabis reduces crime

Recent research has shown that legalising marijuana reduces violence and trafficking associated with the illegal drug trade thereby reducing the power and wealth of organised crime (How Marijuana Legalization Would Benefit the Criminal Justice System, 2020). The illicit market of cannabis is estimated to be worth $1.2 billion with an estimated 85 tons of illicit cannabis per year being traded in Victoria alone! 

It is abundantly clear that legalisation will reduce crime rates associated with cannabis, which are significant. For example, in 2019-20, there were 76,669 cannabis arrests in Australia (How Many Cannabis Arrests Are There Each Year in Australia? :: The National Alcohol and Drug Knowledgebase, n.d.). Additionally, In the three years to June 2019, there were 11,498 people sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria for simple possession of cannabis and there were almost 13,000 smuggling attempts detected in Australia between July 2019 and June 2020 (CANNABIS IN AUSTRALIA: TECHNICAL REPORT, 2023)

Legalising cannabis increases real estate prices

One of the most effective methods there is for gauging community acceptance is to investigate the impacts on real estate prices. This is also of significant concern in Australia, where significant amounts of wealth are stored in real estate. There is a perception that legalisation of cannabis may harm real estate prices and make people want to move away to other places, however research actually shows the opposite effect. 

Between April 2017 and April 2021, property values rose $17,113 more in states where recreational marijuana is legal, compared to states where marijuana is illegal or limited to medicinal use (Ortegren, 2021). The study actually found that legalisation led to higher real estate prices and significant amounts of new tax revenue.

Cannabis legalisation leads to fewer mental health treatment admissions

One of the concerns that was raised by parliamentarians and also the AMA with respect to legalisation of cannabis was that it would negatively affect the mental health of people. However, a new study published in Health Economics, found that there was a 37% decrease in mental health admissions following a state’s legalisation of recreational cannabis, particularly for individuals under the age of 65 (Siegfried, 2023).

A study published in JAMA found that there was no statistically significant difference in the rates of psychosis-related diagnoses or prescribed antipsychotics in states with medical or recreational cannabis policies compared with states with no such policy (State Cannabis Legalization and Psychosis-Related Health Care Utilization, 2023)

General comments

It is a reasonable concern that people have in the potential for cannabis legalisation creating potential harms in the community. However, a deeper analysis will find that the harms of not legalising cannabis are actually higher. 

As an example, black market products can be less safe than regulated products since the producers do not have to comply with safety standards or other good cultivation or manufacturing practices. Additionally, it should be noted that legalisation tends to shift cannabis consumers to much safer forms of consumption, away from smoking and towards consumption methods such as ingestion and topical. Lastly, legalisation of cannabis also reduces levels of alcohol consumption in society, which is known to create a significant amount of harm. 

Full legalisation of cannabis will mean that society is able to restrict access to those above 18 which will make it more difficult for underage people to be able to access the product. A sensible set of regulations will also include requirements for cannabis to not be stored where children can access it, to prevent accidental ingestion by minors. 

The economic potential of legalisation is also quite significant. However, we require coordination between the federal government and state governments as excise taxes can only be applied at a federal level. However, since the State governments are responsible for health and education, much of the tax revenue generated from a legal cannabis industry should flow back through to the states so that it can be spent on beneficial programs such as hospitals, diversion programs and education.  

Additionally, there will be a dramatic economic boost through a reduction in costs associated with policing and charging cannabis users, as well as increased economic participation for people that will no longer have criminal records for accessing cannabis. 

It is important to also consider amnesty programs that can bring black market operators into the legal space. Those who are currently part of the illicit cannabis distribution network tend to have a strong knowledge of the industry which could potentially contribute to solving the known human capital issues in the cannabis industry in Australia. It should also be noted that the greatest societal benefits of cannabis realisation can only come into effect when the black market is outcompeted by the legal market. Therefore, significant efforts should be made to move people into the legal sphere, which can be most swiftly achieved through an amnesty program. 

If instead, we go forward in baby steps, where we go for decriminalisation first, we will give free reign to illicit cannabis distributors and make it more difficult for the legal industry to outcompete them. We must not repeat the mistakes made in other jurisdictions where cannabis legalisation has allowed black market operators to thrive and instead we should seek to give the legal industry every advantage over those who wish to operate outside of the law. The black market for cannabis in Australia is many times bigger than the legal market and that will only change with a sensible cannabis legalisation policy that would create a scenario where people can make more money operating legally than by continuing to operate illegally. 

Even though the AMA has come out against cannabis legalisation thus far (AMA Submission: Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023, 2023), by their own admission. “The absolute risk of harms associated with cannabis use is low and those who use cannabis occasionally are unlikely to be affected.” The AMA believes that if cannabis was legalised for recreational purposes, it would indicate to the public that cannabis use is not harmful, which is not true. There is already a large existing market for cannabis, which is served right now by black market operators. A legal industry will by and large replace illegal operators with those who pay taxes, provide clean products and who will be responsible for the consequences of their actions. Alcohol and tobacco are many times more harmful than cannabis and yet we still allow a legal industry to operate. It’s time that we did the same for cannabis!

Additional concerns from the AMA around legalisation normalising cannabis use or leading to people self-medicating with cannabis ignores the prevalence of illegal cannabis in Australia today. There are legitimate concerns with the ability of the TGA to be able to monitor and assess the safety and quality of cannabis products in Australia, however these concerns can be mitigated by sensible cannabis regulations and the creation of a cannabis regulatory body that will do the work that the TGA is too busy to do. All in all, the potential harms associated with legalisation of cannabis pale in comparison to the harms associated with prohibition. 

And yet, it was heartening to hear about how parliamentarians expressed a willingness to listen to the advice of experts regarding potential dangers of cannabis legalisation and how to best mitigate those. We call on all governments in Australia, both federal and state governments to come together to put in place legislation that will optimise the industry landscape for cannabis, and propose holding a national conference in July 2024 to discuss how best this can be done. Cannabis.org.au will be more than happy to facilitate such a conference and ensure that it leads to practical outcomes that can be translated into legislation with broad appeal in the public and in parliament. 

It is important to note that things may not be perfect with the first instance of cannabis legislation, and so there will be a need for data to be collected in an efficient and clear manner to enable a legislative and regulatory feedback loop that promptly correct any unintended consequences of cannabis legalisation and we look forward to helping facilitate that. 

Additionally, cannabis legalisation is an issue that will affect all Australians. Parliamentarians are representatives of the people but with the myriad issue they deal with, it can be difficult to ascertain the public’s view on how best to move forward with things. As such, cannabis.org.au believes that it is absolutely critical that the public’s sentiments are taken into consideration for legislative changes that would come about from an Australian parliamentarian conference on cannabis. We propose holding events open to the public in August 2024 so that we can educate the public on the proposed legislative changes. We hope this will prove to be a forum where the public would be able to provide their thoughts and opinions so that it can be taken into account in the proposed legislative and regulatory reforms that are sorely needed for a safer, healthier and more prosperous Australia. 

References

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