Introduction and overview
Referral and conduct of the inquiry
On 25 June 2015, the Senate referred an inquiry into personal choice and
community impacts to the Senate Economics References Committee (committee) for
inquiry and report by 13 June 2016.
The committee's terms of reference require it to report on:
The economic and social impact of
legislation, policies or Commonwealth guidelines, with particular reference to:
- the sale and use of tobacco,
tobacco products, nicotine products, and e‑cigarettes, including any
impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
- the sale and service of alcohol,
including any impact on crime and the health, enjoyment and finances of
drinkers and non-drinkers;
- the sale and use of
marijuana and associated products, including any impact on the health,
enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
- bicycle helmet laws, including any
impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of cyclists and non-cyclists;
- the classification of
publications, films and computer games; and
- any other measures
introduced to restrict personal choice 'for the individual's own good'.
In accordance with usual process, the committee advertised the inquiry
on its website and wrote to relevant persons and organisations inviting
submissions to the inquiry.
To date, the committee has received 485 public submissions and two
confidential submissions. The public submissions are available on the committee
The committee has held seven public hearings. At its first public hearing,
on 11 September 2015 in Canberra, the committee heard evidence on decision
making generally. The other public hearings focused on specific matters in
relation to the inquiry terms of reference as follows:
on 3 November 2015, in Parramatta, the committee heard evidence
on proposed restrictions on the activities of fans of the Western Sydney
Wanderers Football Club;
on 16 November 2015, in Melbourne, the committee heard evidence
on mandatory bicycle helmet laws in accordance with inquiry term of reference (d);
on 20 November 2015, in Sydney, the committee heard evidence
relating to inquiry term of reference (b) concerning the sale and service of
alcohol with focus on Sydney's lockout laws;
on 9 March 2016, in Sydney, the committee heard evidence regarding
inquiry term of reference (a) concerning tobacco, nicotine and e-cigarettes;
on 11 March 2016, in Sydney, the committee heard evidence
regarding the sale and service of marijuana in accordance with inquiry term of
reference (c); and
on 22 April, in Canberra, the committee heard evidence regarding the
classification of publications, films and computer games under term of
This report focuses on the evidence in relation to the term of reference
(c) concerning the sale of marijuana and associated products.
The committee thanks all those who have participated in the inquiry so
Purpose of the interim report
The purpose of this interim report is to consider the evidence provided
to the committee on the topic of the sale of marijuana and associated products.
It considers the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes and
personal enjoyment and explores the arguments for and against personal choice
to use marijuana. In particular, it examines the key argument made by some
advocates that the legislative response to marijuana is disproportionate to the
risk it poses to individuals and the community, and that the lack of personal
choice in using the drug causes negative consequences.
For the purposes of this report, the term 'marijuana' will be used to
include references to other cannabis products.
What is marijuana?
Marijuana is a substance which derived from the cannabis sativa
plant, which contain chemical compounds that produce psychological and
physiological changes in the body. The main psychoactive element in the plant
is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which causes many of the health and
psychological issues linked with using marijuana.
The leaves, stems, flowers and seeds of the plant are used to make three
types of substances that are usually either consumed via smoking or as an
ingredient in food. The three forms of cannabis are:
marijuana, which is made up of a mix of dried leaves and flowers
of the plant, and is the most common but weakest form of cannabis;
hashish, which consists of dried cannabis resin, and tends to be
more potent than marijuana due to a higher THC content; and
hashish oil, which is the strongest form of cannabis but is rare
The Australian Drug Foundation described the substance's effects as
Cannabis users report a number of perceived benefits,
including: the pleasure derived from an altered state (e.g. euphoria or
relaxation); the social benefits of a shared experience; a way to cope with or
escape problems experienced in everyday life; cognitive benefits and enhanced
creativity; heightening of ordinary sensory experiences; and therapeutic value
for a physical or mental health problem.
Adverse acute effects of cannabis include anxiety, panic,
loss of attention and reduced motor coordination skills, while negative health
effects include risk of cannabis dependence syndrome; in addition, long-term
heavy smokers risk chronic bronchitis, respiratory cancers and cardiovascular
disease. People who begin cannabis use in adolescence face higher risks of some
psychosocial effects (including cannabis dependence), impaired educational
attainment and an increased risk of mental health problems.
The Department of Health (department) advised the committee that
marijuana is the most widely used drug in Australia to date.
The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicated that 35 per cent of
Australians surveyed had used marijuana products at some point in their lives.
10.2 per cent Australians over the age of 14 years old had used it within the
past 12 months. The study noted that 3.5 per cent of Australians had
used marijuana within the past week prior to the survey.
The largest group of users were concentrated in the 20- to 29-year-old age
In recent decades, marijuana use has decreased in the Australian
population. However, certain groups remain of concern to health officials.
Adults within the ages of 40- to 49-years-old are most likely to use marijuana
on a daily basis. 'Heavy patterns of use' are reported among users aged between
14 and 19 years.
Marijuana users who suffer a psychotic condition or illness may more acutely
experience symptoms such as hallucinations, and can exacerbate symptoms.
The Australian Drug Foundation noted that certain groups are more likely to
develop marijuana-related problems, such as:
young people under the age of 17 years old, who can experience
problems such as memory impairment, cognitive issues, decline in IQ, and mental
health problems such as schizophrenia and depression; and
people with a family history of psychosis (as cannabis may
trigger a psychotic episode) or with a pre-existing psychiatric condition.
Furthermore, marijuana accounts for the 'greatest proportion of illicit
drug offences in Australia'.
The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) reported that a record number of arrests were
reached in 2013–14, accounting for 66,684 arrests. This represents a 21.3
per cent increase in marijuana-related offences in the past decade, the
majority of which were directed towards consumers (as opposed to marijuana
The jurisdiction with the most marijuana-related offences in the past decade is
Queensland, followed by New South Wales.
In combination with the rates of usage, the ACC argues that these statistics
indicate that marijuana 'continues to account for the greatest proportion of
illicit drug use, seizures and arrests' and is the 'dominant illicit drug in
Marijuana is currently prohibited in Australia, with a combination of
Commonwealth and state or territory law used to enforce the restrictions.
Australia is bound to three international agreements which advocate the control
and prohibition of illegal substances such as marijuana. These agreements are:
the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961);
the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971); and
the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic
Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988).
The department indicated that government policy at both the Commonwealth
and state levels regarding illicit drugs is guided by the National Drug
Strategy 2010‑2015 (NDS).
As 'a product of collaboration between Commonwealth, state and territory
governments, and extensive community and sector consultations', the NDS aims to
health, social and economic outcomes for Australians by
preventing the uptake of harmful drug use and reducing the harmful effects of
licit and illicit drugs in our society.
Under Commonwealth law, the control and prohibition of cannabis and
cannabis products is legislated using a number of legal instruments, including:
the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, which regulates the
availability of cannabis and other materials as therapeutic substances (cannabis
is listed as a Schedule 9 Prohibited Substance under the Poisons
the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967, which regulates the
manufacture of cannabis and other narcotic drugs;
the Customs Act 1901 and Customs (Prohibited Imports)
Regulations 1956 and Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958,
which controls the import and export of cannabis and other narcotic drugs in
and out of Australia; and
the Crimes (Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic
Substances) Act 1990 and Part 9.1 of the Criminal Code Act 1995,
which contains offences relating to the cultivation, import and export, and
possession of controlled plants and drugs, which includes cannabis.
The production, sale, possession or use of any form of the cannabis
plant for recreational purposes is uniformly prohibited in all Australian
states. Enforcement of marijuana-related offences is a state responsibility.
However, different penalties apply depending on the state or territory in which
the offence took place. In South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory
and the Northern Territory, minor marijuana offences have been decriminalised
and attract only civil penalties. Most states and territories offer diversion
programs or drug and alcohol treatment programs before criminal sanctions are
Table 1.1 provides a summary of cannabis possession laws in each state and
As Table 1.1 demonstrates, there is a range of consequences for
marijuana‑related offences, depending on the state or territory a person
is charged in. While there is an emphasis by states and territories on
addressing drug dependence and channelling sanctions towards rehabilitation
programs, significant differences remain between jurisdictions. While a person
may attract criminal prosecution and serious penalties in one state, in another
state the same person may face only drug counselling or information.
Table 1.1 – Treatment of minor
cannabis offences in Australian Jurisdictions
Treatment of minor cannabis offences
Australian Capital Territory
The ACT introduced a civil penalty system for the
possession of 'small amounts' of cannabis in 1993. If someone is caught with
up to two non-hydroponic cannabis plants, or up to 25 grams of marijuana
(cannabis plant material), they receive a $100 fine with 60 days to expiate
(pay the fine) instead of a criminal charge. Instead of paying the fine, the
person may choose to attend a drug assessment and treatment program.
In 1987, South Australia was the first state to
decriminalise minor cannabis offences. The possession of up to 100 grams of
marijuana, 20 grams of hash, one non-hydroponic plant or cannabis smoking
equipment can result in a fine of $50 to $150 with 60 days to expiate.
Since 1996, adults found in possession of up to 50 grams
of marijuana, one gram of hash oil, 10 grams of hash or cannabis seed, or two
non-hydroponic plants can be fined $200 with 28 days to expiate rather than
face a criminal charge.
New South Wales
If someone is caught with up to 15 grams of cannabis, they
may receive a 'caution' from the police, which includes information about the
harms associated with cannabis use and a number to call for drug-related
information or referral. Only two cautions are allowed to be given to the
same person before criminal charges are laid.
A police officer may give someone a caution and offer them
the opportunity to attend a cannabis education program if they are caught
with no more than 50 grams of cannabis. Like NSW, only two cautions are
allowed to be given to the one person.
Someone found in the possession of 50 grams of cannabis
can be given a caution up to three times in ten years. For the first caution,
information and referral is provided. A brief intervention is given with the
second caution. On the third and final caution, the offender must be assessed
for drug dependence and attend either a brief intervention or treatment
Police officers in Queensland offer someone the option of diversion,
rather than prosecution, if they are found in possession of up to 50 grams of
cannabis. The diversion includes a mandatory assessment and brief
intervention program. Only one offer of diversion is allowed per person.
Individuals in possession of not more than 10 grams of
harvested cannabis and/or a used smoking implement who have no prior cannabis
offences are required to attend a Cannabis Intervention Session within 28
days or receive a cannabis conviction for the offence. All cannabis
cultivation offences will attract a criminal conviction.
Recent legislative and social change
Since the introduction of laws restricting the sale and possession of
marijuana in Australia in 1926, there have been significant changes in public
opinion and legislative responses to marijuana use.
Changing community views are reflected in legislative reforms as indicated by
the decriminalisation of 'minor' marijuana offences in South Australia in 1987,
the Australian Capital Territory in 1993, and the Northern Territory in 1996.
Notwithstanding this, no state or territory is yet to fully decriminalise
marijuana possession and use for recreational purposes.
Further significant change has occurred in relation to marijuana used
for medicinal purposes. The committee notes that there has been a prolonged
public debate regarding marijuana use specifically for medicinal purposes. A
number of federal, state and territory government parliamentary inquiries which
have considered this issue.
There have also been several attempts in the past by legislatures at the state,
territory and federal levels to establish regulatory bodies or schemes for the
medicinal or scientific use of cannabis.
On 10 February 2016, the Minister for Health, the Hon Susan Ley,
presented the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 to the House of
Representatives. The bill was designed to facilitate the production of
medicinal cannabis for medicinal trials, treatment for patients, and scientific
The legislation passed both Houses on 24 February 2016, and it received Royal
Assent on 29 February 2016.
These changes to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 are yet to be fully
implemented, and the long-term policy implications of the new regime will
require further analysis. However, as community support appears to be strong
for medicinal marijuana, legislative change in this area has the potential to serve
as a barometer on community attitudes in relation to the use of marijuana more
broadly, including for recreational purposes.
The committee suggests that public opinion in relation to medicinal
marijuana may serve to inform future attempts to deregulate the substance if
further reforms are to be considered.
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