The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:28): I move:
1. That, in the opinion of this council, a joint committee be appointed to inquire into and report on—
(a) the potential impact of legalisation of cannabis in South Australia for adult use with reference to legal frameworks and approaches in other jurisdictions including implications for justice, health and the economy; and
(b) any other related matter.
2. That, in the event of a joint committee being appointed, the Legislative Council be represented thereon by three members, of whom two shall form a quorum of council members necessary to be present at all sittings of the committee.
3. That members of the committee may participate in the proceedings by way of telephone or videoconference or other electronic means and shall be deemed to be present and counted for purposes of a quorum, subject to such means of participation remaining effective and not disadvantaging any member.
4. That this council permits the joint committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it thinks fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being reported to the council.
5. That a message be sent to the House of Assembly transmitting the foregoing resolution and requesting its concurrence thereto.
I rise today, not for the first time, to talk about the legalisation of cannabis and to move a motion to establish a joint committee of this parliament to inquire into that matter. Members would be aware that I have introduced a bill for the legalisation of cannabis twice now in this place. I also recognise that this is a significant and complex conversation that needs to be had by our parliament and a new conversation to many within this place. This is one of those not entirely rare moments when the community has been well ahead of us as legislators for quite a period of time.
It is time for us here, as legislators, to step up and look at the legislation around the adult use of cannabis in our state—and we are starting to get there. I would like to note that the Crime and Public Integrity Committee has previously made recommendations to investigate, or at least consider, the legalisation of cannabis in this state.
Recreational cannabis, as it is often called, has been decriminalised in our state of South Australia since 1987. This has not led to any great problems in our state; in fact, the opposite is believed by our current police commissioner, Grant Stevens, who stated on ABC Radio Adelaide this past week, when asked about this matter:
So I think last year we gave out about 3,700 expiation notices for cannabis offences. Of a population of 1.8 million that’s not a lot. I would suggest that the vast majority of those were issued in public places or private places where we’ve had to attend for a noisy party or something like that. So I don’t think it’s a big issue for South Australia.
That was stated by our current police commissioner on ABC radio. He continued:
We have a framework that allows police to take action when we come across people who are in possession of cannabis or are smoking cannabis in a public place, but that doesn’t affect very many people.
Further, of course, and as we should all know, medicinal cannabis was legalised by our commonwealth parliament in 2016, and medicinal cannabis products are now available in South Australia, although they continue to be difficult to access and expensive even if you are able to obtain them. Many patients struggle to access or afford the medicine they require in this state, and so they are turning to the black market—or the ‘green market’.
I note, in the other place earlier today, the motion of the member for Mount Gambier, the very committed Troy Bell, who has long been passionate about the issue of access to medicinal cannabis for his constituents. That motion was passed in support of enhancing the access to medicinal cannabis that so many of our constituents seek. Many of our constituents are criminalised simply because they are sick and seek something we have technically legalised but that effectively remains largely inaccessible.
Around the world we are also increasingly moving towards models that treat cannabis use as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. The war on drugs and the war on cannabis have unequivocally failed; in the case of the war on cannabis, this has turned largely into a war on sick people. We need a better approach.
One in three Australians have used cannabis in their lifetime, and we are seeing an ongoing rise of support in the population for the legalisation of cannabis, even from people who have never used cannabis in their life. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey has shown that regular cannabis use has become more accepted than smoking tobacco, with 20 per cent of respondents in support of regular cannabis use compared to 15 per cent in support of regular tobacco use.
That being said, it is worth noting that 78 per cent of people surveyed indicated they would still not use cannabis even if it were to be legalised. I hope that will go a long way to reassuring people who are on the fence about reforms that if we do legalise cannabis we are highly unlikely to see a mass take-up of its use. Indeed, what it will do is stop the criminalisation of those who use it.
Zero tolerance approaches to cannabis have unequivocally failed to reduce both supply and demand for cannabis. Instead, they have fuelled a multibillion-dollar global black market that has supercharged crime and corruption. Further, this has led to the proliferation of more dangerous and profitable synthetic drugs. A legal, regulated cannabis market would ensure that users had access to unadulterated and regulated cannabis products, and consumers could be informed of the strength and characteristics of the cannabis product they are using along with any potential impact on both their physical and mental health.
We must acknowledge that not only is that war on drugs not working, it is damaging lives. We have not reduced drug use; in fact, Australia remains one of the highest per capita consumers of cannabis in the world, despite our laws. Dragging people through a criminal justice system needlessly is not something we should continue.
What is worse is that our current laws target some of the most vulnerable communities in the country, including young people, First Nations people and people on lower incomes in regional and outer metropolitan areas, more than they do other cohorts. It bears mentioning as well that First Nations people are disproportionately more likely to be charged with cannabis-related crimes than non-Indigenous Australians, who are offered warnings nearly half the time rather than charged.
This unequal policing and enforcement of our cannabis laws can help reinforce the cycle of poverty, where even a minor cannabis charge can then lock people out of certain jobs and opportunities in the future. The aggressive policing of cannabis across our nation, including through drug dogs and roadside drug testing, is part of why drug use in Australia is increasingly moving towards drugs such as methamphetamine and other drugs that are less easily policed and less detectable than cannabis.
Also, ‘detectable’, in terms of roadside drug testing, is absolutely immoral when you consider that even the very ads that are put out by the authorities themselves acknowledge that the effects of the drug may well not be being experienced by the person who was found to have cannabis in their system and that they are not impaired, so it does make you wonder what is the point of that approach.
There are existing models internationally that show us how the legalisation of cannabis could work, and it is time this South Australian parliament investigated them. I would also commend the work of my federal Greens colleagues, particularly Senator David Shoebridge, who is most recently working towards the legalisation of cannabis nationally and has introduced a bill into the federal parliament.
In recent months, Germany has committed to legalising cannabis, joining Canada, Uruguay, South Africa, Jamaica, Mexico, Malta and at least 19 states of the United States of America, where recreational cannabis use is now legal. I would like to take this moment to outline just a few of the approaches we see internationally to provide some insight into the sort of things that this committee should consider and what the reality of cannabis legalisation actually looks like around the world.
In the Netherlands, cannabis has been available for recreational use since 1976, with the consumption and sale of cannabis tolerated in licensed coffee shops. It is technically illegal, but not punishable, and the possession of up to five grams is decriminalised. Further, the cultivation of up to five plants is tolerated and not often enforced for non-commercial use, unless it is a professional grow set-up.
In Uruguay, which was the First Nation state to establish a legally regulated cannabis market, adults can buy up to 40 grams every month from approved pharmacies. Users must register with authorities and have their purchases tracked. Registered users can set up smoking clubs of anywhere from 15 to 45 people to grow cannabis, and they can cultivate up to 99 plants in the same space. That being said, we do need to recognise the issues that Uruguay has experienced as well, with only 25 pharmacies licensed to sell cannabis, so 70 per cent of consumers still purchase cannabis through the black market in that jurisdiction.
I want to raise this example to illustrate the importance of, when we are considering establishing a legal market for cannabis in our nation, getting it right and ensuring that it is actually more accessible and more affordable than any black market. As we have already learned from the experience with medicinal cannabis, if a legal industry cannot compete in terms of price and products with the black market, then people will continue to source cannabis products from that market. If we get it right we can remove the demand for a black market to exist.
Canada was the second nation to establish a legally regulated cannabis market, and there is much to learn from Canada. There, adults can buy from government, private or online retailers. In some jurisdictions use is permitted in private residences and in public spaces where tobacco is permitted. In some jurisdictions users can also grow plants at home. In Spain, shared consumption is allowed through cannabis social clubs, which are not-for-profit associations democratically operated by the members. Members of the club can collectively grow and distribute cannabis amongst other club members.
In the US, as I mentioned, we have seen some 19 states and a few other jurisdictions legalise small amounts of cannabis for adult recreational use. I think in this discussion in particular, I would like to highlight New York’s ‘seedling opportunity initiative’. This requires the first 100 cannabis dispensary licences to go to those people who have previous cannabis convictions. This initiative is in recognition of the impact of the United States’ war on drugs, the impact that it has had on people within the community of New York, and it is the first step of creating a new socially equitable cannabis industry, as well as reversing the harm that the war on drugs has wreaked on those communities.
It is important for us to consider as well, when we think about legalising cannabis in South Australia, that we must allow for past convictions to be spent, but we should also consider how we provide opportunities for people with past cannabis convictions.
Germany is another contemporary example for us to watch closely, where they are likely to become the world’s largest market for legal cannabis in the near future. Further, their legalisation of cannabis is likely to lead to a domino effect throughout other European countries, particularly France, which has a much bigger problem with illegal cannabis use and is watching Germany’s deliberations quite closely.
The German government has committed to and remains on track to pass laws within the current parliamentary term to allow for the legal distribution of cannabis, although at the moment the process is having to contend with European regulations, including the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and a Council of the European Union framework decision from 2004 that does require member states to ensure the sale of drugs, including cannabis, are ‘punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties’.
Looking closer to home, on 9 June, Thailand became the first country in Asia, and only the third country in the world after Canada and Uruguay, to legalise cannabis nationwide. It is a stunning move for a country that used to be famous for some of the world’s harshest drug laws. Some 4,200 people who were in prison for cannabis-related offences became eligible for release on the very same day that cannabis was legalised, and those convicted of illegal cultivation even had their seized equipment returned to them. They went from being behind bars to being back in legal business within hours.
On 17 June, Thailand absorbed cannabis into an existing law governing traditional medicine, meaning its sale was banned to under 20s, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. Growing cannabis plants for personal consumption is allowed, but selling plants or derivative products officially requires a licence. Whereas cannabis flowers can have unlimited quantities of THC, derivatives like gummies can only have a token 0.2 per cent.
Smoking cannabis at home may be legal, but lighting up in the street is discouraged by existing laws governing behaviour deemed ‘a public nuisance’. This could mean a $700 fine or three months’ imprisonment. So there is still a lot of work to be done and the legalisation of cannabis in Thailand happened essentially by default after its interministerial body that oversees drug policy could not decide on specific limits that should be placed on cannabis. This has led to much confusion in that jurisdiction, with processes and requirements still being ironed out. The committee could look with great interest to see in some ways what to do as well as what not to do in that particular jurisdiction.
I think these international examples show that we do need an inquiry to properly consider the range of options before us and to think about what would work best for our state. As was articulated quite well by our very own police commissioner, Grant Stevens, when he was asked about the Greens’ federal proposal to legalise cannabis:
That’s something we’ll have to take a close look at. I don’t know the answers to these but if you legalise an illicit substance, does that completely remove the black market or does it provide another avenue for the black market because of the cost of the legal substances and the rules and regulations around it? So I am guessing that legalised cannabis won’t be available to anyone under the age of 18. So you’re still going to have some element of an illicit market that needs to be attended to. There’ll be opportunities for criminals to make money, I would suspect, but it’s not something we have had a very close look at at this point in time.
That is the point: it is time for this parliament to take a closer look at the legalisation of cannabis across the range of jurisdictions, as I have outlined, so that when we do it here we do it right. He elaborated further in response to a question about police checking if people have purchased cannabis legally. He responded:
That’s right. Will you be permitted to grow your own cannabis? There’s a lot of questions that come out of legalising cannabis and the regulatory framework that goes around it because I don’t think anyone expects it to be a free for all but yeah, it’s a complex debate and it’ll be complex legislation that we’ll have to get our heads around if it ever comes our way.
That is our job as a parliament, to ensure that whoever is police commissioner has laws that will work for all.
There is much for this committee to consider, but in particular I would suggest that it would look into the potential impacts with reference to our legal frameworks; the implications for justice and health systems and for the economy; appropriate legal sanctions for unlawful sale or distribution, including to minors; additional taxation measures and where that revenue should be allocated, such as education and health; prohibitions on tobacco and alcohol industries from entering the cannabis industry; and the role of grower cooperatives, just to name a few.
The economic argument is one that many believe is important for us to consider as well, and I could not agree more. The parliamentary budget office in Canberra has previously estimated that national legalisation could raise upwards of $3.5 billion in tax revenue over four years. If South Australia were to achieve even one-tenth of that revenue from the legalisation of cannabis that is an additional $350 million over four years in our state budget. Imagine the good that we could do with that money, not to mention the reduction in cost of no longer policing and prosecuting the recreational use of cannabis.
There are many benefits that would stem from the legalisation of cannabis in our state and much to consider. I firmly believe that a joint committee inquiry would best allow us to consider all the evidence and options before us and come out with a strong model that is fair to all. It would be able to look beyond the remit of CPIC in terms of looking beyond just the justice implications, which are incredibly important, and allow us to look at all of those broader issues.
The idea of having a committee of inquiry that is joint of both houses is not just something for many a pun but something that shows the importance of this issue to this state. Citizens being currently criminalised simply for being sick cannot continue in its current form, and that motion passing in the other place certainly gives me heart that many people in this parliament are now looking to this issue as something worthy of proper deliberation and consideration, and with an importance placed upon it by having that joint parliamentary cross-party approach established. With that, I commend the motion.
Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. L.A. Curran.