Reducing the harms caused by cannabis use: the policy debate in Australia

W Hall
Drug and Alcohol Dependence 2001 May 1, 62 (3): 163-74
The debate about cannabis policy in Australia has revolved around the harms that cannabis causes to users and the community, on the one hand, and the harms that are caused by the prohibition of its use, on the other. This paper assesses evidence on: (1) the harms caused to users and the community by cannabis use (derived from the international scientific literature) and (2) the harms that arise from prohibition (as reflected in Australian research). The most probable harms caused by cannabis use include: an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents; respiratory disease; dependence; adverse effects on adolescent development; and the exacerbation of psychosis. The harms of the current prohibition on cannabis use policy are less tangible but probably include: the creation of a large blackmarket; disrespect for a widely broken law; harms to the reputation of the unlucky few cannabis users who are caught and prosecuted; lack of access to cannabis for medical uses; and an inefficient use of law enforcement resources. Cannabis policy unavoidably involves trade offs between competing values that should be made by the political process. Australian cannabis policy has converged on a solution which continues to prohibit cannabis but reduces the severity of penalties for cannabis use by either removing criminal penalties or diverting first time cannabis offenders into treatment and education.

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