Act now to halt 'cannabis disaster'
THE liberalisation of the laws regulating cannabis has
gone too far and the states must clamp down now to avert a health
disaster, the nation's top doctors' body has warned. And Coalition MPs
meeting in Canberra yesterday sounded their alarm over the effects of
cannabis use on mental health, after The Weekend Australian reported the
rising number of people using illicit drugs was a "time bomb".
Australian Medical Association national president
Mukesh Haikerwal said decriminalisation of cannabis had been taken to
extremes in some states, particularly when users were able to escape
penalty by multiple cautions.
A comparison of state penalties for cannabis
possession, use and supply by The Australian shows considerable
variation between the jurisdictions. One of the most liberal is Western
Australia, where under laws that came into effect last year police have
discretion to fine cannabis users instead of charging them. But
offenders can escape the fine by attending a drug education session.
"Some states ... may have gone too far away from a
strong line," Dr Haikerwal said. "One caution is OK, but after that I
think you have to come down quite hard." At least four other states give
cautions for offences involving small amounts of cannabis. Queensland
allows one caution per individual, but NSW and Victoria both allow two
and Tasmania allows three in 10 years.
NSW Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop told a Coalition
partyroom meeting yesterday that cannabis was responsible for many
"scrambled brains" among teenagers and called for a national advertising
campaign to alert people to the health risks.
West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop and Health
Minister Jim McGinty have defended decriminalisation, saying it had
worked well and that while cannabis was dangerous, there was no evidence
stiffer penalties reduced use -- a message backed by a leading drugs
research group. It is understood John Howard told the meeting one of the
main reasons for the nation's mental health problems was the permissive
attitudes to cannabis of the older generation. According to one MP
present, the Prime Minister said these attitudes "informed the behaviour
of young people today, who see their parents smoking cannabis and can't
see anything wrong with following their example".
In the first 12 months of the new West Australian
regime, where jail terms and fines are replaced by penalty notices,
cautions and education, police issued fines of up to $200 to 3591 people
caught with less than 30g of cannabis, a smoking implement or up to two
The laws allow offenders to escape the fine by
attending a workshop on the health effects of cannabis. The sanctions
were based on recommendations from the state's 2001 drugs summit, which
included police, doctors, community agencies and leading researchers.
South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson
said the state Government had no plan to revise cannabis laws, but there
was bipartisan support for a private member's bill that would increase
Federal parliamentary secretary for health Christopher
Pyne called for states to tighten up their laws, saying he was
"surprised at their lacklustre response". "What the states have done by
decriminalising cannabis is improve their crime statistics, but they
can't change the fact that the mental health of young people is worse as
a result," he said. "I think the laws are lax and send the wrong
However, Simon Lenton, deputy director of the
Perth-based National Drug Research Institute, based at Curtin
University, said the evidence was that as long as cannabis use remained
illegal, there was no relationship between penalties and rates of use.
"Studies that have been done comparing rates of use in different places
don't find rates are affected by law changes," Dr Lenton said.
And fear of a criminal record often prevented people
from seeking help to beat their habit.
Adam Cresswell and Paige Taylor
2 November 2005