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SA may no longer be a green friendly state soon (Image by Dan Jensen)

Proposed changes in South Australia's legislation on marijuana may have deeper consequences, writes Maud Taylor and Sib Hare Breidahl.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA was the first state or territory in Australia to decriminalise marijuana, followed by the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. This essentially means that being caught with a bit of green (enough for personal use) would land you a slap on the wrist and an on-the-spot $125 fine. But things may be about to change if the new Liberal Government has its way.

The South Australian Marshall Government wants to hit blazers with fines of up to $2,000, criminal charges and prison sentences of up to two years. Vickie Chapman, South Australia’s Attorney General, claims that this is to align marijuana legislation with “other maximum penalties” for possession of drugs, such as heroin.

As well as increased penalties, the Marshall Government is seeking to introduce drug detection dogs into high schools. Interestingly, Chapman has declared that this would be mandatory for public schools, with an opt out option for private schools. This policy stereotypes and clearly targets young people in public schools, who are often least able to afford hefty fines or have the resources to defend themselves in court.

Despite this move by the Marshall Government, there is little evidence that drug dogs are effective at all. In reports acquired under freedom of information by the NSW Greens, the NSW police were found to have searched 16,459 people in 2011 after they had been singled out by drug dogs. Remarkably, 78 per cent of these people were found to be carrying no drugs at all. Not only is this embarrassing for law enforcement, but it is also a catastrophic waste of resources. More importantly, however, it is a humiliating and degrading experience for the person unnecessarily searched by police.

Perhaps the most heartless element of the policy is the proposal to refuse people caught with marijuana from accessing treatment if they had been caught twice before and failed rehabilitation. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of addiction and the reasons people use drugs in the first place. The incarceration rate of people caught with marijuana in the USA is a warning Australia should heed. Criminalisation and subsequent incarceration for minor drug crimes creates a cycle of poverty and disempowerment. Poor and African-American people are greatly over-represented in this group, as often these are the groups that have fewer resources to defend themselves in court.

Remarkable parallels can be drawn with many communities in Australia; the young, poor, homeless and Aboriginal people who have been unfairly targeted by punitive drug policies. This is not the first time these groups have been unfairly targeted. The recent Federal Government policy to test Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients for drugs was short-sighted and ignorant. We should not allow these policies to further the institutionalised racism we seek to dismantle.

The Marshall Government has proposed these changes in the wake of a coroner’s investigation into the murder of Lewis McPherson by 17-year-old Liam Humbles, who was high on cannabis and a cocktail of other drugs at the time. Marijuana intoxication, however, has no link to increased aggression, quite unlike Australia’s national drug, alcohol, which is legal enough to be skolled by larrikin Prime Ministers in publicity campaigns. We seem to have no problem with this drug that constitutes a far larger burden on our society than marijuana.

These changes are supposedly “in line with community expectation”, however, data from the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey shows that just 24 per cent of South Australians think that the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use should be a criminal offence — the third lowest rate behind the NT and A.C.T., the two other jurisdictions where marijuana is decriminalised.

It would be inaccurate to say that marijuana is without risks or is challenging to regulate, but, according to the evidence we have available, prohibiting its use will not reduce risk or change patterns of use.

Perhaps the Marshall Government is simply using this policy for revenue generation, or is engaging in baseless virtue signalling in an attempt to garner votes. If so, then it’s clear that the moral compass of the South Australian State Government has gone haywire.

It’s time for a ceasefire in the incessant war on drugs.

Maud Taylor is a final year medical student has been involved in creating policy for the Australian Medical Students’ Association and is currently undertaking placement in Amsterdam. Sib Hare Breidahl is also a final year medical student currently working in the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London in heroin addiction and knows the impact of drug policy intimately.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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