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Australian Lawmakers Host Daylong Cannabis Legalization Hearing

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This week, the Australian Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee held its first hearing on adult use cannabis legalization. 

Lawmakers heard arguments in Brisbane on Tuesday both for and against Greens Senator David Shoebridge’s Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023. The bill, which Shoebridge proposed in August, would allow for Australians to grow six plants at home, and to gift and share what they grow. It would establish the Cannabis Australia National Agency to oversee licensing and sales, as well as consumption cafés.

Australia legalized medical cannabis in 2016, and a patchwork of sorts has emerged across the eight Australian states with regard to penalties for nonmedical use. 

Recent polling shows that 50% of Australians support legalizing home growing, while 31% are opposed and 19% are on the fence. There’s more support (54%) for decriminalization, and broadly, younger voters are more supportive of cannabis law reform. A breakdown of polling shows more support among the Greens than the Labor Party. 

The speakers at Wednesday’s daylong hearing included representatives from the Australian Lawyers Alliance, the Families & Friends for Drug Law Reform, the Australian Medical Association, the Dalgarno Institute, the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the University of New South Wales, among others, including advocates on both sides of the issue. 

The speakers shared a wide range of perspectives, ranging from strong support for research, to the impacts that cannabis law reform could bring to the criminal justice system, to concerns over the potential for an uptick in youth use. Many of the panels went over their allotted time and the topic for another hearing to get all of the questions answered arose.

Greg Barns, the former president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, highlighted during his panel that over-policing in Australia hit Indigenous and lower income communities at a disproportionate rate. 

“I have not met a magistrate or judge, and I have met many over the years, who think that the current system, whereby we, for example, ensure that alcohol is legal, but cannabis is not legal — despite the fact that cannabis has less of a deleterious impact on the community — makes any sense,” Barns said. 

The legalization of cannabis in Canada, and moves to legalize in various states in the U.S., came up repeatedly during the hearing. 

“The horse has bolted on this issue, and it’s because of the failure of criminalization. And that’s why countries and states, even conservative states in the United States, are moving to at least decriminalize and, many, of course, moving to legalize,” said Barns. 

Another topic that came up several times was mental health, and concerns that cannabis could exacerbate existing shortfalls in care. 

More than 200 people and entities submitted written testimony on the bill. 

The Department of Home Affairs, which testified on Tuesday, laid out some areas for concern, including that the step to legalize cannabis could open the door to similar moves for other substances. 

The proposal will “have significant operational and funding impacts for the department,” the Department wrote in its submitted testimony. “Decisions would be required across government as to how existing laws and processes for controlling cannabis at the border would be altered.”

The Cannabis Policy Project in its written submission congratulated lawmakers for getting this far, but asked that they “go back to the drawing board.” 

“This Bill is very deficient of the realities facing law reform and can’t really be taken seriously as an alternative to prohibition,” John Reeves of the Cannabis Policy Project wrote. “There’s nowhere near enough detail, it’s very presumptuous in many ways, and at it’s [sic] core is not mapped directly to addressing the core harms of prohibition.”

The Australian Medical Association, which submitted testimony, does not support legalization in Australia. “The AMA believes that there is not sufficient evidence of the health and social costs and benefits to legalise recreational cannabis in Australia,” the group wrote in submitted testimony. The group wrote later in their submission, “The AMA does not condone the trafficking or recreational use of cannabis. The AMA believes that there should be vigorous law enforcement and strong criminal penalties for the trafficking of cannabis. The personal recreational use of cannabis should also be prohibited.” 

Shoebridge, the bill sponsor, asked the legal panel if research existed to back up the AMA’s testimony. 

“The AMA statement flies in the face of all the evidence, and I mean all the evidence,” said Barns. 

There were some business perspectives, too. Malini Sietaram, founder and CEO of Ganjika Pty Ltd, gave testimony as a “young, queer person of color.” 

“As a woman, my diversity is championed in the global cannabis community,” Sietaram said. “However, in stark contrast, my local, state, and federal government instill fear into my work and chokehold my business, preventing me and others from advancing in a rapidly changing marketplace. We are getting left behind.” 

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