Legalization of Recreational Cannabis


Cannabis use for recreational purposes should be permitted and not subject to criminal sanctions under the law because it is unjust, and lead to stigma for those who are recreational users. Moreover, cannabis can be a source of economic benefits, and legalisation of cannabis can help to reduce violent crime associated with the drug trade, reduce the cost of the criminal justice system and lead to increased safety. This report advocates for the parliament to go beyond legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes under the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016, and extend a legalisation model to recreational cannabis as well.

Purpose behind cannabis prohibition

The purpose behind cannabis prohibition is to decrease the cannabis use in the society by providing a general deterrence against cannabis use through criminal sanctions. However, cannabis prohibition does not work to decrease cannabis use significantly as studies conducted in Australia evidence (Lenton, 2000). Conversely, legislation decriminalizing cannabis use in Australia has not led to significant increase in cannabis use in Australia (Lenton, 2000). In Australia, for the greater part the focus of the legislators and policy makers has been to ensure that no wrong message is given out for the cannabis use by reducing punishment as this may lead to the general notion that cannabis use is being condoned (Lenton, 2000).


Therefore, there is an emphasis on general deterrence in law, where it is argued that by providing punishment for use of cannabis in the recreational sense, what is being done is that there is a general deterrence being provided so that those who do not use cannabis are deterred from using it (Lenton, 2000). Ideology does shape the policy response to cannabis use and the notion of deterrence may be related to this ideology more than to scientific evidence of the ills of cannabis use and the ills of cannabis prohibition policy (Macleod & Hickman, 2010).

Expiation notices in Australia and impact

As an exception to this general notion of deterrence, there Australian jurisdictions passed laws to introduce expiation notice which meant that the person who has been found using cannabis, could pay a fine within a due period and not have to undergo any other criminal penalties (Lenton, 2000). These three jurisdictions were South Australia, which introduced the expiation notice in 1987; Australian Capital Territory, which introduced expiation notice in 1992; and the Northern Territory, which introduced the system in 1996 (Lenton, 2000).

Research conducted in the The National Drug Strategy Household Report in 1996, for comparing the cannabis use incidence in these three jurisdictions and the other jurisdictions within Australia, that had not introduced similar system found that there was no significant increase in cannabis usage in the territories where the expiation notice had been introduced (Lenton, 2000, p. 96). On the other hand, the same National Drug Strategy Household Report found that there was significant increase in drug use in states where cannabis usage had been met with stricter penalties (Lenton, 2000). The research into the cannabis usage led Lenton (2000) to argue that if those states that had stricter penalties for cannabis usage noted significant increase in the use of cannabis, then the notion that general deterrence worked to decrease cannabis usage was an incorrect or faulty one and open to challenge. Instead Linton (2000) argued that minor cannabis offences should not be subject to criminal sanctions as this has effectively failed to deter cannabis usage, which was the primary motivation for the passing of this law. Moreover, research also indicates that there is low level of social support for legislation that subjects minor cannabis offences to criminal sanctions (Lenton, 2000). On the other hand, literature indicates that there is a tendency of policy makers to ignore the perceptions and opinions of drug users, especially marginalized drug users, regarding policy on drug use and prohibition of drug use (Stevens & Ritter, 2013). What this shows is that there is a gap between policy and perceptions of the target population and also the general public to some extent.

Portrayal of drug users

In the literature around drug use, there is a tendency to ignore the perspectives of the users (Lancaster, Sutherland, & Ritter, 2014). This leads to a unidimensional approach in the literature towards drug users, where the literature tends to portray the drug users as people who are depraved, criminal, poor, child-like and in need of rescue or in need of control or punishment (Singer & Page, 2014). To some extent, literature mirrors the social perceptions and conceptualisation of drug users and there is a failure to understand the key dimensions of a drug user’s life (Hellman, 2012). There is a tendency to generalise the experiences and attributes of drug users, which means that there is a tendency to overlook the individualities that constitute the group (Keane, Moore, & Fraser, 2011). This is problematic because this generates a tendency to overlook the fact that the experiences of cannabis users can vary from unpleasant to insightful (Sandberg & Tutenges, Meeting the Djinn: Stories of drug use, bad trips and addiction, 2015). On the other hand, the reality may be that the lives of drug users cannot always be comprehended and transformed into written words (Sandberg, 2009). In any case, there is a development of a social consciousness that drug users are all depraved or criminal and there is a need to make strict laws or policy to deal with the issue of drug or cannabis use.

In terms of social policy, interventions and legislation, this mindset or unidimensional approach to drug users is counter-productive as many of these interventions and social policies are ill-informed and ill-prepared, where the policy makers are acting over zealously in order to show that they are taking initiative and social responsibility (Hellman, 2012). Literature shows that such interventions fail despite the best intentions that drive such interventions and fail to benefit the people that are targeted by such interventions (Hellman, 2012). The answer to why such policy and legislation fail to make a mark may lie in the gap between the policy and the perception about cannabis use. A study based in Canada points to the perceptions of recreational cannabis users who support legalisation of cannabis for the following reasons: “(a) prohibition is unjust, (b) economic benefits, (c) reducing violent crime associated with the drug trade, (d) reducing the cost of the criminal justice system, (e) increased safety, and (f) reducing the stigma associated with cannabis use” (Osborne & Fogel, 2017, p. 12).

Problems associated with cannabis prohibition policy

To consider points (c) to (f) mentioned above first, reference may be made to recent research that shows how pursuit of drug prohibition in criminal law has led to aggressive and harmful practices that seek to target people growing crops including cannabis (Csete, et al., 2016). Moreover, there are parallel economies that are generated by the pursuit of drug prohibition. These parallel economies are run by criminal networks (Csete, et al., 2016). Dangerous criminal organisations are part of these criminal networks, and the police, army and paramilitaries that are involved in pursuing these organisations contribute to the violence in the society (Csete, et al., 2016). Example can be given of Mexico, which has seen an increase in homicides and violence due to the crimes related to drug transit and sales (Csete, et al., 2016). Meanwhile those who are involved in the networks, including those involved in production of cannabis, are increasingly outside the domain of public health and education campaigns, which makes it difficult for the state authorities to reach such people for the

purpose of offering them basic health services (Csete, et al., 2016). Thus, from the perspective of people involved in cannabis production as well as sale, there is an interlinking with drug networks and dangerous criminal gangs because cannabis prohibition pushes them outside the normal economy into a parallel economy which involves such dangerous elements. Cannabis users also face similar issues due to the pursuit of drug prohibition. Drug prohibition in general leads to a creation of a parallel sub culture in the society of drug users who are seen as deviants by the others (Becker, 1971). Deviance is the “creation of the public imagination” but it creates a sub culture where lived experiences of the so called deviants are different from those who are considered to be normal (Becker, 1971, p. 341). In cannabis users, the labelling of deviance may also lead to the cannabis users forming a sub culture with other drug users who may be involved in more lethal types of drug abuse (Becker, 1971). When that happens, there is exposure to other types of drug use and this is one of the issues with drug prohibition. In drug users who are involved in the injecting of other drugs, there is a risk of use of contaminated equipment, which is one of the routes to HIV exposure and viral hepatitis transmission (Csete, et al., 2016). People who inject drugs may also contract tuberculosis due to the use of contaminated equipment (Csete, et al., 2016). Repressive drug policing may significantly contribute to the risk of HIV linked to injection and such repressive policing may also become an impediment to access services such as needle and syringe programmes. Therefore, the creation of sub cultures through labelling of people as deviants and treating all drug users at par, that is, treating recreational cannabis users as the same as those who are dependent on more lethal types of drugs, leads to more problems in public health rather than resolving problems in public health. Legalisation of cannabis use for recreational purposes is also advocated to decrease such risks for cannabis users (Room, 2014). There is indeed a great concern that cannabis legalisation may increase cannabis use

among young people and adolescents (Hall & Weier, 2015); however, in all fairness the risks of cannabis use exists with prohibition also and in environments that pose more risk to the young person.

Implementation of drug prohibition law

The implementation of the drug prohibition also is an important issue here as studies in the US, Canada and even Australia have shown that there is a tendency of the police to boost arrest totals by unethical means (Csete, et al., 2016). Police often targets facilities that provide help to drug users to find, harass, and detain significant number of people who use drugs (Csete, et al., 2016). Due to the fear of such harassment, people who use drugs are often forced to carry used syringes and also share these leading to unsafe practices that have tremendous impact on the public health outcomes (Csete, et al., 2016). It is therefore pragmatic to consider how such risks can be decreased by harm minimisation through policy measures (Smith, Smith, & Stewart, 2008)
There is also the issue of harassment of ethnic minorities or racial minorities and an uneven application of the drug prohibition law. This is the best exemplified by the American case, where racial bias in policing, arrest, and sentencing has become the subject of intensive research and literature. It has been documented that African American men are more than five times likely to be incarcerated for drug related offences as compared to white men (Csete, et al., 2016). Finally, drug overdoses are also linked to unregulated illegal drug markets as it becomes impossible to control adulterants that are responsible for many overdoses (Csete, et al., 2016). Drug overdose is an important concern in public health and drug prohibition policy in the

context of cannabis use needs to be reconsidered in order to respond to this concern in public health (Van Ours, 2012).

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Drug prohibition in the context of cannabis use is counter productive and has not provided evidence of decrease in cannabis use, which is the stated aim of such policy. Instead, drug prohibition has exposed people to form sub cultures of drug users, exposed them to risk of infections and disease and also the risk of overdoses. A regulated market, at least in cannabis use is recommended as a part of the policy change on drug prohibition. This reform is needed to respond to the issues of public health that are raised by cannabis prohibition.


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