Those who have seen my aging visage but are not familiar with my libertarian principles may be shocked to learn that I am an enthusiastic supporter of legal recreational cannabis.
This is not because I am an enthusiastic toker, although I don’t deny having inhaled. Rather, it is because the policy of prohibition does more harm than good. Moreover, we in the Liberal Democrats believe the government has no right to prevent adults from making choices that do not harm anyone else.
The ban on cannabis has dubious origins, having been the victim of a nearly century-long smear campaign launched by US anti-drug crusader Harry Anslinger in the dying days of alcohol prohibition.
It was Anslinger who brought the word marihuana into the English lexicon, making it sound menacingly Mexican compared to its botanical equivalent, cannabis. Anslinger was a racist, and the only race he hated more than Mexicans was African Americans.
Appointed the founding commissioner of the US Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, Anslinger masterminded the campaign to criminalise cannabis. Not enough Americans were consuming illegal cocaine and heroin to keep him and his men busy, and Anslinger wanted his bureau to become as all-powerful as the Bureau of Prohibition had been when he was its assistant commissioner.
Stoking White America’s fears that Spics and Negros were peddling dope to young white women and leading them into lives of iniquity, Anslinger convinced legislators to push through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Cannabis was then conflated with narcotics, prompting most of the rest of the world to follow suit including Australia.
Attitudes have been changing over the last couple of decades. Few now accept the claim that cannabis is addictive like narcotics, or that it is a pathway to drugs more addictive than alcohol or tobacco. Many countries allow its use for medicinal purposes and a growing number have decriminalised recreational use as well, including Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Norway and 18 US states.
Cannabis is not totally innocent. Its impact on those with pre-existing mental conditions can be quite negative, and it can trigger anxiety and even psychosis in some people, particularly adolescents. On the other hand, the rap sheet for alcohol is far worse. Nobody gets into a fight, gambles irresponsibly, engages in domestic violence or destroys property as a result of smoking cannabis, for example. Alcohol can lay claim to each of these.
Which raises the question – apart from keeping it out of the hands of minors and preventing adverse effects on others (as we attempt to do with alcohol and tobacco), what is the justification for regulating cannabis more severely?
Quite clearly, the policy of prohibition has failed dismally. An estimated 35 per cent of Australians admit to having used marijuana at some point in their lives. Considering it has always been illegal, that’s an awfully large proportion of us engaging in unlawful conduct. And given the price has not increased in more than 20 years, supply has not been inhibited either.
In 2016 I obtained figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office to show how much the war against cannabis was costing taxpayers. This showed the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force were spending almost $100 million a year chasing down those not deterred by the law. State enforcement costs, which are inevitably substantially greater, are additional.
I also had the PBO calculate how much GST revenue could be raised if marijuana was legal. The answer was about $300 million annually if a free market was allowed to operate. Obviously there would also be substantial savings in law enforcement costs.
In nine US states, including the entire western seaboard from Canada to Mexico, recreational cannabis is now legal. Canada joined them earlier this month. Canada’s Bureau of Statistics says Canadians spent AU$6 billion on cannabis in 2015 – almost as much as they did on wine.
And one by one, those who have been predicting dire consequences from this are being proved wrong.
Last month I introduced into the Senate a bill to repeal all Commonwealth laws restricting cannabis use, transport and production. If passed, it would leave marijuana regulation entirely to the states. I also succeeded in convincing the Senate to hold an inquiry into my Bill and the complex issues it raises. This will occur over coming months.
If the government can get over the pearl clutching and puritanism that characterises drug debate in Australia, the days of slavishly following the agenda of Harry Anslinger will be numbered.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats