The Australian government of Prime Minister John Howard, egged on by the country's tabloid press, is pressuring state governments to roll back marijuana decriminalization laws adopted in the last dozen years. The Australian Capital Territory led the way by moving to fines for marijuana possession, followed by the Northern Territory in 1996. Victoria and Western Australia introduced a system of warnings for minor offenders in 1998, and the latter moved to full decriminalization last year.
But Howard's federal government has remained recalcitrant in the face of calls for reform and is now marshalling its allies in an all-out offensive designed to march the marijuana laws bravely backward into the last century. Taking advantage of a recent report linking methamphetamine use -- not marijuana -- to mental health problems and another report critical of the mental health system, as well as popular fears, stoked by the press, that marijuana is linked to madness, government officials, drug warriors, and sympathetic experts are raising the alarm.
Even though Australian statistics show the number of young pot smokers is rising relatively slowly, the nation needs to be vigilant, National Drug And Alcohol Research Center information manager Paul Dillon told the newspaper The Australian over the weekend. While teen use is not increasing much, people were using it more often, smoking stronger parts of the plant, and doing it in a riskier way, he argued. "You put those factors together and what you have got is a real time bomb in terms of what this could do to some young people," he said.
Parliamentary secretary for health Christopher Pyne, who is in charge of federal drug policy, promptly attacked loose marijuana laws in the states. "All need to toughen up their laws dramatically," he said, especially in regard to cultivation and personal use.
"It concerns me that the penalties at the state level for private use and cultivation are so lacking in seriousness," he complained. "The states should recognize their role in sending the right message."
It's not just state governments who are to blame, it's also parents, according to the Howard government. Also last weekend, Prime Minister Howard is reported to have told a meeting of friendly parliamentarians in Canberra that the older generation's permissive attitude toward marijuana was one of the main reasons for Australia's mental health problems. Those attitudes "informed the behavior of young people today, who see their parents smoking cannabis and can't see anything wrong with following their example," a Member of Parliament present at the meeting told The Australian.
Newspapers like The Australian are doing their best to incite the government. In an article titled "Psychosis Link to Soft Drug Laws," the newspaper consulted Ian Hickie, coauthor of the report on problems in the mental health system, on the marijuana madness menace. Cannabis should not be thought of as a harmless "party drug," he said. "Cannabis would be the best example of something that's assumed by parents and teenagers themselves to be not particularly harmful," Hickie said. "It's often portrayed as similar to alcohol. From a public health perspective, that looks to be wrong, and we need to look at, therefore, public and educational strategies that provide for more accurate information."
Cannabis should not be decriminalized, Hickie told the Australian. The same goes for medical marijuana, because it could send the wrong message, he added.
The Australian also pointed to the research of South Australia forensic psychologist Craig Raeside, who assessed 2000 people facing criminal charges between 2001 and 2005. He found that 75% used marijuana and that 60% of those had a mental illness. But this research has not been published or peer-reviewed, as far as DRCNet can tell.
The Australian was at it again Monday, with an article titled "Stamp Out Dope to Tackle Psychosis," which reported that "the fashionable strategy of 'harm minimization' is not working." It cited an Adelaide magistrate, Craig Thompson, who echoed the call to roll back decriminalization and advised governments to practice "coercive rehabilitation" based on abstinence for drug users.
But not everyone was buying what The Australian was selling. West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop and Health Minister Jim McGinty have defended decriminalization, saying it had worked well. They have also argued that there is no evidence stiffer penalties reduce use, a position backed by the National Drug Research Institute's Dr. Simon Lenton. He told the paper there was no evidence of a relationship between severity of penalties and marijuana use levels. "Studies that have been done comparing rates of use in different places don't find rates are affected by law changes," Lenton said.