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Tough Drug Laws 'No Deterrent'

Tough anti-cannabis laws fail to deter most offenders from using the drug again and can often have serious long-term social costs, including relationship breakdowns and loss of employment, a study has found.

The report also says prohibitive drug laws often mean that offenders caught with small amounts of the drug are more likely to become further involved with the police.

The study, which compared Western Australia's prohibitive cannabis laws with the liberal cautioning system used in South Australia, found that the social costs of minor cannabis offences under a punitive system could be much worse than any health effects suffered by users.

The study was conducted by researchers from the South Australian Drug and Alcohol Services Council and Curtin University's National Centre for Research into the Prevention of Drug Abuse.

It forms part of a four-year national study into the social impact of cannabis legislation which has been undertaken by researchers from NSW, Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian universities and funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.

The results of the reports are likely to have a major impact on national drug policy talks on cannabis laws. They come in the wake of the NSW Government's decision to introduce a trial police caution system for minor cannabis offences while the Victorian Government nears the end of a 12-month pilot of similar, even more liberal laws.

A research fellow at the centre, Mr Simon Lenton, said the health risks of cannabis use were often debated in the media but little was said about the social harms associated with a conviction.

He said previous research at the centre had shown that each day, two to three West Australians were given a criminal record as a direct result of being arrested for possession or use of a small amount of cannabis.

"The latest findings show a conviction for a minor cannabis offence can have real and detrimental impacts on people's lives for many years after the event that are far worse than those due to an infringement notice under the South Australian system," he said.

The study concluded that receiving a criminal conviction and record resulted in negative experiences for first time cannabis users and their families. It found:

* Neither a cannabis conviction nor an infringement notice had much impact on interviewees' subsequent cannabis use, with 90 per cent saying it had not led them to cut down on their cannabis use.

* Many minor cannabis offenders in South Australia and Western Australia appeared to be otherwise law abiding.

* Some 32 per cent of the West Australian group compared with only 2 per cent of the South Australian infringement notice group were sacked from a job, did not get a job they applied for or stopped applying for some jobs as a result of their conviction.

* The study showed 20 per cent of the West Australian group compared with 5 per cent of the South Australia infringement notice group experienced relationship problems.

* Some 16 per cent of the West Australian group had to move house or lost accommodation as a result of their conviction compared to none in South Australia.

* It found 32 per cent of the West Australian group identified at least one later involvement with the criminal justice system which they related to their cannabis conviction, possibly because they had become known to police from that first conviction.

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