Push to decriminalise cannabis

WHEN it comes to illegal drugs and Tasmania, cannabis takes the pot. 

The most recent national data shows cannabis  outranks the next most popular drugs - amphetamine-type stimulants - by a factor of nearly 50 when looking at seizures.

In fact cannabis continues to account for over 90 per cent of the weight of illicit drugs seized in Tasmania. 

In Western Australia the figure is as low 10 per cent. 

In the 2013 financial year Tasmania Police arrested just over 1000 cannabis users compared to less than 250 dealers. 

Last week in Hobart a group of high profile academics, doctors and police called for that figure to be reduced to almost zero. 

Not through increased enforcement but rather via the decriminalisation of dope - in a bid to push cannabis use from the criminal justice system to the health arena.

In Tasmania, where 82 per cent of arrests are for use and possession not dealing, decriminalisation would have significant impacts. 

Politically it's proven about as popular as a sniffer dog at a Grateful Dead concert. 

``The government has no plans to decriminalise cannabis,'' a government spokeswoman said. 

Labor, in possibly its least characteristic comment since becoming the opposition, said it was a matter ``for the new government to determine''.

``Labor supports harm minimisation programs and believes that policy settings in this field should be led by experts like the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council making informed decisions based on research,'' a spokesman said. 

The Greens, perhaps unsurprisingly, are the closest to a pro-decriminalisation stance but stopped short of backing it unequivocally. 

Greens health spokeswoman Cassy O'Connor said the government should keep an open mind.

Ms O'Connor labelled the ``war on drugs'' futile, highlighting the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado and Washington in the US. 

``We are also aware of other jurisdictions seriously considering decriminalising the medical use of cannabis,'' she said. 

``Tasmania needs to be engaged in the national discussion about the best approach and the use of cannabis to relieve suffering as part of medical treatment.''

Ms O'Connor  backed  former Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer's call to have cannabis use treated primarily as a health issue.

At Tasmania's Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council round-table in Hobart last week, Mr Palmer declared the war on drugs a failure. 

``It makes no sense to me that we lock up young men and women for possession or use of cannabis, create huge employment difficulties for them going forward, sometimes visa and travel problems when we're only arresting some 3 per cent of users in this country,'' he said. 

``To deal with that as a criminal matter seems to me to be counterproductive.''

Richard Griggs, Tasmanian spokesman for Civil Liberties Australia,  said prohibition created it's own type of problems. 

 ``In the past, prohibition of alcohol failed because it pushed the brewing and selling of alcohol underground into the hands of criminals. The world is now realising the same thing has happened with attempts to prohibit cannabis,'' he said. 

Law Society of Tasmania president Anthony Mihal said his personal view was that decriminalisation was a balanced approach. 

``There are strong arguments in favour of doing so, since the current laws are selectively enforced and ignored by a significant proportion of the population, which may bring the law into disrepute,'' he said.

``Decriminalising rather than legalising cannabis would seem to be a moderate response, particularly if paired with more funding for education to deter use and rehabilitation.''

The society itself does not have a formal position. 

Tasmania Police said it would enforce whatever the laws of the day were. 

``The investigation of the use, production and supply of illicit substances and associated crimes is a priority,'' Assistant Commissioner Phillip Wilkinson said. 

pbillings@examiner.com.au

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