The debate over how to deal with cannabis use is back in the headlines again, courtesy of the ACT Government. In September of 2019 the ACT Government passed laws decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis and cultivation of small numbers of cannabis plants. This approach to the problem of cannabis use has generated a great deal of controversy and polarised community views. However, it is by no means new. A not dissimilar policy has been operating in New South Wales for the past 19 years. It’s called the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme. In deciding on the merits and demerits of the new ACT Laws, it is instructive to look at the New South Wales experience. So, what is the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme and how has it performed?
How does the Scheme Work?
The New South Wales Cannabis Cautioning Scheme allows Police who catch offenders in possession of small amounts of cannabis (up to 15g) to give the offender a caution rather than charging them with a criminal offence and requiring them to front up to court.
An offender can get up to two (2) cannabis cautions in a lifetime. The first caution comes with a notice which aims to educate the user about the ill effects of cannabis use. A second caution comes with a requirement for the offender to undergo a mandatory education session on the same topic.
Has it worked?
The short answer is – not really. As you would expect, the Scheme has saved the New South Wales Government substantial amounts of money. Diverting offenders from the court system saves time and money to both the Police Force and the court system. However, that is not really how success should be measured. Success depends on whether the Scheme has reduced rates of cannabis use. On that metric, the news is not very positive. There is no evidence at all that the Scheme has had any impact on rates of cannabis use in New South Wales so, as a public health measure, it has been a failure.
Lessons for the ACT
If the New South Wales experience is anything to go by, there is no reason to be optimistic about decriminalisation of cannabis in the ACT. If anything, the ACT Policy runs the danger of making the problem of cannabis use worse. This is because it applies to much larger amounts of cannabis than the New South Wales Scheme, allowing users to possess anything up to 50g. In addition, by “decriminalising” or, more accurately, legalising possession of up to 50g of cannabis, it sends a message to the community that use of relatively small amounts of cannabis is okay. Ultimately, only time will tell how the bold experiment with legalisation will work out for the ACT.