The Pros and Cons of Legalizing Marijuana in Australia
The arguments for and against the legalization of medicinal and recreational cannabis in Australia
The debate about whether cannabis should be legalized in Australia is ongoing. People on both sides of the discussion have strong views. At the present time, the use of marijuana for medical purposes in Australia has been legalized, under certain conditions, in every state and territories. Weed (in amounts small enough to be held only for personal use, has also been decriminalized in South Australia, the ACT and the NT.)
However, whether it should be brought in to the country as a product for purely medicinal applications or whether it should be fully legalized, as a recreational drug, for pleasure, is far from a straightforward yes or no question.
Perhaps the first point to make, is that the government needs a good reason to put in place a law making anything, including marijuana, illegal. In Mexico, a legal argument is being made, that the government does not have sufficient justification to embargo the product, and that preventing citizens buying it illegal, breaches their human rights.
Most people have had at least some experience with Marijuana. Many people have developed their view on the legalizing of marijuana, because of their experiences with drugs, or their associations with people that have been involved with it. It is estimated that approximately 90% of Australians over 15 have tried cannabis in some form, and that up to 50% of the population actively use it, or have used it for recreational purposes. The widespread use of marijuana in the community, means people are aware that it causes very little social disruption compared to alcohol or other commonly used drugs. The overall effects of marijuana have a far less detrimental social impact than other recreational drugs.
These experiences have led a variety of people, from a wide cross-section of the public, to pursue legalization. That group includes prominent politicians, (including members of the cabinet), members of the medical community (including doctors and social workers), lawyers, teachers and members of the clergy along with many ‘ordinary’ people.
The proportion of Australians supporting legalization is increasing all the time. Back in 2013, a larger number of Australians believed cannabis should remain illegal (44%) than supported a change towards legal, recreational cannabis. (33%)
Attitudes to the legalization of recreational cannabis show quickly changing societal views. 43% of Australians surveyed in 2016 believe recreational cannabis should remain illegal, more than the 33% who think it should remain illegal.
However, attitudes are being updated quickly as a more up to date report from the same source, shows. In it, the proportions had been reversed with more people supporting legalization (43%) than believing recreational use should stay legal. (32%)
43% of Australians surveyed in 2016 believe cannabis should be legalized, more than the 32% who think recreational cannabis should remain illegal.
Source for both charts : The ANU quoted in the SMH
Support for the legalizing of marijuana for general medical use
There are different arguments, for and against cannabis, depending on whether the question is considered in terms of medical or recreational cannabis. 91% of Australians believe medical cannabis should be legalized.
The controlled use of marijuana for medical conditions is now legal in Australia. Marijuana has been clinically proven to be very effective where chronic pain and suffering are hard to manage with conventional drugs. These conditions are often effectively treated with marijuana because of the active ingredients or ‘cannabinoids’ that marijuana contains. Many people assume that the medical use of marijuana involves smoking or getting high, but in fact, only a small amount (about 5%) of medical marijuana contains Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC,) the psychoactive compound which gives people the sort-after “high” or “stoned” effect.
Scientists have found over 400 hundred active compounds in marijuana. Of these active compounds, at least 60 are cannabinoids. These compounds have a variety of effects on our body’s neurotransmitter system. This endocannabinoid system is distributed throughout the body and brain, linking together a series of body sensors that are part of our body’s complicated, internal healing and self-preservation mechanism.
Studies have found that the cannabinoid compounds in marijuana can have a tremendously positive effect when used to treat chronic pain, and conditions involving inflammation, as well as cell development and regulation. Interestingly, it seems cannabis provides these benefits without the detrimental side effects found with most synthesized pharmaceutical medications.
These chemical compounds have also been found to affect different mental functions such as a person’s ability to acquire knowledge through their thoughts, experiences and their senses. This includes an ability to recognize situations as well as both long-term and short-term memory, including the body’s learned motor movements and “recognized”, pain perception. These pain related complex and poorly understood chemical pathways are thought to hold a clue to a possible breakthrough, in treating a wide range of neurological and emotional conditions.
Marijuana is widely believed to be a safe drug. It has been used by many societies in different parts of the world for centuries as both a natural medicinal agent and for religious ceremonies. Unfortunately, it is still largely unknown by doctors as a drug they can prescribe, a ‘hangover’ from a lack of testing due to its illegal status. One of the main reasons it has been found to be relatively safe in clinical studies, is because of its active ingredients. These, even when used in strong doses, will not affect the brainstem (the part of your brain that controls the body’s vital functions such as your respiratory system and heartbeat.)
Using marijuana does not directly put your life in danger, unlike the consumption many other drugs. However, because it can affect other areas of users’ bodies, causing slowed, delayed or uncoordinated reactions or reaction time. These effects can become dangerous if cannabis used in excess, especially with people who are unaccustomed to it.
This information is for interest. It does not constitute medical advice and of course, if you believe you can benefit from these medical benefits, you should talk to your Doctor.
- It relives some relive chronic pain and may help reduce the ‘opiod crisis’ (in the US):
Potentially the biggest benefit of medical marijuana is in the treatment of chronic (long lasting) pain. The moderate use of marijuana can relieve some of the symptoms associated with cancers and conditions such as arthritis. More generally, marijuana is known to relieve neuropathic pain and certain other types of chronic pain, including migraine headaches and menstrual discomfort. Additionally, Marijuana is safer than using many highly addictive medications such as opioids, that are often prescribed to treat long-term chronic pain. Two recent studies have been undertaken, in the USA, where the opioid epidemic is at it’s most acute. One sites the effects of legalization as the reason behind a 14% reduction in opioid prescriptions, in states where marijuana can now be bought medically.
- It helps with mobility issues and spasming:
Medical cannabis is known to relieve muscle spasticity that is often associated with different forms of paralysis and cramping as well as the treatments of multiple sclerosis and other similar conditions including Parkinson’s tremors. For those suffering seizures, epilepsy or muscle spasms, for example, among those with multiple sclerosis, many individuals find cannabis helpful in preventing and controlling them.
- It triggers hunger – which can help those with eating disorders:
It has been found to stimulate a person’s appetite and is helpful to prevent or treat people with eating disorders, including Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa as well as binge eating and diets that can and do affect people of all ages and sexes. Those who smoke marijuana tend to be thinner than those who do not, on the whole, and their bodies deal better with sugar intake.
- Medical marijuana will generate tax revenue:
The government is missing out on tax revenue because the marijuana industry is “under the table” or sold on the “black-market.” If marijuana was legal then it would be subject to taxes, like tobacco and alcohol. Under international jurisdictions where marijuana use has been legalized for medicinal purposes, it is now possible to claim some cannabis purchase costs back on insurance. Monies spent on marijuana are, of course, reclaimable under appropriate tax law.
- It relieves nausea:
Marijuana has been shown to be effective in relieving motion sickness, nausea and vomiting. It is therefore often used, around the world, to relieve symptoms of chemotherapy. It’s not just those who suffer from cancer, who can benefit, however. A variety of ailments are known to induce nausea and vomiting, from AIDS to post operative and palliative care. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Authority (TPA) endorse cannabis for this quality in a medical context on their website, siting 5 studies they’ve reviewed. It is worth noting, however, that there are some conditions which can lead to nausea, for which marijuana is not appropriate, one worthwhile example being pregnancy.
- It is good for glaucoma:
Glaucoma is an increase of pressure in the eyeball. Cannabis use has been shown to reduce the pressure. Unfortunately, the effect is only temporary and lasts a few hours.
- Other claims:
It’s possible cannabis could prevent or slow the progress of cancer cells and brain tumors and, in small doses, reduce anxiety although. Some suggest marijuana may help users with IBD (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or even reduce the quantity and intensity of nightmares people experience. More research is required to investigate these claims.
It’s worth noting the preliminary nature of many of the scientific claims about the medical benefits marijuana. The illegality of the drug has prevented widespread legal research in to the substance. Much more work is required to determine not just whether marijuana helps people but the specifics of the delivery methodology used to impart it. For example, combinations of natural oils, synthetic hybrids and smoked cannabis.
Against medicinal marijuana
There are a variety of reasons people oppose the legalization of marijuana. The clinical, proven, evidence that marijuana has any accepted medicinal value is largely circumstantial and remains limited. Some of the reasons people are opposed to it are:
- Some say there is no real need for medical cannabis:
There is now a good range of pharmaceutical extracts and products available covering all medical uses for which medical cannabis might be employed. As a result, there is no need to use marijuana at all for medical reasons.
- Marijuana affects memory and, in some cases, cognitive ability:
The frequent use of marijuana, can seriously affect your short-term (‘Working’) and long-term memory. The Guardian, in the UK, reports that marijuana affects the brain’s synaptic plasticity. For occasional users, the effect, reports say, is temporary and your memory will return when you stop using the drug. However, long term users performed less well on tests of memory and cognitive ability although results are mixed and inconsistent between studies. (One suggestion for the difference is that there may be two types of user – those susceptible to negative effects on long term memory and those who are not.) It must also be remembered that there are times when, for medical reasons, it can be helpful to impair memories – including, for example, in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. In these circumstances, it may be beneficial to use marijuana in the treatment of this particular issue. The effects of this sort of impairment can be accentuated in people if they have been using the drug for a long time, especially if they started using it when they were younger, for example, 16 or 17.
- Bad for the lungs:
It was not so long ago that tobacco was considered healthy. It is now known that inhaling marijuana smoke has very similar effects and contains many of the toxins in tobacco smoke. The smoke from marijuana contains many different chemicals and compounds, some of which are known to be carcinogenic and it also contains much more tar than tobacco, which can seriously damage lung tissue. Reports on whether or not marijuana negatively affects lung capacity are mixed. It is clear that those who smoke marijuana with tobacco do suffer diminished lung capacity. Some studies suggest that smoking ‘pure’ marijuana does not have the same effect. It should also be remembered that users don’t have to smoke it: Marijuana can be used in a number of different ways to gain both the recreational and medicinal benefits, including smoking, vaporizing, in topical ointments and oils as well as an inclusion with edibles such as cookie, sweets / lollies, soups and stews
- There is some evidence to show that marijuana is addictive:
10 percent of the Australian population has a ‘highly addictive personality’. As a result, many of these people are at risk of forming a marijuana addiction. A further 30 percent of the population has a mildly addictive personality which makes easy access to any substance (drug) a potential risk so it does not make sense to add another addictive substance to what is available at present. Although marijuana is not considered physically addictive and most people who use it are able to control the amount they use in the same way as passive drinkers control their alcohol consumption, many people find that it is very hard to stop using the drug, when they start. The classic symptoms of marijuana addiction are an inability to self-regulate your personal use. When a person becomes irritable when they are not using and their life becomes based around marijuana use and supply
- Medical marijuana could cause accidents:
There is a risk that the use of cannabis could contribute to a rise in the number of accidents associated with heavy machinery. The use of marijuana has frequently been implicated in a large percentage of workplace incidents and automobile accidents. Unfortunately, the data are not particularly clear, relevant studies being hard to produce given the current illegality of the subject. The best information available (a review by the US National Academy of Sciences, which combined the results of 6 separate studies) suggests that the evidence is inconclusive at this stage. Smoking marijuana before driving doubles the chances of a traffic accident.
- Making marijuana available for medical grounds risks making it more acceptable generally:
By making marijuana legal for only medical purposes gives it a “quasi-legal status” that is very hard to prove. There is a risk that this might tend to encourage the recreational use of the drug by those people who are not yet users. This argument is a form of the ‘slippery slope’ debate and typically, an appropriate response to that sort of statement is that each case should be examined on it’s own merits. If marijuana has medical benefits, it should be legalized for that purpose, not embargoed ‘just in case’ society reacts positively to the drug.
- Medical marijuana weakens the body:
Marijuana can weaken the human immune system and cause people who are suffering from any respiratory system illness to be vulnerable to infections such as pneumonia. It has also been shown to have a negative effect with people who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, weakening their immune system to such an extent that they become vulnerable to infection
So why should we legalize cannabis for recreational use?
As we said in the introduction, the government needs a good reason to ban something In the first place. That recreational cannabis is grouped in with other, far more serious drugs, from a legislative point of view, when the public knows that there is no comparison in terms of impact makes no sense on the face of it.
Socially, there are obviously commonalities between the legalization of recreational cannabis and recent changes concerning same sex marriage, the right to which was passed in to law in late 2017 to much fanfare and public support. One key strand of the same sex marriage argument concerned personal choice. Australia chose to respect the rights of gay people and many would say that the rights of people to smoke marijuana recreationally should be respected, too.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that Australia should legalize cannabis simply because others have but it is worth noting that a number of countries around the world have either decriminalized or legalized sales of the product having given the issue some serious consideration. Those countries include (and this is not an exhaustive list : America – 9 states and DC, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada (anticipated to legalize late in 2018) Colombia, Costa Rica, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Jamaica (obviously) Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, , Netherlands, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Russia, , Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uruguay.
Reasons we should legalize recreational cannabis in Australia
- People want it :
Recreational cannabis consumption is incredibly popular in Australia, already. Not only do more people support legalization than object to it, Australians are among the world’s largest consumers of marijuana (as a percentage of population.)
- Experience suggests that legalizing cannabis will lead to a reduction in crime in Australia:
The penalties involved in distributing drugs lead to a markup of up to 100 times the cost of manufacture for some drugs, leading to profits which draw in organized crime. Based on experience overseas, in American states which have legalized marijuana, there could be a sizable reduction in petty crime, were Australia to follow the same path to legalization. This could benefit law enforcement agencies, the justice system, as well as the courts. Those government agencies would then be freed up to devote their time and resources to ‘real crime.’ Nearly 200 arrests each day in Australia for cannabis alone.
- Enforced rules preventing young people getting it:
Legalization would provide the ability to screen out people who want to take it but who shouldn’t, for example, those under the age of 21.
- It reduces binge drinking:
There is evidence to suggest that the legalization of recreational cannabis has cut binge drinking rates. Bring drinking levels in the United States are at record rates. The Center for Disease Control, in a recent study said that 37% of people engaged in binge drinking at least once a week (5 drinks in a 2 hour stretch for men, 4 for women.) That statistic was 9% lower in states which had legalized recreational marijuana. It’s thought the likely reason is that people have a limited amount of money for recreational activities and that marijuana is taking money that was previously spent on alcohol.
- Frees the police and the courts up:
Given the popularity of recreational cannabis already, it appears the existing approach isn’t working. Many believe the consumption of cannabis to be a victimless crime. There is little evidence to suggest that current policing methods and penalties deter people from the consumption of recreational cannabis? In Australia prosecuting Cannabis crimes has led to approximately 60% of drug arrests coming from Cannabis related crimes, 5 out of 6 of which are for possession. Some estimates suggest that cannabis alone consumes more than half of the >$1bn budget the government allocates to drug law enforcement, at a time when usage of drugs like Ice has never been higher. Legalizing recreational cannabis would free the police up to focus on drugs like Ice which are doing the real harm.
- Experts in the field of drug management support education and ‘harm reduction’ – not prohibition:
The official Australian Drug policy is built on the principal of harm minimization but the illegality of drugs cause a great deal of harm, in contravention of the principal. Giving someone a drug conviction for marijuana when they might be a well behaved citizen in every other way and never interact with the police is not to the benefit of society. We already regulate alcohol, tobacco and gambling Greg Chipp, from Drug Policy Australia thinks there is no reason to treat recreational cannabis (and, in fact, many other drugs) differently.
- Likely to decrease consumption by children:
Marijuana is known to cause real harm to minors who consume it as their brains are growing. There is a concern among some people that legalizing cannabis could contribute to this circumstance. Evidence from the US, in towns where cannabis has been legalized suggests that marijuana usage falls, rather than ruses, in towns where marijuana has been legalized.
- Reduces the risk from synthetic alternatives:
In a bizarre and ongoing set of stories in early 2018, the risks of illegal, synthetic drugs came to light in unfortunate and spectacular fashion. Local news reports suggested that leaving some states behind in the race to legalize recreational cannabis required citizens in those regions, who want cannabis, to buy it on the black market. Of those individuals, some chose to purchase synthetic cannabis. Unfortunately, the drugs they were provided were dangerous and 32 people were sent to prison with ‘severe bleeding’ from the eyes, as a result. While this sort of event is rare (unprecedented) it does highlight the risks associated with leaving drug provision to the black market.
- Reductions in opioid abuse are better in states which have legalized cannabis for recreational use:
We mentioned above that cannabis usage had decreased opioid usage in two studies in the US. One of the studies suggested that opioid abuse fell more in US states which had legalized recreational as well as medical marijuana. It seems a number of factors combine to accentuate the pain relieving effects of the drug. States which legalized recreational marijuana had half the number of opiod prescriptions fulfilled during the time period as those which had legalized just medical marijuana. Even the number of available marijuana shops – the distribution of the drug – had a significant effect on reducing opioid intake within the population. These numbers are not to be trivialized. More than 100 Americans die every day from opioid abuse. The findings of the American report could provide valuable factors for consideration in Australia where Ice and other illicit substances are being detected at record rates.
Legalization would/will be a process, not an event. It will take time to work through the initial implementation in Australia , to review what has worked and what hasn’t and adapt the legislation in place. However, given the benefits, it seems like something we should try.
Against recreational use
- It’s a ‘gateway drug’:
You’ve probably heard this claim yourself over the year. It’s pernicious – it seems to be anecdotally true (who hasn’t known someone who smoked marijuana and ended up ‘off the rails’ – or rather, on them) and is often claimed in the press as a ‘known fact’. The reality of the ‘Gateway Drug Hypothesis’ is that it was disproved 20 years ago. It IS fair to say that there is an association between the use of cannabis and other drugs (especially alcohol.) It is not true to say that there is a causal link between the use of marijuana for recreational purposes and the subsequent use of ‘harder’ drugs. In simple terms, people who do cocaine might also have used marijuana in the past but there’s no evidence that the marijuana use caused the cocaine use. It would not be fair to present this as a closed case. There is some disagreement even among informed experts on exactly how individuals’ use of drugs throughout their lifetimes are related. It’s an interesting subject if you would care to look in to it. One of the problems is that many of the experiments which have been undertaken were done on animals, not humans so it’s not clear that the results can be directly applied to marijuana in people. Probably the most representative way to express the results of investigation in to the ‘gateway effect’ is to say that it is possibly true but it is false to say, based on current data, a definitive ‘yes, marijuana is a gateway drug’.
- It increases the likelihood that people will suffer mental illness:
This is true. Regular marijuana use doubles the chances of someone suffering from schizophrenia and psychotic symptoms.
- Black-market encouraged:
Making marijuana legal for medical reasons does not stop the “black-market.” Some people would still want to by-pass taxes and use stronger strains that were untested and were unavailable through the system.
- Super strong Cannabis:
The modern strains of marijuana that are commonly available are over 7 times stronger than the common strains from the 60”s to 8o”s. These are the strains that many people remember using. Today’s marijuana is a very different and much more potent plant with more anti-social implications
- Increased driving under the influence:
More cannabis being available could lead to more people driving under the influence of cannabis. In Australia, we have a roadside test to determine whether the driver has been using Cannabis so this is less of a concern for us than in the USA, where the issue comes to the fore more regularly. . In Canada, they are going to do standard sobriety tests, asking affected drivers to walk along a line with their arms out and touch the end of their nose with a finger.
In conclusion, it is apparent that in today’s society, there are many options that are available for people to pursue different pathways of interest or to find fulfillment including spiritual and physical pursuits. These include the freedom to use tobacco and alcohol for social drinking. Fundamentally, the government needs good reason to ban its population from doing anything. The evidence against recreational cannabis use is simply not there.
Rather than using the law to enforce the values of a clear minority, on the majority of people, it appears that a substantial amount of research and investigation needs to be undertaken into the use of marijuana.
The total effect of legalizing marijuana for recreational use needs to be evaluated for the majority of people; it is obvious that there will always be a percentage of the population that will abuse anything.
Rather than continue to spend significant amounts of police and court resources on an issue that should have never been made illegal in the first place, our view is that the pros and cons should be considered publicly.
If marijuana is made legal, the tax money it generates should, in our view, be reallocated to fund a total education program designed to start at the preschool level. This is likely to help people become aware of all the positive and negative aspects involved in personal development which naturally includes the use of all drugs including marijuana.