Friday, 18 November 2011

Letter to the Minister of Mental Health, Western Australia regarding the criminalisation of Cannabis | Anyone else want sensible Australian drug laws?

Letter to the Minister of Mental Health, Western Australia regarding the criminalisation of Cannabis

Dear Ms Morton

My apologies for the lateness of my reply to your correspondence.  I had waited for the Western Australian Drug and Alcohol Office (DAO), to confirm the accuracy of information they provided to your government, and to the general public, about cannabis related harm.

DAO unfortunately chose not to respond to concerns and instead referred me to a four (4) year old statutory Review of the Cannabis Control Act, 2003 whose primary recommendation was that the decriminalisation of cannabis was successful and should continue.  Your government chose to ignore this recommendation and repealed the Act resulting in the criminalisation of approx. 200,000–700,000 Western Australian citizens who have used, or currently use cannabis.  Given that DAO chose not to discuss concerns about the accuracy of information provided to you, I would like to discuss several key points you raised in your first correspondence which I found to be contradictory or factually inaccurate.

Reducing demand and supply

In your correspondence you emphasised that your government was “committed to addressing the demand and supply of illicit drugs.”  However, the Review mentioned above indicated that cannabis use had declined after the introduction of the decriminalisation laws.  This finding is echoed by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University, which found that the proportion of Western Australian citizens using cannabis fell from 19% to 12% during the period of decriminalisation in Western Australia. These findings were replicated in the 2004 and 2007 NDSHS State & Territory supplementary reports (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) which found recent use of cannabis amongst WA residents over 14 years of age had fallen from 14% to 11%.  I find it difficult to reconcile your claim of being “committed to addressing the demand and supply of illicit drugs” when the legislation your government revoked was associated with a decrease in cannabis use, and had demonstrably proven not to have increased cannabis use, despite conservative insistence that this would be the result.  It is even more astonishing that you then replaced it with punitive legislation proven to increase the amount of illicit drugs available, increase their purity and to decrease their price.  As recently as June this year,  prior to your legislation, the Global Commission on Drug Policy concluded that the ‘war on drugs’ and repressive legislation like that introduced by your Government, have been an ‘abysmal failure’ and proven to be ineffective, expensive and cause more harm than the drug use they purport to prevent.

It is also of concern that you seem to believe that criminalising drug use equates with a decrease in use.  If this was the case, one would expect that after 40 years of criminalising its use, the number of people using cannabis would be negligible.  This is obviously not the case.  Contrary to your claim, DAO provided me with references which concludedthat criminalization has clearly failed to reduce consumption and has shown there to be no link between prevalence and cannabis policy – be it liberal or draconian. Cannabis has become widely used among the population and prohibition policies have only proven to be extremely expensive, intrusive on personal privacy, and socially divisive.”  Did DAO not tell the Minister of these findings?

Was the Minister informed that in Holland, where cannabis is available to any adult over the age of 18, that cannabis use is almost half that of the US, where cannabis has been prohibited for over 40 years?  Similarly, the Global Commission on Drug Policy estimated that drug policies like those enacted by your government have increased the global use of cannabis by 8.5% from 1998 and 2008.  These, and other reports, plus 40 years of experience with prohibition and even DAO’s own references clearly show that your legislation will not achieve its stated aims and will probably increase the supply and demand of cannabis.

Cannabis and Health

You stated that “(e)vidence is increasing of the long-term adverse effects of cannabis use, including the increased risk of respiratory diseases and impaired memory, concentration and learning abilities” and referred me to the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre for further information.  On examination of the site, there was a notable under-sampling of the substantial body of peer reviewed articles which show positive consequences and outcomes of cannabis use.  For your information, I have included the findings of a number of such studies below.

  • Dr Tashkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Medical Director of the Pulmonary Function Laboratory of the University of California, Los Angeles conducted the largest case-control study ever conducted of heavy cannabis smokers to decide whether the use led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or increased risk of lung cancer and concluded that there ” was no association and even a suggestion of some protective effect.”
  • The American Medical Association concluded that “smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.”   
  • The California Medical Association earlier this year developed guidelines for physicians in prescribing the medical use of cannabis for the treatment of pain, nausea, anorexia, and other conditions.
  • The United States Federal Government, through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, provide cannabis in a ‘Compassionate Investigational New Drug’ program to a limited number of patients for the treatment of glaucoma, AIDS wasting, neuropathic pain, treatment of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea.
  • The US Department of Health and Human Services hold patent number 6630507 on cannabinoids, the active ingredients of cannabis, claiming they “have particular application as neuroprotectants, such as in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”
  • There is a significant body of peer-reviewed research indicating that cannabinoids represent a new class of anti-cancer drugs that retard cancer growth, inhibit angiogenesis (formation of new blood cells that feed tumour growth) and reduce the metastatic spread of cancer cells.
  • The journal of the British Association of Psychopharmacology does agree that cannabis inhalation, particularly heavy long term use, may contribute to some potential adverse health effects, however, these harms pale in comparison to the health hazards of hundreds of legal substances like tobacco, alcohol, prescription drugs, fatty foods, over the counter medicines, etc. In a direct comparison of alcohol and cannabis the Journal stated that “alcohol was considered to be more than twice as harmful as cannabis to [individual] users, and five times more harmful as cannabis to others (society).”    
  • A 2009 review published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal estimated that “(i)n terms of [health-related] costs per user: tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user, and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user.”

Given these findings, will you acknowledge that there are positive and beneficial aspects to cannabis use and further, the risks of cannabis are far less, and of far less consequence than those posed by currently legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco?

Mental health

You stated in your correspondence that “there is also growing concern over the link between cannabis and mental health problems and the risk of dependence.”   Through the auspices of DAO, you conducted a mass media campaign entitled ‘cannabis messes with your mind’ stating that 1:7 cannabis users report having mental health issues.   After repeated requests, DAO provided several references used to support this claim which amounted to little more than noting that some people with mental health issues tend to use cannabis, or that some people who use cannabis also have mental health issues.  No references were provided which proved cannabis causes mental health issues.  Based on the references provided to me, it would seem that the “growing concern over the link between cannabis and mental health problems’ is generated by DAO confusing cause with effect.  Further, ‘Beyond Blue’, a national organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related disorders in Australia states that approx. 1:5 Australians will experience some sort of mental health issue in any 12 month period.[7]   By comparison, if your claim that 1:7 cannabis users report having mental health issues is correct, then it would infer that cannabis users are less likely to experience mental health issues and that cannabis provides a protective effect.

DAO made, and continue to make public statements claiming that ‘(u)sing even a small amount of cannabis can increase your risk of mental health problems, including anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks and schizophrenia.”  It is difficult to correlate these somewhat sensationalised claims with a 2007 survey of California physicians working with medical cannabis who reported that many of their patients were able to decrease their use of psychiatric medication, like antidepressants, antianxiety and sleeping medications with the use of cannabis.[9]   Given that physicians with direct, clinical experience of cannabis use with mental health patients state that “there is no better drug for the treatment of anxiety disorders, ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,”will you acknowledge that DAO’s continued claims that ‘(u)sing even a small amount of cannabis can increase your risk of mental health problems” are misleading and sensationalised?

As for risk of dependence with cannabis, the US National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has determined that the lifetime dependence rate on alcohol has a 15% rate of abuse, tobacco is 32% whilst caffeine and cannabis have a rate of 9%.

Earlier this year, your government hastily enacted legislation to ban ‘Kronic’, a synthetic cannabinoid, with limited scientific evidence and with little more than anecdotal evidence from Dr David Mountain, President of the WA branch of the Australian Medical Association, that it caused harm.    Surely, to retain credibility, if you claim that cannabis and synthetic forms of cannabis should be banned based solely on the harms they may cause, then you must rush legislation through parliament, as you did with ‘Kronic’, to immediately ban alcohol and tobacco for the harms they do cause?  (Please note, I do not advocate the prohibition of alcohol or tobacco because, because as was clearly demonstrated by the US experiment in the 1930s, prohibition of alcohol is ineffective and clearly counter-productive.)

Sending the wrong message

In your correspondence you stated that “legalising cannabis use would send the wrong message to the community and undermine efforts to reduce illicit drug use and the harm it causes, particularly among young people.”   Firstly, I respectfully remind the Minister that the legislation you repealed concerned the decriminalising of cannabis, not legalising.  Secondly, I find it difficult to reconcile your statement with comments you made when launching the ‘Cannabis Messes with your Mind’ campaign quoting studies which showed that “most people believed occasional or regular cannabis use was acceptable, finding that one in three Western Australians believes that cannabis can be used without any negative effects.”    Surely when ‘most people’ believe that occasional or regular cannabis use is acceptable, then ‘sending the right message’ as an elected representative, would entail respecting that ‘most people’ in the community did not perceive cannabis use to be a problem.  Perhaps ‘sending the right message’ might have been better achieved by focusing resources on addressing widespread concerns about the proliferation of clandestine (and exploding) methamphetamine labs throughout suburban Perth, or curtailing drug related violence between ‘biker gangs’  rather than a month long media blitz threatening otherwise law abiding WA citizens who use cannabis with mandatory treatment, arrest or prison.

If you are concerned for young people, why then have you enacted legislation that ensures young people will get their drug from a criminal black market?   Research indicates that 55% of 17 year old Australians who smoke cannabis will more than likely have access to methamphetamine, heroin and other synthetic drugs through the same peer contacts through which they obtained their cannabis.  In the USA, and I would suspect Australia is similar, the majority of year 12 students said that cannabis was easier to get than beer.  The reason being, that unlike bottle shops and tobacconists, illicit drug vendors do not ask for proof of identification from their customers.  Far from protecting youth from the potential harms of cannabis, your legislation ensures that not only will they have unregulated access to dangerous drugs and exposure to the criminal black market, the fear of being caught will most likely be a strong deterrent to young people talking to their parents or non-using friends about their cannabis use

For many cannabis users, the single most significant harm most likely to occur to them is to be arrested and gain a criminal record.  As the Minister responsible for enacting these laws, I trust you are acutely aware of the consequences a criminal record, let alone imprisonment will have on otherwise law abiding citizens.  I trust you are aware that a person’s professional career could be ruined for preferring to smoke cannabis rather than using a dangerous (legal) drug such as alcohol; that international travel will be limited as a result of a cannabis conviction; that your government would prefer cannabis users to buy cannabis from criminal drug markets and in doing so, sustain a global illicit drug industry estimated to be worth over $USD 322 billion a year, second only to oil and weapons.   Is that the ‘right message’ you wish to send, Minister?

Tough on Drugs

Your government has proudly stated that they are ‘tough on drugs’ and have enacted costly, ineffective policies which criminalise 10-30% of Western Australian citizens.   Yet, as Dr Wodak, OBE and President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, has said:  “What some politicians refer to as ‘tough on drugs’ is actually tough on the victims of drug use, tough on their families, and tough on law enforcement and health budgets.”   There is overwhelming evidence that your regressive legislation is ineffective, expensive and a significant cause of corruption among law enforcement and elected officials.   Royal Commissions, including the Costigan (1985), Fitzgerald (1989), Wood (1997) and Kennedy (2004) and the WA Police Royal Commission 2004, repeatedly illustrate the link between police corruption and drug law enforcement.  Likewise, the time and money spent on prosecuting cannabis offenders are resources that are not available for prosecuting rapists, murderers and perpetrators of other violent crime.

Approaches to drug use similar to your legislation have been soundly condemned internationally.  Even nationally, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nick Cowdery QC has said that the current approach to illicit drugs is “ineffective, wasteful and inconsiderate of the human rights of those concerned”.   Your drug policies are a continuation of 40 years of prohibition which are unable to even keep drugs out of maximum security prisons. Policies like yours have failed:

  • To reduce the harm associated with problematic drug use
  • To minimise the violence and social nuisance related to drug use
  • To minimise the criminal activity associated with the supply and production of drugs
  • To minimise the harm of drug use to vulnerable groups, young people and families

The great majority of people who use cannabis do so without causing harms to themselves or others.  An estimated 2 million Australians use cannabis on a regular basis, 200,000 – 300,000 of those are Western Australian citizens.  And regardless of what laws you enact, they will continue to use it.  How many WA citizens will you incarcerate before you acknowledge your policies do not and will not work?  How many WA families will you separate before you stop imprisoning parents and/or siblings for no other ‘crime’ than freely choosing to use cannabis?  It’s a simple fact:  Alcohol prohibition did not work early last century.  Cannabis prohibition has not worked for the least 40 years and it will not work in the 21st century, no matter how much you may wish it to be otherwise.

I write to you as a concerned citizen requesting that any cannabis laws you enact on my behalf be based on evidence and international best practice.  They should also be fair, cost-effective, respect the human rights of those who choose to use cannabis, protect law enforcement from corruption and prevent young people from being exposed to the criminal drug market.  There is ample evidence to show that your government’s legislation fails in achieving any of these criteria.

I ask that you reconsider the wide body of evidence based policies based on peer-reviewed research which strongly show that decriminalisation and regulation of the cannabis market is an effective way to minimise much of the harm associated with its use so that:

  • Problematic users are not stigmatised and are more readily able to access services. 
  • The cannabis market is kept separate to that of other currently illicit drugs, such as heroin or amphetamine and as such young people are not able to get access to these drugs as readily.
  • Law enforcement can focus on large scale drug production or trafficking and violence related to criminal black markets.
  • The money now spent on arresting and imprisoning cannabis users, could address many of the budgetary short comings experienced by nearly all government and community programs providing services to problematic drug users.
  • Revenues from the regulation of the cannabis market can be allocated to social welfare, education and housing programs to address some of the causes for problematic cannabis use.

Ms Morton, as an elected representative, you are accountable to the citizens of Western Australia.  As such, I request specific answers to the following questions:

  • Why did your government ignore the key recommendation of the review of the Cannabis Control Act, 2003 which was to continue the existing legislation which had been associated with decreased cannabis use?
  • Why did your government enact legislation which ignored the Global Commission on Drug Policy Report recommendations that all UN member countries should work to end the criminalisation, marginalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others?
  • Why does your government continue to support criminalising cannabis users despite such legislation being shown for the last 40 years to be ineffective, expensive and to have no effect on decreasing cannabis use?
  • Why is your government not taking immediate action to prevent 97% of drug-related deaths and prohibit alcohol and tobacco?   If such steps are not being considered, please give specific reasons about why the exemptions you apply to alcohol and tobacco do not equally apply to cannabis.

I look forward to your considered response.

Yours Faithfully


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