For the last several years, the land Down Under has been witnessing a growing reaction to liberalized marijuana laws in some states and liberal attitudes toward marijuana use among the Australian public. Now, that reaction is about to be made manifest in repressive legislation in the country's most populous state, New South Wales, as the Labor government of NSW Premier Morris Iemma announced last Friday it plans to make a legal distinction between "hydro," or marijuana grown indoors using hydroponics, and "normal" outdoor marijuana. Under legislation proposed by Iemma and his parliamentary majority, hydro cultivation would be punished much more severely than growing pot plants outdoors and much more severely than it is under the current law.
Premier Iemma and his cabinet officers proudly announced that their proposed legislation would be the most "hard-line" in the country. Under current law, it takes 1,000 marijuana plants for an indoor garden to be considered to be producing a commercial quantity, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Iemma's bill would drop that number to 200 plants. Under the bill, producers of more than five plants would face up to 10 years in prison. Penalties for growing fewer than five plants would remain unchanged.
Under the new law, houses with indoor marijuana grows would be subject to the same lessened restrictions on police searches as houses linked to designated dangerous drugs such as amphetamine and heroin. The legislation would also create new offenses aimed at people with children who have indoor grows, or as the Australian press dubs them, "hydroponic drug houses," and it doubles the penalty for theft of electricity for grows to two years in jail and an $11,000 Australian fine.
New South Wales' warning and cautioning scheme for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana, introduced six years ago in an effort to avoid clogging courts with petty offenses, will remain intact -- for now. The widely hailed program uses warnings for a first offense and a caution on the second, with a requirement that the person cautioned contact a drug counseling service.
But that program could be toughened, with pot-smokers forced to take counseling on a first offense. According to the Daily Telegraph, Premier Iemma has called for a review of the current policy to find ways to send a stronger message about the effects of marijuana on mental health. The issue of marijuana's relationship with mental problems has grown increasingly prominent in Australia, driven by a tabloid press playing fast and loose with scientific notions of cause and effect and a federal government eager to find ammunition for its campaign to tighten the nation's marijuana laws.
The Iemma government has unleashed a full-out offensive against hydroponically-grown marijuana, replete with claims that would have made Harry Anslinger smile (or blush). Hydro is "up to seven times more potent" than normal weed, Iemma claimed at the news conference announcing the new legislation. Hydroponically-grown marijuana yields up to five times more than normal marijuana, he added.
"There is growing evidence of a link between long-term cannabis use and the incidence of severe mental health problems," said Iemma. "Regular cannabis use can exacerbate mental illnesses and associated criminal activity. Experts tell us that potent, hydroponically grown cannabis is a particular problem."
NSW minister for mental health issues Cherie Burton was also in fine form, telling reporters one joint of the hydro could bring on mental illness.
But according to US cannabis experts consulted by DRCNet, claims that marijuana causes mental illness are wildly overblown, claims that more potent marijuana is more physically or mentally more dangerous are unproven, and the claim that hydro is in any way distinct from "normal" marijuana is just plain silly.
The notion that hydroponically-grown marijuana is somehow distinct is bizarre, said State University of New York at Albany psychology professor Dr. Mitchell Earleywine, author of "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence." "I don't follow that logic at all," he told DRCNet. "The genetic heritage of the plant is the biggest determinant of its potency. It's the same plant whether it's grown in soil or water, under sunlight or sodium halide lamps. There is no evidence that hydro pot is different from any other marijuana."
"The main factor in determining the potency of marijuana is the genetics," said marijuana researcher and author Chris Conrad, who is recognized as an expert witness on marijuana in the California courts. "The fact that someone is growing marijuana hydroponically does not mean that marijuana is any different from marijuana grown from the same seeds or clones outdoors."
Nor does that fact that someone is growing marijuana indoors mean he is using hydroponics to do so. Marijuana can and is grown in soil indoors, making Iemma's distinction between hydro and "normal" marijuana even more confused and problematic.
Using carbon dioxide enrichment, as is sometimes -- but not necessarily -- done with hydroponic grows, can both increase the speed of the harvest and slightly increase the potency of the marijuana, but it is the addition of carbon dioxide, not the use of hydroponics that is responsible, said Conrad. And carbon dioxide may increase yields, but only fractionally, not the "up to five times" Iemma claimed.
"This proposed law is arbitrary and has no basis whatsoever in science," said a leading North American academic cannabis researcher who asked that his name be used because he is under contract with a commercial pharmaceutical house. "The idea that hydro is more dangerous is simply not supportable, nor is the notion that it will be more potent. Potency is primarily a function of genetics. Also, the idea that cannabis is so much more powerful than years ago is simply not true. There was good stuff around in 1970, just like there is now. There is no scientific basis for anything in this law," he told DRCNet.
As for the alleged danger of high-potency herb, Conrad pointed out that hashish has traditionally been popular in Australia. "With hash, you're getting 90% resin, but even smoking high-potency marijuana strains, you're only getting about 15%," he told DRCNet. "If you're using carbon dioxide, you might create 25% more resin glands than otherwise, but the resin glands only constitute about 10% of smoked marijuana, so what you're really talking about is a 2.5% increase in potency with hydroponics, not 700%, as those Australian politicians are claiming."
Neither is more potent marijuana more likely to cause physical or mental harm, Conrad said. "That's another allegation with no credible basis," he said. "The research shows that people who smoke marijuana have an innate ability to titrate [adjust the dose of] the amount they take in." Conrad also pooh-poohed claims that marijuana causes mental illness. "There have been psychotics for quite a long time before people were smoking marijuana," he said. "There is no data to suggest any societal increase in mental illness." To make such claims without evidence to support them is irresponsible at best, he said. "These politicians make an allegation and use it to whip up hysteria, but they should realize that creating mass hysteria over something like this has a much more detrimental effect on society than a few people who might have an adverse reaction to marijuana."
The resort to hydroponically-grown marijuana, or indoor marijuana growing in general, is an artifact of the war on drugs, Earleywine said. "It's all about increasing yields in a small space indoors hidden from prying eyes," he said. Neither is hydroponic production a guarantee of increased potency. "Because plants grown hydroponically are growing in a medium without nutrients, they must be fertilized, and fertilized correctly. It is easy to overfeed the plants or over-water them, and it is hard for them to get enough light. I would say with hydroponics it's easier to end up with wilted plants that eventually die than some sort of mythical superweed."
The American experts weren't alone in not buying the government's scare tactics. In a statement released over the weekend, the National Association of Practicing Psychiatrists accused the Iemma government of "blaming the victim rather than the services" and using hydro as a scapegoat for what it called the "catastrophic" state of mental health services in NSW.
It is prohibition that has caused the growth of the hydroponics industry, said Rhiannon, and problems associated with it should be dealt with by increased funding to mental health programs, early intervention, and further research, "not by increasing criminal penalties."
But while Rhiannon added that the Greens support medical marijuana trials in the state and campaign against the harassment of young people at public events over small bags of weed, the tabloid-driven hydro scare has even the Greens wondering. "Politicians and commentators have consistently made this distinction in our media for several years now," Rhiannon said. "As I understand it, there has not been enough research to prove that the distinction is real."
Other parties also criticized the trend toward more repressive marijuana laws. A day before Iemma unveiled his new legislation, a state away in South Australia, the Democrats were calling for a relaxation of the drug law, claiming that "a dangerous prohibitionist shift" there would "alienate and criminalize a large section of society."
South Australia Democrats leader Sandra Kanck told reporters "politicians and commentators are getting on the bandwagon saying we need to recriminalize the personal use of marijuana. "That would make around 476,000 South Australians -- 40% of the population -- retroactive criminals," she said. "We need to recognise that drugs are used, and have appropriate policies to deal with that. Prohibition didn't work in America in the 1920s, and it won't work now," Kanck said.
But while small parties like the Greens -- who hold three seats in the NSW parliament -- and the Democrats, are calling for reasoned responses to marijuana, the governing Labor Party and the main opposition party, the Liberals, appear to be in a contest to outdo each other on the hydro issue. NSW opposition leader Peter Debnam said he supported the government's plan to tighten cannabis laws, but took the opportunity to jab at Labor in a statement. "I will always support moves to tighten Labor's lax drug laws," he said.
The hydro bill will go before the state parliament when it returns to session soon. It is uncertain whether it can be stopped.
"Crime and punishment is the only story we can expect from this Labor government," said the Greens' Rhiannon. "Premier Iemma is addicted to law and order headlines, and the major parties in Australia are too afraid to announce progressive drug reforms, even though they operate them. NSW Police run a successful cannabis cautioning system and the Greens have called for this scheme to be widened to other drugs. Other states also run cannabis cautioning schemes that divert recreational drug users from the criminal justice system."