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‘Unmitigated disaster’: Weed debate boils over

IT DIDN’T take long for the government to launch a scathing attack on a new plan by the Greens to legalise recreational marijuana.

The party’s leader Richard Di Natale unveiled a new drug law reform policy yesterday to decriminalise the drug for adults in Australia, saying those convicted of drug use have to live with a criminal record, which can hurt their ability to get jobs.

He said the current approach to drugs in this country is an “unmitigated disaster” and that it is time for real reform.

“The war on drugs has failed. Governments around the world are realising that prohibition of cannabis causes more harm than it prevents. It’s time Australia joined them and legalised cannabis for adult use,” Senator Di Natale said.

“We need to get real about cannabis. Almost seven million Australians have tried or used cannabis socially but right now just having a small amount of cannabis in your possession could get you a criminal record.”

However, the government has spent the last 24 hours attacking the plans.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has so far been the government’s most vocal critic. He told Sky News today the Greens’ initiative has two major consequences.

The first is the risk of physical and mental health problems, and the second is that marijuana is a gateway drug.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug. The risk of graduating to ice or to heroin from extended marijuana use is real and documented,” the minister told reporters in Melbourne.

“We do not believe it is safe, responsible or something which should be allowed.”

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Hunt said the Greens’ cannabis policy would mean it was “open slather for a highly dangerous and addictive drug” which he said was also a “gateway to even more dangerous drugs”.

“At the very time the world is facing an opioid crisis, the Greens want to give a blank cheque for another deeply addictive and dangerous drug,” he said last night.

“The ridiculous Greens argument that we should give unrestricted access to drugs that are prohibited applies equally to ice and heroin, and should strike fear into the heart of every parent.”

The Greens want to redefine cannabis as a legal substance, with licences issued for its production and sale.

A national agency would be established to issue those licences and oversee regulations.

It would also act as the single wholesaler for cannabis — purchasing cannabis from producers and selling it in plain packaging to retail stores.

Up to six plants could be grown for personal use.

Although experts have found consistent links between cannabis use and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, there is differing research over whether it causes the disorders or triggers a pre-existing vulnerability.

A report by University of NSW psychiatrist Matthew Large found cannabis use was associated with an earlier age at onset of psychotic disorders.

“The use of cannabis and other illicit substances was associated with an earlier age at onset of psychotic disorders,” he wrote in 2011.

“The results of this systematic review and meta-analysis represent strong scientific evidence for an association between substance use, particularly the use of cannabis, and an earlier age at onset of psychotic illnesses.”

However, the negative health impact of the drug have been described as minimal in the world’s most comprehensive study into marijuana which was released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

After examining more than 10,000 scientific abstracts dating back to 1999, the extensive 395-page report unearthed more than 100 conclusions about the health effects of recreational and therapeutic cannabis use — many of which support arguments it should be legal.

“The evidence suggests that smoking cannabis does not increase the risk for certain cancers (i.e., lung, head, and neck) in adults,” one of the findings read.

The Greens leader, a former drug and alcohol doctor, pointed to a recent poll showing 55 per cent of Australians believed cannabis should be regulated and taxed like alcohol or tobacco.

He expects the plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, helping fund treatment, education and other harm reduction programs.

Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm said his party had long-held the position of legalising marijuana, criticising the 80,000 cannabis-related arrests each year.

“This is an appalling waste of Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force resources to the tune of almost $100 million a year,” Senator Leyonhjelm said, citing Parliamentary Budget Office costings commissioned by his party.

Crossbench Senator Derryn Hinch also backed the Greens’ push, saying “you’d ban alcohol and cigarettes” too if the argument was that it’s bad for you.

Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, welcomed the announcement.

“Banning cannabis hasn’t reduced its use or availability, yet it has distracted police from following up more serious crimes, harmed a lot of young people and helped make some criminals rich,” Dr Wodak said.

Our country is slowly taking steps to change its stance on weed, with Victoria becoming the first state to legalise marijuana for young children suffering from epilepsy, while NSW also allows use for patients suffering from serious illnesses such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.

Queensland’s laws are the most flexible in the country, which grant patients of any age or suffering from a range of illnesses access to medicinal cannabis products.

Tasmania allows medical cannabis in limited circumstances where conventional treatment has been unsuccessful, as does Western Australia, South Australia, the NT and the ACT.

While the use of medical marijuana is a step in the right direction, we also need to be talking about legalising it for recreational use, which would bring us on par with a number of countries across the world.

In January, weed was made recreationally legal in a number of US states including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington DC.

This brought America in line with Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Greece, parts of India, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Myanmar, Netherlands, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine and Uruguay — all of which have made recreational weed use legal or decriminalised.

— with Matthew Dunn and AAP

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