Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Submission to the ACT Standing Committee on Health and Community Care
Inquiry into cannabis use.

Terms of Reference

Noting the reported effects on health of cannabis users and the ACT policy of harm minimisation the committee will inquire into and report on:

1) the role of legal sanctions in addressing issues of individual cannabis use;
2) the impact of the use of Simple Cannabis Offence Notices in responding to individual cannabis use; and
3) any other related matter.

Executive summary (Click here for a zipped copy of full submissionin Word format)

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in Australia. Its use is increasing and the age of first use is decreasing. The total number of recent users of cannabis in Australia amount to about 2.7 million people. Cannabis is easy to very easy to obtain and the price for cannabis "head’ is relatively stable while the price for cannabis leaf is declining.

The acceptability of the use of cannabis in Australia is increasing. Support for legalisation of cannabis has marginally increased and support for increased penalties has declined. The majority of the ACT population believe cannabis should be legal.

Law enforcement is an ineffective method of controlling cannabis use. So much so that it could be considered irresponsible of any government to divert more resources to law enforcement strategies. A responsible government needs to seriously consider other options that are outlined in this submission.

Notwithstanding this the SCON system has advantages and reduces social harm over an alternative of strict prohibition.

If education is to be considered as a method of reducing cannabis use then governments must increase resources for research into education strategies that demonstrate reduced drug use.

Guiding principles for the enquiry

Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform urges the committee to endorse the following as its two guiding principles for conduct of its enquiry:

(a) assessment of factual matters should be based on the best available scrutinised evidence; and

(b) moral judgements that are likely to affect the assessment of evidence and recommendations should be openly acknowledged.

Cannabis policy goals

Cannabis policies throughout Australia have been developed following the total prohibition model and in the case of South Australia, ACT and Northern Territory have subsequently been modified to reflect models that do less harm. In this partial review of the ACT SCON policy Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform urges the Committee to adopt the following objective goals against which any proposed changes to the ACT’s SCON system could be measured.

    1. The policy goals of the cannabis control regime should be realistic, measurable and explicitly stated and should be shown to be effective or be changed.
    2. The control regime to be applied to cannabis be appropriate for that drug, the patterns and types of harms caused by or benefits attributed to cannabis. Fact and evidence should be a fundamental base for that control regime.
    3. An analysis of any proposed change to the control regime be undertaken to estimate the effect, possibly using a balance sheet approach that compares the expected outcomes so that the change that causes the least harm can be readily identified and chosen. That approach to separate out the moral argument check detailsand be based on facts and evidence.
    4. The harms caused by the control measures should not outweigh the harms prevented by them.
    5. Any change to the control regime should take into account full implementation and enforcement matters including resources required.

Medical effects and health aspects of cannabis

A great deal of effort by society is expended on the debate about the relative harms caused by cannabis. While the negative health aspects of cannabis should not be dismissed lightly neither should we think these aspects can be controlled by law. The variety of laws in place in Australia (as we will see later) make little difference to the uptake or use of the drug.

For its part, Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform believes that the dangers of cannabis are not to be compared to the dangers of other drugs such as heroin. We understand that there has been no death in Australia (or indeed the world) directly attributable to cannabis compared to the hundreds of deaths annually attributed to heroin alone or in company with other drugs such as alcohol, amphetamines and hallucinogens. check details

Cannabis as a "Gateway" Drug

A major concern about cannabis is that its use could lead to the use of more dangerous drugs. Reviews examining this question in more detail conclude that progression from cannabis to other drugs (or indeed from alcohol to tobacco to cannabis to other drugs) is more likely to be a combination of personality traits combined with the effects of socialisation into the illicit drug culture.

Potency of cannabis

The claims of increasing potency of cannabis – claims of a 10 – 30 fold increase are unsubstantiated. But there appears to be a small increase in THC content largely caused by effective police action which has shifted the production from outdoors to less detectable indoor hydroponic growing.

Does the law make a difference to cannabis use?

Given different states and territories have different cannabis laws, one would expect that if the laws had an effect on drug use these differences would show up in the Household Survey data. All research to date has shown that there is no significant difference in use across all jurisdictions.

Where there has been an analysis of the effect of apprehension under different legal systems the data suggest the application of the civil or criminal law do not reduce cannabis use.

The conclusion that one draws from this evidence is that the law in relation to cannabis, has little or no effect on the Australian population’s use of cannabis.

There is growing evidence as shown by increasing usage that more and more people are disregarding the law. Indeed when almost 40 percent of the population have at some stage disregarded the law then the law falls into disrepute.

Simple Cannabis Offence Notices

There have been few, if any, attempts to compare the benefits or otherwise of the ACT SCON system.

The work of the Health Status Monitoring Unit in analysing the ACT data from the National Household Survey shows that there is no significant difference in recent use of cannabis between the ACT and the rest of Australia. Thus the ACT law which includes the SCON system does not cause an increase in usage of cannabis!

There is little published information on the relationship between the police and the effect of the SCON system. However a recent monograph series which compares persons apprehended for cannabis use in SA and WA is instructive. SA has a Cannabis Expiation Notice (CEN) system while WA has a strict prohibition policy.

The CEN system employed in SA has a less negative effect on the relationship between the police and those apprehended for cannabis use. In the strict prohibition model of WA there is a significant loss of trust and an increased fear of the police. But neither of these negative outcomes caused the users to stop or reduce their use of cannabis.

Of those people who were convicted or given expiation notices the WA group were more likely to report negative employment and personal relationship consequences. The difference between WA and SA groups is quite striking.

There was also a significant difference between the groups in terms of accommodation consequences.

The SCON system streamlines police procedures and reduces court time for what would otherwise be a minor criminal matter. The police and the courts do not have infinite resources, certainly they do not have the resources to apprehend the 17.9 percent of the population that regularly use cannabis.

We conclude that when compared to a strict prohibition policy the ACT SCON system:

A change to the SCON system to remove it from the legislation and/or to move to a more strict prohibition policy would increase the social and economic cost. This would have the opposite effect to that which was intended and would be contrary to government’s harm minimisation policy.

Other matters

Will lowering the cannabis penalties lead to increased use?

Without undertaking a trial in Australia the validity of the survey results cannot be tested. However we can examine overseas experiences to gauge the possible effects of reducing the cannabis penalties.

The Netherlands has adopted an "Expediency Principle" which allows the state prosecutor to decide whether or not to prosecute certain laws on the basis of whether or not it would be in the public interest to do so. On this basis the guidelines have been introduced and it is these guidelines that determine drug policy. According to the guidelines dealing, possessing or producing small amounts of cannabis do not require investigation, arrest or prosecution. A low priority is also given to investigating retail dealing (ie the Dutch Coffee Shops) but they do not permit advertising conducting business in a provocative manner or dealing in other drugs such as alcohol or other illicit drugs.

Australia’s recent use of cannabis is almost four times the rate of that of the Netherlands. Thus the Netherlands drug policy does not appear to contribute to a higher uptake of cannabis. Indeed it appears to have the opposite effect.

It is this separation between the soft and hard drug market that has been attributed as a major factor in the Netherlands success in reducing use and consequences of hard drugs.

Adopting an approach that regulates the sale and use of cannabis similar to the Dutch system has significant advantages:


We have noted that the law is not a very effective deterrent to cannabis use and many will rush to the claim that more education of young people is needed. This may well be what is needed but a great deal of research and evaluation is required to find an effective education program that will contribute to reduced drug uptake or reduced harm from drugs.

Most education programs have been developed on intuition or a priori logic and most have failed to produce results.

A recent analysis of youth drug education in the UK showed that 73% of programs showed no change. ie only 27% of studies showed a change. Of those which reduced drug use the size of the benefit was 3.7% and that dissipated over time. However this study did indicate that school education programs that complemented community programs and involved the community had a greater chance of success.

Drug education must also meet the rigorous evidentiary standards for effectiveness. That effectiveness should at least be in terms of reducing the harm from drugs. At most it should show that the education program reduces drug use and drug uptake. If it does not meet the standard then the program should be discontinued or modified to meet the test of effectiveness.

Police resources

Police are the front line for any community problems that arise from drug use and trafficking in addition to having the responsibility of administering the law. They see first hand and need to make on the spot decisions in relation to problematic use of cannabis. They need to decide whether or not to issue a SCON, a warning, or to charge for later prosecution. They also may need to decide if medical assistance is needed. Not all police decisions are decisions in relation to law enforcement.

This latter aspect is a social welfare role that police need to perform and they need to be adequately equipped for such a purpose with adequate training and backup resources that they can call upon.

However police resources are not infinite and their resources need to be concentrated in areas of the highest priority. It may come to a question of resources for pursuing a cannabis user or a more serious criminal offence.