Weed decriminalization: How far behind is Australia compared with the US?

‘The decision to ban cannabis was an accident of history’– Dr Alex Woodward, President, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation

In 2017–2018 there were 72,381 cannabis arrests in Australia. Studies show that the majority of those arrested are young people, who otherwise would not have criminal records. There was little or no apparent cannabis-related harm involved in these arrests. It’s ridiculous that we persist in accepting this punishment for a plant that literally grows out of the ground just like any other. It’s a confronting reminder that in Australia, the guaranteed harms arising from a criminal conviction are outweighed by the potential harms of using a soft drug. 

But across the United States, cannabis legalization has resulted in a sharp decline in violent crimes, a decrease in the operation of illicit drug trading and significant reductions in costs spent jailing people for marijuana possession and use. So just how far behind is Australia compared with these American laws?

Currently, 33 states in America have legalized cannabis for medical use, 11 states for recreational use and 15 have decriminalized marijuana. While Federal law prohibits the use of cannabis, Federal officers have recognised their services are better spent prosecuting serious crimes rather than possession and use of cannabis. Under the Obama administration, Federal law enforcement officers were encouraged not to prosecute people distributing medical marijuana in accordance with state law.  While there is talk under the Trump administration for cracking down on marijuana use, the benefits from legalizing marijuana in the States suggest that doing so would be detrimental to the criminal justice system and society at large.

As of early 2018, the studyIs Legal Pot Crippling Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations? The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on US Crime’ identified that violent crime fell by 13% on average when a state on the Mexican border legalised the medical use of marijuana. Legalization allowed farmers to grow and sell marijuana freely—placing them in direct competition with Mexican drug cartels and effectively stealing business from the illicit drug trade. Crime at the border has decreased because smuggling and violence over possession has reduced. 

Among the border states, data from an FBI crime report and supplementary homicide reports dated 1994–2012 show that these changes in law reduced violent crime most significantly by 15% in California, and least significantly by 7% in Arizona. Homicides specifically related to the drug trade dropped by an astonishing 41%.

In Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and DC marijuana arrests declined dramatically; Washington legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2012, and reported a 98% decrease in marijuana arrests between 2012–2014. 

This is great news for the criminal justice system and the broader American community. According to the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, American police typically arrest more people for marijuana use than for all violent crimes in any given year. Legalizing marijuana has meant a huge drop in arrests, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions on criminal justice costs. From 2000 – 2010, Washington spent $200 million on marijuana enforcement. And in the first two years of legalization, cannabis generated $220 million for Washington in tax revenue and $129 million for Colorado. 

These remarkable statistics demonstrate clearly the truth in Woodward’s observation. And if the results in America can be so effective, decriminalising weed in Australia would be similarly advantageous. 

Australia spends about $1.1 billion per year on drug enforcement. That’s discounting drug-related crime, which accounts for considerably more. In light of the statistics in the States, it’s likely Australia would save hundreds of millions by decriminalizing cannabis. Moreover, if Australia were to adopt uniform decriminalization of cannabis, we’d see reductions in violent crime, increases in tax revenue (that could fund recovery treatment) and fewer arrests and convictions in an already overburdened criminal justice system.

With upcoming laws in the Australian Capital Territory set to legalize recreational and medical marijuana use, Australia may be set to rectify its strict criminalization of cannabis. In January 2020, it will be legal to possess 50 grams of cannabis in the ACT, and to grow two plants on private property. 

But, the ACT’s laws are much more restrictive than in America. Notably, supply of marijuana remains illegal, meaning you can grow pot legally – but as soon as you give some to your neighbour you’ve committed a crime. Additionally, cannabis possession and use remains a crime at the Commonwealth level. How the ACT laws will interact with conflicting Commonwealth laws are currently a grey area that will only be resolved with time. 

These laws, albeit restrictive, are Australia’s first steps to catching up with countries like America who are reaping the rewards of legalizing cannabis. For the time being, Australia is prioritizing punishment over treatment for those impacted by drug use.

If you have been arrested for a drug-related offence, please get in touch with us on (02) 8080 7585 as quickly as possible so we can help advise you of the best course of action. 

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