By Jarryd Bartle, Policy and Campaigns Advisor

The election of Jacinda Ardern as New Zealand’s Prime Minister, has brought with it a ray of hope for marijuana enthusiasts in the country, with the New Zealand PM hinting at a likely referendum on the issue of cannabis legalisation in 2020.

As a close neighbour with similar political sentiments, this raises the issue of whether Australia is likely to legalise cannabis products down under. Indeed, there are good reasons why — now more than ever — Australia is likely to legalise cannabis.

A Global Trend

Decriminalisation and legalisation of recreational cannabis is a continuing trend overseas, providing a variety of comparative models for legalisation at home.

Cannabis is legal for consumption (under diverse regulatory schemes) in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington in the US, Alaska, Uruguay, Spain, Slovenia, Netherlands, Jamaica, Columbia and Chile.

Canada is well on its way to joining the club, with a proposed legalisation scheme to be implemented later this year.

Looking on a global scale, Australia appears to be falling behind similar Western countries on the issue of cannabis. We have began a (very slow and protracted) journey toward legalisation of medicinal cannabis. Moreover, limited decriminalisation of possession and use has been implement in the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia.

Overall, Australia is trailing a global trend and is primed to follow suit as long as a few key hurdles can be overcome.

A Popular Drug

Although opinion polls on cannabis legalisation put acceptance of medicinal legalisation at 91%, and recreational legalisation at 31%, social positions may be better gauged through rates of usage.

Australia has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world. Over a third of Australians will try cannabis in their lifetime, with about 1 in 10 smoking at least once annually. This rate of use is higher than areas where cannabis is decriminalised and even higher than areas where there are legal cannabis markets. Aussies really, really like pot.

The de-stigmatisation of recreational cannabis through overseas legal markets is also likely to increase acceptance locally. With such popular demand for cannabis products, it is difficult to see current criminalisation remaining unchallenged.

Fears About Legalisation Are Unfounded

Concerns regarding recreational cannabis focus heavily on concerns regarding increased usage by young people, impacts on mental health and outdated ‘gateway drug’ myths.

Luckily, these fears have not come to pass in countries that have legalised the product.

Reviews of legalisation schemes have found decreasing or steady rates of teen usage, lower rates of addiction and no evidence supporting the ‘gateway’ hypothesis. This is a consistent result found in review, after review, after review of overseas legalisation models.

Moreover, concerns regarding rising mental health — although valid for a tiny minority of users — have not been borne out by evidence. Although evidence is still limited in some jurisdictions, one key advantage of proposing cannabis legalisation in Australia is that there are a variety of comparative countries to point to as an example of success.

Money Talks

Like it or not, economic analysis holds a tremendous amount of sway when it comes to questions of policy. Luckily, in this area, cannabis legalisation has an overwhelming advantage.

Even conservative economic assessments of the impacts of cannabis legalisation calculate the net social benefit of legalisation at A$727.5 million, largely as a result of increased revenue through taxation.

Unfortunately, from a law-makers perspective, this is likely to be the best argument for legalisation yet.

A Social Justice Issue

Although the discourse regarding cannabis legalisation tends to be framed by enthusiasts, keen to buy their favourite product at home, current criminalisation of cannabis also raises serious issues of social justice.

Although a full assessment of the impact of the ‘war of drugs’ globally is beyond the scope of this article, suffice to say: it has failed…miserably. Existing drug policies have increased drug-related harm, punished the vulnerable and the addicted and bolstered organised criminal networks.

Shifting the message surrounding recreational (even problematic) drug use away from moral stigmatisation towards harm reduction and health, provides tremendous benefits in terms of individual and social wellbeing.

Cannabis legalisation is just one step toward smarter drug policies that focus on health rather than criminalisation, a step which anyone concerned about social justice should support.

Moving Forward

Current estimates of the time required for recreational cannabis in Australia usually speak in terms of 5 to 10 year windows. This seems apt, given our tendency to follow rather than lead on drug-related issues.

But there are more than a few things that need to happen before legalisation is likely to become a reality.

Firstly, conversations regarding cannabis legalisation need to move beyond narrow civil libertarian accounts about ‘personal choice’. Instead, cannabis legalisation must be presented as an issue of health and justice, as well as an issue of civil liberties.

Secondly, legalisation advocates must formalise and professionalise their advocacy. As interesting as grassroots groups such as the HEMP Party are, they are not an ideal face for a burgeoning marijuana industry. Lessons from the United States and Canada demonstrate that a formalised cannabis lobby is key for legalisation. So, time to slap on a suit and tie!

Finally, concerns regarding legalisation need to be tackled earnestly, particularly considering some of them have merit. Experts need to patiently ease community concerns regarding impacts on mental health, use by young people and ‘gateway’ effects by referring to the evidence (when available) and admitted ‘unknowns’ when they exist.

Overall, by following some key lessons from overseas, Australia is likely to join many other countries in legalising recreational cannabis at home.