The Role of the Public in Changing the Law

Public acts as one in changing the law

People rallying for cannabis legalisation.

Cannabis in Australia

In Australia, cannabis is one of the most widely used illicit substances. The nation has one of the highest rates of cannabis consumption in the world. The Oceania region, which includes New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, accounts for an estimated 15% of the world’s global cannabis consumption.

Surveys conducted by the National Drug Strategy in 2016 show that 35% of the population aged 14 and older have used the drug at least once in their lifetime. An estimated 36% of the population consume cannabis on a weekly basis.

Although a decent percentile of the population utilises cannabis on a regular basis, the government maintains an adverse stance on the consumption of marijuana for recreational use. Recreational marijuana has remained illegal in the nation since the 1920s. In 2016, however, cannabis was made legal for medicinal purposes under the Therapeutic Goods Act.

A Rally Supporting the Legalisation of Cannabis. Source



How the Public Can Influence the Law: Understanding the Power of Public Opinion

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, public opinion is an aggregate of the individual views, attitudes, and beliefs about a particular topic, expressed by a significant proportion of a community. In 1918, America sociologist Charles Horton Cooley emphasised public opinion as a process of interaction and mutual influence rather than a state of broad agreement. Public opinion is not limited to grandiose topics such as politics or religion. A majority view can be held over a wide range of matters including art, culture and food.   

Public opinion is an irrefutable asset where the structuring of laws and government policy-making are concerned. Public opinion serves a number of functions in society including:

  • A Foundation For Democracy – Public opinion serves as a foundation for democracy. In democracy, sovereignty of the people is strongly upheld.
  • A Major Source of Law – Public opinion is a major source of law in many nations. A great number of laws are established based on public opinions and demands.
  • A Source of Policies – Public opinions are an ideal source of policies. Many states formulate their policies based on the opinions of the public.
  • An Agent For Social Change – Public opinion is an irrefutable asset in the formation of laws for social change. In laws that wish to affect social changes in society, public opinion is an essential factor of influence.

Over the course of history, public opinion has influenced a wide array of government laws and policies; especially in the decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis in numerous societies.

Public opinion can influence government policies in two major ways – namely polls, and the media. Polls give an overview of the opinions of a certain number of people on a topic. The media, inclusive of social media, is a bit more complex, but can be used to push the agenda of a body of people.

In the United States of America, cannabis is legal in ten states for recreational use and thirty-three states for medicinal use. The current state of cannabis in the American society can be directly linked to the growing support by the public over the last couple of years. By 2018, a record 66% of residents in the U.S offered their support to legalising marijuanafor recreational use. In U.S. states such as Michigan, citizens were allowed to vote in a referendum to change the legal status of marijuana.



The Shifts in Public Opinions on Cannabis in Australia

Over the years, Australians have taken a more progressive stance on the issue of cannabis legalisation. Numerous polls and studies confirm the growing support of Australians for legalising cannabis products.

In a poll conducted by the Greens, a majority of Tasmanians support the decriminalisation of cannabis for recreational use in the state. This poll echoes the findings of a study conducted by the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSH) in 2016. This study also shows the growing support for the decriminalisation of medical and recreational cannabis.



Looking to the Future

Public opinion is a powerful tool in democratic societies. When the public comes together in a single voice, it can influence the decision making process of the government. Public opinion is an essential component of democracy, policy making and legislation. With growing support for cannabis legalisation and increased public knowledge about the issues surrounding the debate, public opinion is a powerful tool to harness in the bid to legalise marijuana.


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