By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
An extensive study conducted in the United States suggests that legalising cannabis has not led to a rise in either property crime or violent crime.
The research adds further credibility to calls for cannabis legalisation in Australia, helping debunk the conservative myth that cannabis use leads to criminality.
Imprisoning the indigent
The US currently imprisons nearly 2.3 million people, which is the largest prison population on earth.
A significant portion are behind bars for low level offending, including repeated low level drug offences such as drug possession.
The nation disproportionately imprisons the poorest and most vulnerable, including African and Latino Americans, and mandatory sentencing policies such as ‘three strikes’ laws ensure low level felonies lead to lengthy prison sentences, even life imprisonment.
The recent study, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, used crime rate data from 1988 to 2013 from states which initially decriminalised medicinal cannabis, many of whom proceeded to legalise the use and possession of the drug.
Researchers compared that data with year-by-year averages from states which did not legalise the plant, finding no discernible difference.
The Californian experience
California was the first jurisdiction in the United States to legalise medicinal cannabis in 1996, with 30 states and the District of Columbia later following in its footsteps.
Over the period of the study, violent and property crime rates have dropped by 20%.
It is important to note that, as is the case in NSW, these types of crimes have been falling throughout the US for over 30 years – and it is certainly not suggested that legalisation is a primary reason behind the reduction.
However, it should also be noted that crime rates in California have fallen at a faster rate than states that did not legalise the medicinal or recreation use of the plant, and that research has found that legalisation has now all-but destroyed the black market for the drug in the state, crushing a number of Mexican drug cartels and even leading some go out of business – with their violent crimes going with them.
Drug possession remains a crime in our state.
The maximum penalty for possession a prohibited drug, such as cannabis, is two years in prison and/or a fine of $2,200.
For a person to be found guilty, the prosecution needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he or she:
- Had physical possession or control of a prohibited drug,
- Knew or reasonably believed it was there, and
- Knew or reasonably believed the substance was a prohibited drug.
If a person pleads guilty or is found guilty of cannabis possession, the magistrate can exercise his or her discretion not to impose a criminal conviction (criminal record) but, instead, dismiss the charge under section 10(1)(a) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) or place the person on a Conditional Release Order without conviction for up to two years.
Cannabis cautioning scheme
Since the year 2000, NSW has had a cannabis cautioning scheme which allows police officers to exercise their discretion in certain situations not to send people to court for possessing cannabis.
Police can only issue a cannabis caution to adults who have not previously been convicted of a drug offence, a sexual offence or an offence of violence.
A caution is only available for possessing under 15 grams of cannabis, and only two cautions can be administered upon any person.
Medicinal cannabis in New South Wales
In NSW, both the cannabis prescriber and product itself are required to go through the arduous process of registration and licensing.
It is legal for those suffering certain medical conditions to access medicinal cannabis under clinical trials or the Special Access and Authorised Prescriber Schemes administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TPA).
As of October 2018, the TPA has approved the following medical conditions:
- chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
- refractory pediatric epilepsy
- palliative care indications
- cancer pain
- neuropathic pain
- spasticity from neurological conditions
- anorexia and wasting associated with chronic illness (such as cancer).
Just legalise it
Neither of the major political parties, whether on a state or federal level, support the broader legalisation of cannabis.
The Greens is the only party with seats in federal parliament to have announced a policy to legalise the use and possession of the plant across Australia.
The plan is to make cannabis available through an “Australian Cannabis Agency”, which would have the sole responsibility for distributing the product.
The new Agency would issue licendes for production and sale, as well as monitor retailers.
It would also be responsible for collecting a tobacco-style tax from consumers, which would then be used for education and treatment programs.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has criticised the, asserting the (widely disproven) claim that cannabis is a “gateway drug” to other “harder drugs”.
“We do not believe it is safe, responsible or something which should be allowed”, Mr Hunt stated.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has accused the Greens of generating “political clickbait”, making clear he does not support broader legalisation.