As of this week, Western Australia, the huge but sparsely populated state that covers nearly half the continent, has implemented a new marijuana law under which those caught in possession of 30 grams or less will, in most cases, be ticketed and subject to fines instead of arrest. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the state's parliament passed a bill that will allow for the legal production of hemp for the first time in Australia.
With the downgrading of marijuana possession offenses, Western Australia becomes the second Australian state to effectively decriminalize cannabis. A similar regime has been in effect for years in the state of South Australia, and the federally-controlled Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory have also decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. The states of New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria still treat simple possession as a criminal offense, but police have wide discretion, and in practice, few people go to jail over simple marijuana charges.
"The reality is that cannabis is the most widely used drug in Australia," said then state Health Minister Bob Kucera last fall when the plan was okayed. "Although only a minority of Australians would be considered to be dependent users, 39% of all Australians aged 14 and over have used cannabis at some point in their lives," he told the Western Australian. "Research has shown that people with minor cannabis convictions can have problems with employment, difficulty in obtaining accommodation, travel problems and an increased risk of future contact with the criminal justice system. But research also shows that applying civil, instead of criminal, penalties for the personal use of cannabis does not lead to an increased proportion of the population using the drug."
Under the law that went into effect Monday, people caught in possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana will be ticketed and fined -- not charged with a criminal offense, but instead cited for a "Cannabis Infringement Notice." Fines will range up to $100 Australian for quantities under 15 grams and $150 Australian for quantities over 15 grams but less than 30 grams. People ticketed can avoid paying the fines by instead attending a "Cannabis Education Session," where they will be warned of the dangers of the weed. Possession of drug paraphernalia is also downgraded from a "simple offense" (the equivalent of a misdemeanor) to a ticketable offense.
As for cultivation, the new law makes growing up to two plants a ticketable offense, but lowers the threshold for the "serious offense" (felony) of marijuana cultivation from 25 plants to 10 plants. And in a reflection of the uniquely Australian obsession with hydroponic marijuana cultivation, any number of hydroponically grown marijuana plants remains a criminal offense. The new law also creates the new offense of selling hydroponic equipment for the purpose of growing marijuana.
"I think Australian cannabis reformers will admit this is a small positive step," said Down Under cannabis politics watcher Niall Young, site administrator for Marijuana Australiana (http://www.MarijuanaAustraliana.net), a national marijuana news provider. "But all agree that the new law is unworkable and unrealistic. It's a very small baby step in the right direction, in that a threshold amount has been set to be classified as personal use and that you can be fined instead of given a criminal record, but police retain full discretion to charge anyone, even those under the limits," he told DRCNet, adding that Australia has a long history of police corruption. "There is a lot of skepticism, but overall people feel that it's a positive change."
"This is probably the best we could do," said Western Australia Green Party parliament member (MLC) Christine Sharp, whose party supported the governing Labor Party-sponsored bill but also fought for improvements in the law. "We were able to get the counseling included as an alternative to the fines precisely because we wanted to avoid that 'net-widening' effect of people ending up with criminal records because they couldn't pay the fines."
"For political reasons, the government here has been ducking for cover even though they were reforming the drug laws," she told DRCNet. "For instance, the bill had in it a very draconian clause about retailers selling hydroponic equipment for marijuana production -- much more severe than any other part of the bill -- and we were able to get that amended to make it less draconian," said Sharpe, who is the Western Australia Greens' point-person on drug policy issues. "The hydroponic provision is still in there, but what we accomplished was to shift the burden of proof from the retailer. Just because someone walks in with long hair and a beard doesn't mean he is going to grow marijuana," she explained.
The provisions against hydroponically grown marijuana are the result of "anecdotal suggestions that it is more harmful because it uses additional chemicals," Sharpe said. "I'm not sure if that is a valid criticism," she conceded. "We need some good research on the chemical qualities of hydroponically grown marijuana."
"The hysteria about hydoponically grown pot is well and truly rooted in Australia," said Young. "The reasoning is that hydroponic pot results in more potent super-plants of gargantuan proportions," he explained. "With hydro, you get these unavoidably huge plants that exceed personal use quantities, so it's a no-go," he said. "There is no negotiation on this point."
While attention was focused on the cannabis law revisions, the state parliament quietly passed a bill that would allow the commercial cultivation of hemp in Western Australia, Sharpe reported. "We just passed an industrial hemp bill that will set up a system of regulated hemp production," the Green MLC said. But she is concerned that without adequate follow-up and support from the state government, it could be for naught. "The government has now removed the legal barriers to the hemp industry, but to be successful you need more than that, you need research and development. Hemp is a versatile plant, but we need to decide what kind of product we want to produce here and what sorts of genetics are best suited to our unique agronomic characteristics," Sharpe explained.
But despite limited progress on marijuana possession and the new Western Australia hemp bill, progress toward broader, deeper marijuana law reform has been stymied in Australia. While few people actually go to jail for marijuana, medicinal users, for instance, have won no accommodation at either the state or national level. Sharpe told DRCNet she tried to push it in Western Australia, to no avail.
There may be some movement in the states, said Young. "South Australia was the first to decrim, then the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territories have made similar reforms. There is now talk of Victoria and New South Wales following after they study our model," he said.
And while Australian Prime Minister Bob Howard and his Liberal Party have been staunch foes of drug reform, the federal government's "tough on drugs" strategy could go by the wayside once national elections are held late this year or early next year. Like Spain's Popular Party, which was defeated in elections less than two weeks ago, a party that hews to an arch-conservative drug policy is likely to be defeated because of its support of President Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"The Liberals are expected to lose to Labor in the next election," said Young. "Labor doesn't have a clear policy one way or the other, but the Greens explicitly support the regulation and legalization of drugs for personal use, and they are expected to win more seats in the next election, in part because the Western Australia Greens have recently joined the national party. This may be our best chance for a national approach to cannabis law reform."
There is a marijuana movement, said Young, but it is disorganized and apolitical, emphasizing the moral and cultural aspects of marijuana law reform. "They don't seem to understand that a serious political effort must be organized," he said. "I've started Marijuana Australiana for this purpose, to try and get people talking on a national level about reform, to try and get people organized and involved online, to try and glamorize the activist calling and inspire people to stand up and start initiatives in each state," Young argued.
"We need activists, we need people to overcome their fear of punishment, their fear of stigmatization and coming out of the closet. I've called for volunteers for a Million Marijuana March in Perth [capital of Western Australia] and got one response that never followed up on it. No one wants to come out, no one wants to get caught, and very few even tell their family or friends or colleagues about what they believe in. We need a movement, we need to overcome our fear and unite under a common goal, we need to achieve critical mass as Canada and the USA have achieved," Young said.
To read the Western Australia
cannabis bill online, type in the bill number (188) in the search box at
the following web site:
Visit http://www.dao.health.wa.gov.au/pdf/cac/CINscheme.pdf to read the state Department of Health's explanation of the bill online.
To find out more about MLC Christine Sharpe, go to http://wa.greens.org.au/parliament/csharp/ and http://www.mp.wa.gov.au/sharp/ online.