#420Day: Cannabis and the nanny state

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Senator Richard Di Natale speaking at a 420 rally in Melbourne (screen shot via @senatordinatale).

Progress on recreational cannabis law reform might seem to have stalled but there are signs of change, writes Dr Samuel Douglas.

INTERNATIONAL CANNABIS PROTEST DAY, commonly known as 420 Day (as in April 20) has recently passed and the Nimbin MardiGrass is almost upon us once again.

The origins of 420 are apocryphal — whatever afternoon session that held its linguistic origins is lost to us. More concrete, however, is our inability to motivate the major parties to support cannabis law reform in Australia.

But, there have been signs of a shift in the political situation for recreational cannabis since I wrote about this last year, exemplified by two recent events.

The first of these is the handing down of the final report from the Victorian ParliamentaryInquiry into Drug Law Reform.This 600+ page document makes 49 recommendations across a wide range of areas, with the eminently sensible key theme that drug-related issues should be dealt with via the health – rather than legal – systems wherever possible.

While some in the media picked up on suggestions related to the possibility of legal recreational cannabis for adults in Victoria, a quick perusal of the report shows this excitement to be somewhat premature. There were two relevant recommendations.

The first was that an advisory council on drugs policy, comprising experts and individuals, be set up to advise the Victorian Government on drug-related issues and research in Victoria.

The second, that this council investigate

‘ ... international developments in the regulated supply of cannabis for adult use, and advise the Victorian Government on policy outcomes in areas, such as prevalence rates, public safety, and reducing the scale and scope of the illicit drug market.’

In plain language, the report recommends that the Victorian Government set up an advisory council (which it might not). This council may investigate how relevant legislation has worked overseas. Then, perhaps, it will recommend that we try something similar. Finally, the government of the day would need to have the political courage to attempt to implement the findings and the numbers to do so.

So, while other jurisdictions – such as California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington State, Washington DC, Canada, Portugal and Uruguay – have made or are making changes, what does Victoria get? A suggestion that the government set up a body that may consider making recommendations, with no guarantee that the government will pay any attention to them. I hope readers will understand if I find that a little underwhelming.

Despite the glacial pace of change, the electoral potential of cannabis reform remains largely untapped. Something like 35 per cent of Australians have used cannabis at least once and 10 per cent have used it in the past 12 months. Most of these people are adults, so snaring a good portion of their votes could make all the difference in a marginal seat or close-run upper-house position.

Some parties have aimed to capitalise on this, but not always successfully. For all that it talks a big game and has a large social media following, the Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party (HEMP) has generally not polled well and at least one former high-profile supporter has left to pursue activism on their own terms.

This brings me to the second recent noteworthy event in Australian cannabis law reform. The Greens, after years of grassroots pressure, have announced a proposal to legalise recreational cannabis use for adults and allow people to grow up to six plants of their own. This policy is couched in the language of reducing harm and removing income from criminal markets — aims that are both commendable and supported by research.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt reacted predictably, wheeling lines about cannabis being a dangerous gateway drug. Unfortunately for the Minister, such views are now so insupportable that even news.com.au cited experts to refute him, with only the Daily Telegraph putting an unreservedly positive spin on his unscientific and logically inconsistent comments.

Interestingly enough (and I use the phrase with some reservation), Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten largely parroted the Government line, characterising the announcement as "political clickbait". Shadow Health Minister Catherine King, perhaps wisely, said nothing at all.

Are the Greens on to a winner? We’ll have to wait a little while to tell. If this has as much support as Richard Di Natale claims, then perhaps an earlier announcement could have gotten Alex Bhathal over the line in the Batman by-election, making the timing of the policy launch a little curious. That aside, the Greens will no doubt be looking to win back voters from the pro-reform Fiona Patten and her Reason Party at the next Victorian election and limit possible losses to them at a Federal level.

What is conspicuously absent in both the recommendations of the Victorian Drug Law Reform Inquiry and Greens’ proposal is any reference to the autonomy of adults and their ability to choose how they live their lives. This doesn’t mean a utilitarian appeal to the "greater good" of health and community impacts is unimportant. But it isn’t the whole story.

We don’t solely consider the overall outcome when weighing the ethics of a decision or policy. Notions of individual rights, including the right to make our own decisions, are deeply embedded in our culture. What this means is that we like to think that so long as something isn’t profoundly dangerous, and doesn’t infringe upon the similar rights of others, our choices are our own business and no one else’s.

It’s the lack of focus on the idea of freedom of choice in these proposals that leaves me slightly uneasy. Treating drug dependence and safety issues as health, rather than criminal, matters is worthwhile. But it’s also the case that with relatively safer substances such as cannabis, most people using them are not endangering anyone’s safety and do not require time in rehab. To its credit, the Greens proposal implicitly recognises this, with unproblematic cannabis use being a non-issue, rather than one of health.

So, in the past year, most of the progress has been political (at best) and the reality of cannabis prohibition is largely unaltered. But if the Greens can make electoral gains off the back of this policy and Reason can expand its localised success, then perhaps Australians will finally see some change.

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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