Often seen by outsiders as a fairly progressive country, Australia has a tendency to follow closely behind its European and American brethren when it comes to social legislation. When it comes to pot, however, the continent is quickly catching up with the pack.
Not only has recent legislation made medicinal marijuana in Australia use legal, the conversation around recreational pot is also gaining positive traction. With widespread support, is it possible that cannabis might become totally legal in the near future?
To understand the debate’s trajectory, it helps to know where the country’s pot laws started.
Pot in Australia: A Brief History
Sir Joseph Banks can be credited with introducing common hemp seeds to the Australian continent. Marked as an item for commerce, his shipment would go on to be the basis for 150 years of government-supported hemp farming.
For the same amount of time, growers would be gifted with land parcels and monetary gifts to aid in cannabis cultivation: hemp was not only being used industrially, but marijuana consumption in the early 19th century was incredibly common. The plant was popular for its medicinal properties, but it was widely consumed as an intoxicant in the literary and musical communities.
Marijuana’s heyday came to an end in Australia at the same time as its popularity tumbled around the world: with the signing of the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs. Suddenly what had previously been seen as a relatively tame pastime, like drinking alcohol, was lumped in with serious drugs like morphine, cocaine, and heroin.
Under the new laws, cannabis became illegal for all purposes, despite its widespread use for its medicinal properties at the time.
Unfortunately, the 1920’s legislation around marijuana was passed with minimal research into its uses; with laws being formed largely around opium use, other drugs, like cannabis, were being lumped into legislation without much consideration.
By 1928 the state of Victoria had passed cannabis prohibitive legislation, and over the next thirty years, each of the remaining Australian states would follow Victoria’s lead.
The cannabis industry has come a long way since the 1920s, and Australia’s position on the drug has always been fairly progressive. Policy around drug enforcement has largely been focused on harm-minimisation and treatment, versus punishment.
So, after watching U.S. states begin individually legalizing the use of medical marijuana starting in 1996, it hasn’t taken all that long for Australia to follow suit.
The Rise of Pot As Medicine
On the 17th of October 2015, the Australian Federal Government made the sweeping announcement that it would legalize marijuana farming for use in medicine and science.
That promise came to fruition on February 24th, 2015 when the Narcotics Drugs Act was amended to allow for cannabis growth. In 2016, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes was legalized, and the first prescriptions were written in New South Wales and Western Australia, the other states following in 2017.
While this legalization was a huge step for the Australian government, there are still a bevy of restrictions on the industry, including what specific strains of cannabis can legally be grown and distributed. This has the potential to limit how many people can be treated. Debates are also still raging over whether the plant can be grown outdoors versus greenhouses, what formulations it can be sold in for medical purposes, and how the government will make provisions to allow enough pot in the country, whether grown or imported, to meet the medical community’s demand.
Pot As a Pastime
Today, the use of cannabis for recreational purposes is still illegal. That doesn’t mean there isn’t major support for it, however.
Back in 2013– the first time the Australian National University surveyed Australians about legalizing recreational marijuana– 44% of those surveyed felt that marijuana should remain a crime in the country, versus just 34% who supported legalization.
Their follow-up survey in 2016 completely flipped that number on its head; 43% of Australians are now behind pot’s legalization, versus the 32% who feel it should remain a criminal offense.
Those numbers have been reflected in a variety of surveys– like the one conducted by ABC’s The Drum, in which 70% of the 35,500 polled Australians supported the legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes.
Even Alex Wodak– president of Australia’s Drug Law Reform Foundation– feels that Australia is closely tracking the U.S. in legalization favor. According to his calculations, 60% of the total population backs recreational marijuana being taxed and regulated by the government.
You see, the politics of pot in Australia go way beyond getting high; the medical marijuana market could result in a $100 million industry in just a year. The possibility of introducing taxation on a much wider, recreational use market could result in a cash influx worth billions of dollars for the Australian government.
The Road Ahead
At this point, it’s unclear how soon (if ever) recreational marijuana use will be legal in Australia. At the moment, the government is still churning over how to properly handle the medical market: no surprise, since the medicinal cannabis industry only really started budding at the beginning of 2017.
Today, the Australian government is focused on creating legislation around the various aspects of the industry that come into play with medicinal legalization, like providing a supply.
At the moment the government is importing medical marijuana from international suppliers in order to meet the demand, but in order to make the system efficient (and lucrative), it’s imperative that they create a clear path for Australian growers to enter the market.
The first business legally allowed to grow pot in the country is the Cann Group, who also received one of the country’s first cannabis research licenses. As the industry bulks up, however, Australia is doing its best to bring medical marijuana into the country from overseas. Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced that the nation will be making provisions to allow for quicker importation to support the cancer and epilepsy patients who rely on the drug in the time being.
Despite the lack of current focus, it’s likely that Australia will turn back to argument over recreational legalization in the near future. It’s clear that there could be huge financial implications in the taxation of cannabis, but the legalization stands to be a boon for the government in another substantial way: aiding law enforcement.
Australia is currently spending $1.5 billion dollars fighting drug use, a large percentage of which is employed in the war against pot. Not only would legalizing marijuana alleviate the cost burden, it has the potential to free up law enforcement officers to focus on keeping more severe drugs, like meth, off the streets. With excellent examples like Colorado’s legislative policies as a great foundation for successful legal practices, the process will not be as daunting as it was for the pioneers in the industry.
With widespread public support, it’s clear that the Australian people are ready to see recreational marijuana made legal. It seems that it will take some time, however, for the government to catch up.