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New Cannabis Laws Recommended

NATIONAL DRUG RESEARCH INSTITUTE MEDIA RELEASE

Tuesday 13 June 2000

Cannabis users apprehended for the first time should be given a caution, and subsequent offenders should be given a fine but no criminal record. Fines should also apply to the provision of small amounts of the drug, in order to move the cannabis market away from large-scale criminal suppliers, and towards small-scale user-growers.

These are some of the recommendations of a report proposing a new set of laws for regulating cannabis possession, use and supply in Victoria, released today by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University in Perth.

The document is the result of a six-month study carried out on behalf of the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee (DCPC) of the Parliament of Victoria. The aim of the project was to consider all the available scientific evidence and arguments relating to cannabis regulation and use, and produce an independent, expert document to stimulate public debate in Victoria.

NDRI researcher, Simon Lenton, who led the international project team, said that under the proposed model, possession of cannabis by an adult would still be illegal. However, possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and not more than 3 mature plants would attract an initial caution and subsequent fine of up to $150 but no criminal conviction. A $50 fine would apply for possession of 25 grams or less. Individuals receiving a fine could pay up within 28 days or attend a cannabis education session.

Possession of more than 50 grams and 3 mature plants would attract a criminal conviction and a heavier fine. Cannabis offences committed by those under 17 years of age would be dealt with under existing provisions for juvenile offenders.

Supply of up to 50 grams of cannabis to an adult would be illegal, but subject to a fine of $150. Supply to a minor would attract severe criminal penalties.

"The model of cannabis law we have recommended combines the best features of the infringement notice systems in place in South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory, with the cannabis cautioning systems that are already in place in Victoria and Western Australia. Both of these approaches have been shown to be consistent with Australia's obligations under international drug conventions", said Mr Lenton.

"Under infringement notice systems, minor cannabis offences are treated rather like speeding offences, in that they are still illegal, but attract a fine rather than a criminal conviction", he said.

Mr Lenton said that a criticism of existing cannabis infringement notice and cautioning systems is that while they deal with the user end of the market, even low level provision of cannabis to an adult is subject to severe criminal penalties. This ignores the fact that most cannabis users are unable, or unwilling, to grow their own cannabis, and have to buy it from the illicit market. Recent research among first-time offenders in Western Australia and South Australia has found that less than 30 percent grow cannabis as their main source of supply, with the vast majority purchasing the drug from others.

"A market where the majority of users bought cannabis from small-scale user-growers would be less harmful than one dominated by large-scale criminals, who may also sell more hazardous drugs. That is why the proposed model applies civil rather than criminal penalties to low level provision of cannabis", said Mr Lenton.

Although the aim of the project was to make recommendations for cannabis regulation in Victoria, the proposed model is equally applicable to other jurisdictions in Australia.

"We hope that the recommended model, and the evidence reviewed in our report, will contribute to the deliberations of government, policy advisers and the general public on cannabis law in all States and Territories, not just Victoria", said Mr Lenton.

ENDS

For further media information, contact: Rachael Lobo, Media Liaison Officer, NDRI Tel (08) 9426 4227 Mobile 0414 682 055 Simon Lenton, Research Fellow, NDRI Tel (08) 9426 4203 Mobile 0417 957 910

BACKGROUND TO THE REPORT

Lenton, S., Heale, P., Erickson, P., Single, E., Lang, E., Hawks, D. (2000) The regulation of cannabis possession, use and supply: A discussion document prepared for the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee of the Parliament of Victoria. (NDRI Monograph No 3). National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

The project involved . An extensive review of the international literature. . Consideration of all available evidence on cannabis use and related harms in Victoria and elsewhere. . Consideration of the various legislative and regulatory models of cannabis control. . A review of the international and Australian experience of applying such models. . Recommendation of the best model for the Victorian context based on current evidence. . Consideration of the possible impacts of the proposed model on youth. . The Current Situation

Current cannabis use in Victoria

Rates of cannabis use in Victoria are similar to elsewhere in Australia. In 1995, 31 percent of Victorians aged 14 years and over had used cannabis at least once in their life, and 13 percent had used in the past year.

Current cannabis laws in Victoria

A total prohibition model currently exists in which all activity associated with the possession, use, growth, sale or supply of cannabis is considered criminal. Possession of less than 50 grams for personal use incurs a $500 (max) fine and a criminal conviction. Cultivation for non-trafficking purposes incurs a $2000 fine and a one-year prison sentence (max).

However, since September 1998, cautions have been given for first and second offences involving less than 50 grams of cannabis.

Current cannabis offences in Victoria

In Victoria, as elsewhere in Australia, cannabis offences use up a significant amount of criminal justice system resources. People charged with cannabis offences account for about 10 percent of those charged for any offence, and about 69 percent of people charged with a drug offence. For approximately 6000 Victorians per year (65 percent of those charged with a cannabis offence), possession or use of a small amount of cannabis is their most serious offence.

Recent Australian research has shown that:

. Introduction of civil penalties for minor cannabis offences in SA in 1987 did not lead to an increase in regular cannabis users . Neither criminal penalties nor civil penalties have much impact on the cannabis use of those apprehended . Social costs on users in terms of employment, further trouble with the law, relationships, etc. were greater under a criminal rather than a civil penalties system . SA public, police and judiciary were supportive of civil penalties for minor cannabis offences . SA civil penalty system estimated to save $1.4million per year over a criminal penalties system.

The Proposed Model

Principles underlying the recommended model . Cannabis is not harm free, but it is much less harmful than many other drugs. . Penalties should not encourage use, nor patterns of use which may increase harm. . Laws should aim to shape the market towards user-growers and away from large-scale supply by criminal elements. . The model should be practical for police, the courts and users of the drug.

Features of the recommended model

. Possession by an adult of up to 50 grams of cannabis and not more than 3 mature plants would attract a caution or a fine of up to $150 but no criminal conviction. . A $50 fine would apply for possession of not more than 25 grams. Those fined could pay it within 28 days or attend a cannabis education session. . First offenders would be issued with a formal caution, which would include information about cannabis, the law and relevant treatment services. . Provision of up to 50 grams of cannabis to an adult would be illegal but subject to a fine of $150. Supply to a minor would attract severe criminal penalties. . Cannabis offences committed by those under 17 years of age would be dealt with under the existing provisions for juveniles . Records of non-supply offences would be automatically expunged after 2 years . Penalties for driving while impaired by cannabis would be similar to those for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Goals of the recommended model

If implemented, the recommended model should be independently evaluated against its goals, which are to: . Not increase the number of regular users but provide funds for cannabis treatment. . Reduce the adverse social costs for individuals apprehended, in particular the costs arising from a criminal record. . Reduce the police, court and corrections resources devoted to minor cannabis offences. . Reduce the proportion of cannabis supplied by large-scale criminal elements. . Use funds raised to educate the public about cannabis law and the hazards of use.

ENDS

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