Richard di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens and underpayer of staff, recently announced the Australian Greens’ plan for cannabis legalisation – or decriminalisation. Of course, this hotly debated topic has ignited strong opinions in both the pro- and anti-cannabis communities, and it can be increasingly difficult in this era of fake news and false statistics to separate the wheat (or should that be weed?) from the misleading chaff.

Of course, as always, SMART Recovery Australia adheres to and fully believes in any strategy or policy that minimises harm to individuals, their communities, and our wider society. Whether or not marijuana legalisation would exacerbate or relieve the harms currently experienced in our society remains to be seen, but cannabis consumption is one of the highest reported addictive issues we see at our meetings. It is vital to treat addictive behaviour around cannabis with the same attitude as any health or social issue: prioritising research, knowledge and person-centred care.

With that in mind, here are some of the current arguments for and against.

Health

It is often erroneously claimed by pro-legalisation bodies that there are zero health defects associated with marijuana consumption. In fact, some go as far as to claim that cannabis, or, more accurately, cannabis derivatives, can be used to treat a variety of ailments, such as cancer and chronic pain. Clinical trials are ongoing as to the efficacy of medical marijuana in actually treating or curing any of these afflictions, but many consumers report the alleviation of symptoms when they use marijuana.

On the other hand, there is a well-established link between marijuana consumption and the development of mental illnesses. Of course, this is yet another bout in the ongoing chicken-versus-egg correlation showdown: does marijuana consumption “unlock” pre-existing psychiatric conditions (or exacerbate their symptoms), or are people in the grips of depression, schizophrenia, or paranoia just statistically more likely to consume marijuana, as they are with other drugs?

On the physical side, deliberate inhalation of smoke into the lungs is objectively bad for your respiratory health. As with tobacco, smoking marijuana can, over long periods, increase your risk of lung cancer, mouth cancer and emphysema. Sufferers of asthma, allergic rhinitis or other diseases of respiratory irritation also risk damage to their airways as well as asthma attacks.

But?

It is abundantly clear that we must do more research into marijuana consumption and its associated risks. However, some legal substances have extremely widespread health consequences, and any consideration of marijuana legalisation must also consider Australia’s favourite vices: alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.

The harms associated with tobacco are well-documented: risks of heart disease, gangrene, various cancers, brain damage, blindness, risks to foetuses and emphysema are widely understood as consequences of smoking.

Alcohol, on the other hand, although it is Australia’s most widely consumed drug, can prove fatal when consumed in large enough quantities. The health risks of excessive alcohol consumption – including overdose, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and so on – are similarly widely understood, as is the associated harm of drink driving, with 30% of road accidents involving a driver under the influence.

The case for legalisation

If alcohol and cigarettes are so harmful, the argument goes, then why are they still legal? Well, the campaigns around both of these substances accept the inevitability that Australians are going to drink and smoke regardless of their legality. Look how Prohibition went in the United States – people just drank anyway. By making them legal, the government can tax, regulate and control the alcohol and tobacco market, recouping some of the economic losses associated with these substances’ health harms.

Similarly, unrestricted use would allow clinical trials and uninhibited investigation into the potential therapeutic benefits of marijuana consumption. In fact, in US states where marijuana is legalised, opioid deaths have dropped by 6.5%. Cannabis consumption has similarly been shown to help treat seizures in some forms of childhood-onset epilepsy.

The other benefit is economic. Legalising cannabis will create jobs in the legal economy rather than the black market, and generate tax revenue for the government. Some estimates place California’s growing marijuana industry generating a billion US dollars in tax revenue. In the age of budget cuts and government obsession with surplus, marijuana legalisation might provide a much-needed cash injection into the local economy.