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A two-year State Parliament inquiry that was set to recommend legalising cannabis in Victoria has been watered down after Andrews government MPs intervened at the last minute.
The inquiry’s report, to be released on Thursday morning, now suggests the government “investigate the impacts of legalising cannabis for adult personal use in Victoria” – a marginal step that dents proponents’ hopes of a shift in the state’s drug policy in the foreseeable future.
A shift on cannabis policy is unlikely in the foreseeable future despite evidence presented to the inquiry.Credit:Reuters
The inquiry considered evidence on both the decriminalisation and legalisation of the drug before the axed recommendations of the inquiry were drafted. Decriminalisation removes criminal penalties for the possession or use of the drug, while legalisation removes further barriers and can open it up to regulation.
The majority of evidence from Australian and international health and legal experts to the inquiry favoured decriminalising cannabis for personal use, including making it legal to grow a small number of plants at home.
However, some experts along with Victoria Police opposed decriminalisation, arguing cannabis use can exacerbate mental health problems, antisocial behaviour and road trauma.
A framework for allowing cannabis for personal use, initially recommended by the committee chaired by Reason Party MP Fiona Patten, would replicate the Australian Capital Territory where people can possess and grow small amounts. They did not go as far as some parts of the US, where it is sold over the counter and taxed.
When the Victorian report was in its final stages, the three Labor MPs on the committee leading the inquiry used their majority power to water down the recommendations, in what a fellow MP on the committee called a “galling” last-minute move.
“I found it galling that you could sit in an inquiry for a year, Fiona could do all that hard work, then the government could simply come over the top and change the recommendations before they’re made public,” said the MP, who spoke anonymously because members of Parliament are prohibited from discussing reports before they are tabled.
All members of the committee, including Labor MPs Dr Thien Kieu, Sheena Watt and Kaushaliya Vaghela, were involved in the drafting of the initial recommendations before the ALP members voted to water them down for the final report. Among the axed recommendations was that all people with a minor cannabis conviction should have it removed from their criminal record.
Liberal MP Georgie Crozier was on the committee but an opponent of legalisation.
In a move indicative of a resistance to significant change on cannabis policy, the government chose to alter the report before it was released.
The decision means the Andrews government will avoid coming under pressure to pass legislation enacting the recommendation, which may have prompted opposition from sections of the community before next November’s election.
Several of the Andrews government’s social reforms, including legalising voluntary assisted dying and establishing a spent convictions scheme, were enacted after parliamentary committees investigated the policies and recommended changes.
A Victorian government spokeswoman told The Age that “our focus is on fighting the pandemic and creating jobs – we have no plans to legalise cannabis”.
Reason Party MP Fiona Patten is in favour of legalising cannabis.Credit:Eddie Jim
“We’ll continue to invest in reducing drug related harms and supporting Victorians affected by drug use and will consider the recommendations in that context,” she said.
Ms Patten, in her comments accompanying the final report, said “the overwhelming majority of stakeholders supported the need for cannabis law reform”.
“Time and time again the committee heard that the current criminalisation approach to cannabis in Victoria is not addressing problematic use of cannabis and is in fact contributing to the harms experienced by vulnerable groups.”
Ms Patten said the inquiry was established in 2019 to investigate how to prevent the harms of cannabis and keep it out of the hands of young people and criminals. It heard about 29 per cent of young Victorians use cannabis, more than those who smoke tobacco.
Cultivating small amounts of cannabis became legal in the ACT in 2020.Credit:David Dermer
Evidence suggested benefits of legalisation would include keeping young and vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system, preventing them from becoming involved with criminals and improving education and treatment by removing the stigma around cannabis.
Estimates prepared by State Parliament suggested Victoria would save $725 million over 10 years due to a reduction in justice and police costs. Taking a further step and legalising cannabis for over-the-counter-sale, taxed at a rate of 30 per cent, would net the state $835 million over a decade.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Glenn Weir told the inquiry in June that “significant harm” was caused by use, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis.
“This harm is particularly prevalent in young people and can manifest in mental health problems, unemployment, education problems, association with antisocial peers and engagement in criminal offending,” he said, adding cannabis was detected in the body of one in five road deaths in 2020.
Mr Weir said police were closely watching research from overseas jurisdictions, including Canada and 19 states in the US, that have legalised marijuana in the past five years.
“Our observation of the experiences overseas tell us that it is really hard, once you go down a certain path, to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said.
In an example of health experts’ evidence in favour of decriminalisation, Professor Tom Decorte, director of the Institute for Social Drug Research at Belgium’s Ghent University, said “this whole debate is not about whether or not cannabis does contain risks”.
“But it is all about a better strategy to fight the phenomenon and to get a better grip and more control over the phenomenon.”
He said the prohibition of cannabis had not significantly decreased use or the associated harms in most Western societies.
“It is not effective, it is not working, and that is why regulation of the phenomenon seems to be a better strategy in combating, in struggling, in waging a war on cannabis use,” Professor Decorte said.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance, comprised of 1500 members, called the current policy “clearly ineffective, serving to criminalise drug users rather than facilitate their treatment”.
“The criminal justice system carries the major burden of drug policy in Australia … as a result, significantly more public resources are expended on criminal law enforcement as opposed to health or treatment,” it wrote in its submission.
Possession of cannabis has been decriminalised in South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT for nearly 30 years. The ACT’s Labor government passed laws in 2020 allowing adults to grow and possess small amounts for personal use.
The 17 recommendations of the final Victorian report suggested the caution system for those under 18 who commit low-level cannabis offences, currently a discretionary policy for police, instead become legally mandatory. It also recommended a review of school-based drug education.
Victorian crossbench MP David Limbrick from the Liberal Democrats said he attended almost every meeting and hearing of the cannabis inquiry and was “very disappointed with the outcome”.
“I was not happy with the report and have submitted my own minority report that will be released on Thursday,” he said.
“I support full legalisation of cannabis. I think the evidence presented to the inquiry was crystal clear that legalisation presents a golden opportunity to undermine organised crime in this state”
Dr Kieu declined to comment.
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