The cannabis legalization debate is slowly, but surely, heating up in Australia.
In May 2020, the Parliament of Victoria, Australia launched a formal inquiry on cannabis, called the “inquiry into the use of cannabis in Victoria.”
The previous year, a motion called on the Legal and Social Issues Committee to look into ways to prevent youth use, educate the public, and assess the impacts of cannabis use, and the Committee is set to compile a report by June 1. Along the way, the Committee is expected to “assess models from international jurisdictions that have been successful in achieving these outcomes and consider how they may be adapted for Victoria.”
At the time, Committee Chair Fiona Patten said in a statement, “We want to hear from community members about the current restrictions on the use of cannabis in Victoria and whether these are appropriate,” adding, “We’re interested in hearing people’s views on whether use of cannabis should remain legal for medical treatment only or whether current restrictions on use of cannabis should be changed.”
Medical cannabis became legal in Australia in 2016. Nearby New Zealand held a referendum last year on adult use legalization, and it was ultimately voted down, albeit by a narrow margin.
This week, the Committee announced that more than 1,400 public comments have been submitted to-date. Some came from individuals, anonymous and named, while others came from organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
The Committee also held its first public hearing, on Thursday, which included a dozen speakers representing groups both for and against cannabis legalization. The first two speakers were from the United States and spoke to each of those sides of the legalization debate, respectively: Tamar Todd, the former legal director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Kevin Sabet, the founder and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
One recurring theme of the conversation Thursday was how best to craft public education campaigns amid legalization, and how to rework the messaging toward youth.
“It requires a change in the conversation about how you talk about cannabis and youth because you’re no longer saying that ‘you can never use it, it’s against the law,’” Todd said, adding that the conversation is instead, “‘don’t use this until you’re an adult, and then if you do, you need to use it safely in these ways.’ So it requires a shift in the dialog.”
Overall, the topics raised throughout the day largely mirrored conversations taking place in states in the US considering cannabis reforms: potential conflicts between state and federal law (what if Victoria legalizes ahead of Australia?); the need for data on health impacts of consumption; whether there are any benefits of prohibition; what happens when illicit markets persist in legal states; and product potency caps.
Patten noted this week that “cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Victoria” and that its illegal trade is “worth at $8 billion annually.”