Harms and benefits if cannabis legalised: AMA

4 minute read

A Senate inquiry tasked with examining the Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023 has held its first public hearing.

Legalising cannabis for adult recreational use would put even more pressure on the already strapped acute healthcare services in Australia, the AMA has told a parliamentary hearing today.

However, the peak body has offered cautious support to the decriminalisation of the drug as offering potential health benefits.

Dr Michael Bonning, chair of the AMA’s Public Health Committee, appeared at the first public hearing held to examine the Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023, introduced to the Upper House by Greens Senator David Shoebridge.

The proposed bill would allow for the possession of cannabis as well as the establishment of a national agency that would register cannabis strains and regulate growers and the operation of cannabis cafes.

The AMA had already voiced its opposition to the bill in a submission to the Senate inquiry, saying it believed the evidence supporting the benefits and opposing the costs of legalising recreational cannabis were insufficient.

“Since legalisation in Canada, cannabis use rates in youth have increased, along with increases in emergency department presentations and cannabis use disorder diagnoses,” the peak body said in its submission.

“Research in Canada and other countries have mixed findings on the impacts of cannabis legalisation, highlighting the need for better research and data collection in this space.” 

Dr Bonning reiterated this sentiment in his address to the committee and also in response to questioning from committee members.

“Our health system, especially our acute sector – our hospitals – are under huge and continuing levels of unprecedented demand,” he said.

“We can cite any number of ambulance ramping issues in Victoria or South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, but then also wait times in emergency departments, lack of access to beds, especially limitations on … the amount of public service, psychiatrists, mental health nurses, full time positions for those individuals, also increasing health system costs.

“In all of those things, the people who get left out more often than not, unfortunately, are those who enter our system through a drug pathway.

“And that is often because of the complexity of their care. But also, the needs for that care too often have multidisciplinary team approaches: initial engagement with psychiatry, but long-term engagement with people in the [alcohol, tobacco and other drugs] space, alongside social work [and] youth-appropriate mental health services.

“All of those systems are highly strained and are quite limited.”

Despite the AMA’s opposition to the legalisation of cannabis in Australia, Dr Bonning said the association recognised there were “significant benefits for the decriminalisation of cannabis”.

“We do not believe that the best way in which people’s health, especially in many vulnerable groups, is assisted by engagement with a criminal justice approach,” he said.

While he acknowledged that cannabis was used by many members of society, he said there were “also many people, when given options of support and given appropriate levels of support, who can recognise that there are potential health harms associated with their cannabis use and will seek medical and healthcare support for reducing or ceasing their use of cannabis”.

“So ways that allow people to enter to enter the health system and be supported are entirely consistent with the decriminalisation approach,” he said.

“And the more recent experience of that in in the ACT [the only Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise cannabis] has been that most people opt for engagement with health services as opposed to a fine.

“That is obviously preliminary data from a change that has only occurred last year, but it’s one that we see as being particularly positive.”

The first round of hearings today, being held in Brisbane, also included appearances from the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Families & Friends for Drug Law Reform, Professor Jenny Williams from the Department of Economics, University of Melbourne, and the Pennington Institute.

The ALA’s National Criminal Justice chair and past president Greg Barns SC said there was “zero evidence” that a law enforcement approach to cannabis acted as a deterrent, citing data that showed one in eight Australians had used the drug in the last year.

He said he had “not met a magistrate or judge” who thought the system in which alcohol was legal but cannabis was not “made any sense”.

Professor Williams said she supported the legalisation to minimise health, social, cultural and economic harms, and added that regulations on growers and suppliers could also reduce associated health risks.

The hearing will continue later today with representatives from the Department of Health and Aged Care.

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