Support for continued criminalisation of marijuana
Despite claims from some submitters and witnesses that marijuana use
should be a personal choice, concerns about the substance's negative health and
social impacts were highlighted in other evidence to the committee. Public
health organisations argued that the health risks associated with marijuana use
are substantial and impact not only the individual user but also the wider
This chapter examines the argument against relaxing the regulations on marijuana
use for recreational purposes. The key points raised to support the current
regulatory regime focussed on the health and social harms on the individual and
the community, namely:
medical concerns regarding the impact of marijuana on individual
users, particularly over a prolonged period of time;
social harm to the community and its cost to the health system;
disproportionate impact of marijuana use on vulnerable groups.
The Department of Health (department) advised the committee that the act
of smoking marijuana was more harmful than the act of smoking a tobacco
cigarette. Marijuana tends to be inhaled for a longer period of time, thus
increasing the damage caused:
Compared to tobacco cigarette smokers, people who smoke
cannabis typically inhale more smoke (two-thirds larger puff volume), inhale
the smoke deeper into the lungs (one-third greater depth of inhalation) and
hold the smoke in the lungs for longer time periods (up to four times longer).
This results in the lungs being exposed to greater amounts of carbon monoxide
and other smoke irritants and a greater retention of tar in the respiratory
The department advised the committee that those who smoke cannabis often
combine the drug with tobacco, which caused further damage to the respiratory
system. Combining tobacco and marijuana can result in higher amounts of harmful
chemicals entering the body, which can increase potential harm to the lungs,
respiratory organs, and cardiovascular system.
The department indicated that smoking cannabis using a bong was the most
harmful method, as the cooled water increased the amount of smoke entering the
lungs, which could then be inhaled more deeply. As a greater volume of smoke
fills more of the lungs, a greater amount of surface area of lung tissue can be
affected by tar and other carcinogens.
The risks to the individual of prolonged use were highlighted by the department,
Chronic cannabis use can be associated with a number of
negative health and social effects, including diverse health risks associated
with smoking, including respiratory diseases, cancer, decreased memory and
learning abilities and decreased motivation in areas such as study, work or
concentration. People with a family history of mental illness are more likely
to also experience anxiety, depression and psychotic symptoms after using
The department also noted that the side effects of marijuana could
affect a person's behaviour, thus causing harm to others. The department highlighted
the point that marijuana can cause symptoms which trigger a separate and greater
problem. For example, cannabis can result in symptoms such as drowsiness and
disinhibition, which can lead to a significantly increased risk of incidents
such as motor vehicle accidents.
Therefore, the argument posed by those supporting the legalisation of marijuana
that it has never directly caused the death of a user may not reflect instances
where marijuana usage has been a contributing factor to a user's death.
Social harm and cost of marijuana use
Submitters from public health bodies and government agencies argued that
the social and medical harms associated with marijuana legitimised its control
and outweighed any arguments for personal choice.
The department provided evidence to the committee which indicated that marijuana
creates a significant social problem for the Australian community. It estimated
that in 2013–14, 22 per cent of people seeking assistance for drug addiction
did so because of marijuana addiction.
The department pointed to evidence relating to specialist drug treatment
which suggested that in 2013–14, 24 per cent of episodes were for primary
cannabis use, amounting to 43,371 episodes per annum. The cost per episode was
$16,100, or approximately $70 million per year in total.
The department also pointed to research from 2007 regarding the
significant legal, social and healthcare burden created by marijuana use, which
dependent cannabis users cost the health system $1.2 billion
per annum and...the social costs attributable to crime for both dependent and non‑dependent
cannabis users was $1.9 billion, with 80 [per cent] of these costs being
attributable to dependent users. This is greater than the costs associated with
illicit opioid use.
The Victorian Alcohol & Drug Association stated that marijuana use
creates a significant amount of harm due to chronic use and dependency, which
placed pressures on the health care system. It submitted that:
Currently, cannabis features prominently on a number of
measures of harm, including:
- ambulance callouts, with 2212 callouts in Victoria during 2013/14; and
alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment episodes, with cannabis being the
principle drug of concern in just under one in four treatment episodes
nationwide and secondary drug of concern in 44 [per cent] of all episodes.
Furthermore, the department pointed to studies that suggested that there
is a monetary community cost to cannabis use, which can outstrip other forms of
narcotic substances. The department pointed to evidence suggesting that:
in 2007 ... the total annual social cost of cannabis use was in
the vicinity of $3.1 billion. Social costs associated with dependent cannabis
use accounted for $2.8 billion, or almost one quarter of the total social costs
($12 billion) associated with drug use in Australia.
Disproportionate effects of marijuana on particular social groups
The committee was presented with evidence regarding the impact of
marijuana use on vulnerable or isolated social groups. The department indicated
that young people under 17 years are more likely to suffer long-term and
serious health effects such as memory impairment and mental health problems.
People with family histories of psychosis or who have a pre-existing psychiatric
condition may also disproportionately suffer the negative effects of marijuana
The rate and frequency of marijuana use in rural communities was also
discussed during the inquiry. The National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) noted
that rural communities have higher rates of marijuana use compared to cities
while users in these communities often consume marijuana more heavily than
those living in high density areas. The NRHA indicated:
A study of long term rural users of cannabis has found that 60
per cent use cannabis daily, with 94 per cent using it at least twice weekly.
Over one third also combined regular cannabis use with consumption of alcohol
at hazardous levels.
The NRHA provided evidence from studies showing that in some remote
indigenous communities, up to 90 per cent of the community's population were
engaged in marijuana use. In such high-use communities, periods of limited
supply and withdrawal coincided with outbreaks of violence. Incidents of theft
to support marijuana consumption contributed to a cycle of poverty and
malnourishment. These factors contributed to the 'breakdown of community and
family life' in these communities.
Committee view and recommendation
The committee notes the diversity of views on recreational marijuana use,
from those in favour of continued prohibition to those who recommend complete
The committee accepts that marijuana is not innocuous and that
consumption, as with alcohol and tobacco, can have serious adverse consequences
on certain individuals.
The committee notes that relaxation of laws in relation to marijuana
would be more difficult to achieve at a Commonwealth level rather than by the
States, given Australia's adoption of a number of international treaties.
The committee notes that despite personal consumption being virtually
legal in practical terms as a consequence of state policies, production,
distribution and sale remain a major focus of law enforcement.
The committee notes that this enforcement comes at a considerable cost
to the community.
The committee notes that predictions of negative consequences of
deregulation of marijuana should be relatively easy to assess, given the number
of countries and states that have already legalised it.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction
with the states and territories, undertake an objective assessment of
prohibition, decriminalisation, limited deregulation and legalisation,
including a full cost-benefit analysis, based on the outcomes of these options
in other parts of the world.
Senator Chris Ketter
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