April 20th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: PM leads Australia down the slippery slope

Urgent action needed to save Australia's sugar industry

The ALP and the embryonic stem cell issue

NSW Euthanasia bill overwhelmingly defeated

Report recommends relaxing controls over violent computer games

Can the Public Service be depoliticised?

Straws in the Wind: Living fossils / Engineers of human souls

Western Australia: MP looks at SA's marijuana laws

Media misrepresentation on stem cell therapy (letter)

Media bias (letter)

Refugees: where do you stand? (letter)

Water and Australia's priorities (letter)

The high price of misplaced idealism

Is the 'war on terrorism' being hijacked?

Peter Singer's utilitarianism

Books: 'The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of Secret Police and their Victims' by Robert Stove

Books: 'Children as Trophies?' by Patricia Morgan

Film: Some Like it Hot - a tribute to Billy Wilder

Books available from News Weekly

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Western Australia: MP looks at SA's marijuana laws

by Simon O'Brien

News Weekly, April 20, 2002

Simon O'Brien, Western Australian Legislative Council member for the South Metropolitan Region and Shadow Minister for Drug Abuse Strategy, recently visited South Australia to investigate that State's experience with liberalised cannabis laws.

His visit to South Australia was prompted by the WA Labor Government's announcement that it would pursue the decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts (up to 25g) of cannabis, and the cultivation of up to two plants. A summary of his report follows.

South Australian experience

The decriminalisation of cannabis in South Australia, in particular, its cultivation, has had adverse effects.

Hydroponics have meant an increase in indoor crops, with more potent cannabis being produced. Yields have increased, to up to one kg per plant per harvest, with four harvests per year.

Organised crime involvement in the cultivation and distribution of cannabis has increased.

Syndicates have allowed exploitation of the cultivation laws.

These organised crime groups are exporting the cannabis from the State and, in exchange, importing harder drugs, particularly amphetamines and heroin.

The phenomenon of "rip-offs", house break-ins to steal cannabis plants, is becoming widespread, with associated violence and tragically some deaths.

The price of cannabis has decreased dramatically as the market is flooded, and high potency cannabis is easily available.

Limited savings have been achieved, and nearly half of the Cannabis Expiation Notices (fines) eventually reach the court system so that there are in fact more cannabis convictions than under the previous system.

The reduction of the cultivation limit from ten plants, to three, and now to one plant, is indicative of the problems experienced with groups exploiting the expiable limit to cultivate cannabis for profit.

Two cautioning schemes

There are significant differences between the Coalition's cautioning scheme, introduced as a pilot in two areas and then expanded State wide, and that now being proposed by Labor.

Liberal: Applies to first time offenders only; does not include cultivation; does not support decriminalisation of possession or cultivation; requires attendance for education/counselling sessions.

Labor: Also applies to second and indefinite subsequent offences; includes cultivation of up to two plants; tends towards decriminalisation of possession and cultivation; not clear yet whether there will be any education/counselling requirements.

Working group

A Drug Law Reform Ministerial Working Group was appointed by the Government after the Community Drug Summit to consider how to reform the law to decriminalise possession of small amounts and cultivation of cannabis.

The Working Group consists of John Prior (Chair), Simon Lenton, Dr Moira Sim, Steve Allsop, Jim Migro, Ross Tomasini, Andrew Marshall and Dr Robert Ali (consultant). It was due to report by March 31, 2002.

The Government has clearly indicated its desire to decriminalise possession of up to 25 g of cannabis and cultivation of no more than two plants, and the Working Party is likely to oblige the Government. [However, they may recommend only two plants per household rather than per person as a token acknowledgement of the South Australian problems.]

Implications of proposed changes

SA Labor leader Mike Rann has stated that organised crime syndicates in that State were still operating under the three plant limit. It is therefore reasonable that organised crime syndicates, including bikies, will operate under a two plant limit. Two hydroponically grown plants, harvested four times a year, can produce up to eight kg of cannabis a year - over five times the amount used in that year by an average daily smoker. Eight kg is 282 oz, with a street value of around $84,600.

With the establishment of syndicates exploiting the expiable cultivation limit in WA, it is likely that organised crime gangs will use marijuana or marijuana profits to finance entry into the harder drug market as has happened in South Australia.

This means the export of large amounts of cannabis interstate, and the import of harder drugs, such as amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine.

Cannabis is currently priced at $25 per gram, and around $300 per ounce. It is likely that decriminalisation of cultivation of cannabis will lead to an increase in availability and therefore a drop in price. This will mean cannabis - cheap and easy to access - will become more popular among young Western Australians.

Reconciliation with other ALP policies

The Labor Government has recently introduced legislation targeting organised crime groups and their activities. However, it is now intent on introducing cannabis laws which will make it easier for organised crime gangs to become involved in cannabis cultivation, and finance harder drug operations.

Health Minister Bob Kucera has recently signalled his intention to further expand smoking restrictions in public places. Yet it is well documented that cannabis is far more carcinogenic than tobacco, and with a drop in price, is likely to be more popular among younger people.

It is difficult to reconcile Labor's decision to decriminalise marijuana with the now Minister for Planning and Infrastructure's previous comment that, "We need to let kids know that smoking marijuana is probably eight times as carcinogenic as smoking tobacco."

Copies of Mr O'Brien's full report are available on request from his office on 08 9364 4277

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