Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Extracts from the Australian Illicit Drug Report 1996/97

  Full report available from ANUTECH


Key judgements

Cannabis remains the most popular illicit drug in Australia, with about one-third of the adult population having ever used it. There appears to have been an increase in the last decade in the number of people using the drug, and the age of first use appears to be decreasing.

A few multi-tonne cannabis importations were detected during 1996-97 compared with the previous year, increasing the total weight of Customs seizures considerably. The number of detected importations increased slightly in comparison with 1995-96.

Increasing levels of production and difficulties facing under-resourced law enforcement agencies in Papua New Guinea increase the potential for cannabis importations from that country.

In Australia there were further indications that large, outdoor plantations are becoming less common than smaller, more easily concealed crop sites. Indoor cultivation is becoming more common, and there is an increasing demand for hydroponic cannabis in Australia.

If the domestic production of hydroponic cannabis continues to expand, it may eventually reduce the demand for imported herbal cannabis.

The Northern Territory joined South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory when it introduced a limited form of decriminalisation for minor cannabis use and possession.

In 1996-97 cannabis offences constituted 81 per cent of all illicit drug offences in Australia and involved a significant amount of police and legal resources. Any further moves to decriminalise personal use might result in a major redirection of resources committed by law enforcement agencies.

The gradual shift in public opinion towards some reform of the laws on cannabis use became more evident in 1996-97. Unless there is a reversal of the trend among the general community towards greater acceptance of cannabis use, further increases may occur in the production and use of cannabis, and demands for legislative reform may become more widespread.

Useful Quotes

One argument that is commonly put forward against the use of cannabis is that it is a 'gateway' drug and will lead to use of harder drugs, such as heroin. Donelly and Hall (1994) stated that if there is a causal relationship between cannabis and harder drug use it probably starts with alcohol and tobacco use, not cannabis.

It is more likely that the link between cannabis and harder drugs is a result of the increased likelihood of cannabis users being exposed to the availability of the harder drugs through either other users or dealers. If this is correct, then preventing this exposure may reduce the number of cannabis users that progress to the more harmful drugs.

The impact of law enforcement on the cannabis market is often not considered in the debate over the control of cannabis use. Restrictions on the supply of cannabis, through successful interdiction, may result in the casual, recreational user replacing the relatively benign cannabis with other, more harmful drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, or even heroin. This is particularly the case if there is in fact a causal link between cannabis use and harder drugs--policing cannabis may be pushing cannabis users towards harder drugs.

Cannabis users are not vulnerable to dangerous impurities and dilutents and the transmission of diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. It is possible that although the use of cannabis is high compared with the use of other illicit drugs, it causes far less harm. Further, despite the fact that cannabis consumer and provider offences constitute around 81.29 per cent of the total drug offences in Australia, there is negligible associated crime.

Conclusions and outlook

Overall, the trends in the use, production and distribution of cannabis in Australia have continued from 1995-96. Most jurisdictions reported that the price of cannabis remained relatively stable during 1996-97, with hydroponic cannabis and the stronger cultivars generally commanding a higher price. Availability remained stable, or in some cases increased slightly, compared with 1995-96.

Arrests for cannabis offences decreased overall in 1996-97. The majority of arrests were for consumer offences (49 305 consumers compared with 19 831 providers).

The total number of cannabis importations detected during 1996-97 increased slightly. The total weight of Customs seizures increased considerably from 53.3 kilograms to 24.29 tonnes as a result of several multi-tonne seizures, but the pattern of importations did not change significantly. Higher levels of production and the difficulties facing the under-resourced law enforcement agencies in Papua New Guinea do, however, increase the potential for more cannabis importations from that country.

The majority of cannabis consumed in Australia is produced here. Hydroponic and indoor cultivation has continued to increase and supply a growing proportion of the market for domestically produced cannabis.

Law enforcement operations against organised crime groups in the cannabis market had some big successes. As a result, there has been a trend towards smaller, more easily concealed crop sites. There are indications that the production of cannabis for personal use is increasing among people who are otherwise not involved in criminal activity.

Licensed commercial cultivation of low THC varieties is continuing in several jurisdictions. There is no evidence that these crops present any problems for policing or the community.

In the last decade there appears to have been a big increase in the number of Australians who have tried cannabis, and the age of first use has declined. The debate in Australia about whether cannabis should be decriminalised continued during 1996-97 and a growing proportion of the general community now favours some reform of cannabis legislation. There is no reported significant increase in the use of cannabis in either South Australia or the Australian Capital Territory since decriminalisation.

In 1996-97 cannabis offences constituted 81.29 per cent of all drag offences and absorbed a significant amount of police, legal, and corrections resources. Unlike most other illicit drugs, with cannabis there appears to be a relatively low rate of associated crime. Any moves to decriminalise personal cannabis use and production could result in a big reduction in the resources committed to controlling the drug. There may, however, be other unknown costs that should be considered. For example, there may be an increase in workplace and traffic accidents and long-term health costs, a decrease in workplace efficiency and production, and other less tangible costs to the community.

Research conducted by institutions such as the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre will lead to more informed debate and a better understanding of the impact of cannabis use on the community. A number of studies have indicated that the harm caused by cannabis use is generally no greater than that caused by alcohol and tobacco use, but some chronic users do suffer serious psychological and physiological effects. These effects and the impact of decriminalisation (in South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory) should be considered further before any decisions on law reform are made.

The availability of cannabis will remain high in Australia and it is likely that the more potent cultivars will gradually begin to dominate the market. The use of hydroponic crops will continue to increase, both for personal use and for sale on the illicit market.

Unless a major change in attitude occurs, the level of acceptance of cannabis by the general population will continue to increase. This may lead to an increase in disregard for the law and widespread demands for law reform.

Unless legislation in Australian jurisdictions is standardised to some degree the criminal opportunities created by existing differences will continue.

On present trends, importations of herbal cannabis from Papua New Guinea are likely to increase in the short term. In the longer term, however, if the production of hydroponic cannabis and the incidence of production for personal use in Australia continue to increase, there could be less demand for imported herbal cannabis. There will probably continue to be a limited demand for imported cannabis resin.