The Reality of Cannabis Becoming Legal in Australia

Cannabis in Australia.

The legalisation journey of cannabis in Australia.

Cannabis around the world

Since cannabis was legalised for medicinal purposes back in 2016, Australia hasn’t had much progress with other cannabis endeavors. Particularly of interest here is recreational marijuana -- just when, if at all, will the substance become legal for personal consumption?

The cannabis discussion is a global one. Current events point to upward trends for the drug as global attitudes towards its use continue to evolve positively, for both medical and recreational use. Likewise, several governments around the world have taken to policies that either legalise, decriminalise, or turn a blind eye to cannabis use.

Here’s a quick look at some cannabis developments in recent years:

  • Canada joined Uruguay as the second country to fully legalise cannabis use through legislation.
  • South Africa has also legalised recreational cannabis use by way of a Supreme Court decision.
  • More than half of the United States -- 33 states and the District of Columbia (DC), to be exact -- have legalised marijuana for medical use, and 10 of those states along with DC allow recreational use as well. In fact, other states such as Illinois are on their way to joining the list.
  • Europe presents a similar picture. Several countries there have legalised cannabis for medical use, while others such as Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, have gone even further by either decriminalising its recreational use, providing designated areas where it can be used without consequence, or simply ignoring its use.

Here in the Oceania region, New Zealand is on a faster pace to legal recreational cannabis than Australia. Next year, New Zealand citizens will vote on whether or not cannabis use should be legalised for all adults, not just medical patients.

New Zealand’s move, placing the legal cannabis decision in the hands of its citizens, is a first on a national level. While other nations have legalised the drug, none have taken a similar approach except for individual states.

So what’s Australia’s next move on the subject? After the country took the progressive step of legalising the drug for medical use back in 2016, many thought a much speedier route to recreational cannabis legalisation would be in the cards. So far, that’s not the case. However, the road to legal marijuana is still in sight as the debates continue.



Current cannabis policy in Australia

Despite its illegal status, recreational cannabis use actually receives some lenient treatment from Australian law enforcement. Here, individual states set their own policies on how to deal with the use of the drug, and they all mostly take a depenalisation approach towards users -- meaning that states usually take diversionary measures other than imprisonment to help correct the cannabis user.

Different states and their cannabis policies. Source

For example, recreational cannabis use is decriminalized in the ACT, the Northern Territory, and Southern Australia. Those states levy civil penalties on cannabis users if caught, provided they meet certain criteria. Other states use diversionary programs such as education and treatment, and only turn to penalization where the crime is severe (large amounts, distribution, etc.) or if diversionary measures fail.



What’s new on the legal cannabis agenda?

While Australian states may be quite lenient in their enforcement measures against recreational cannabis users, Australians’ views on the substance suggest a desire for an even more lenient approach.

In fact, only 5 percent of Australians support imprisonment for cannabis offenders. Further, a poll conducted by the Greens party found that 65 percent of Australians support cannabis decriminalization, while only 23 percent oppose it. Another study showed 43 percent of Australians support cannabis legalisation, while 32 percent don’t and 22 percent are undecided.

43% of Australians support cannabis legalisation, 32% don’t, 22% are undecided
Source: CannabisExpress

These figures all show a shift in Australians’ views on cannabis use from negative to positive. As a result, some recent developments are taking place.

The Greens have been known for their ardent support for legal recreational cannabis. For example, just last year, Greens leader Richard Di Natalie pushed a proposal to leagalise the drug throughout the country.

More recently, the Greens proposed a plan to introduce a legalisation bill in New South Wales within 100 days of the election. This plan, if passed, will allow NSW residents 18 years and older to possess and grow cannabis.

The Greens aren’t the only party supporting legalisation. Michael Pettersson, Labour Party backbencher, also proposed a bill last year to legalise cannabis in the ACT.

In fact, an even more radical approach is ongoing in the Northern Territory. There, the Select Committee on a Northern Territory Harm Reduction Strategy for Reducing Addictive Behaviours is studying drug policies around the world to determine the best approach to decriminalising all drugs -- not just cannabis.



The lucrative cannabis market might be too good to ignore

According to the Oceania Cannabis Report, a fully legal cannabis market in Australia could rack up AUS$7.8 billion if done by 2023. This is a stunning number, especially after previous forecasts placed the monetary value at around $2 billion.

For Australian communities, this could mean a lot of money for education, the justice department, healthcare, and a vast number of other worthy causes one can think of. Perhaps the worth of the market is enough of an argument for legalising cannabis; that, coupled with the fact that this revenue would be putting a huge dent in the pockets of organized criminal factions that currently pocket these sums under the radar, as well as the fact that it would certainly create a lot of jobs.



Final words

While the cannabis landscape in Australia hasn’t seen much progress on the recreational front, there have been some debates and bills focusing on the agenda that keep the discussion alive. With the global trend moving in a positive direction for legal recreational cannabis, Australia will likely make some strides on the subject sooner than we think.

This is especially likely when considering that neighboring New Zealand is on the verge of a historic vote on the topic when the 2020 referendum on legal cannabis takes place next year. 

Surely, a positive development in the region could have some ripple effects on Australian policies if all goes as expected.