Victorian inquiry into cannabis considers law reform

A Victorian parliamentary committee recently released a report detailing the findings and recommendations from a major inquiry into the use of cannabis in Victoria. The Legislative Council’s Legal and Social Issues Committee had been tasked with examining the best means to:

  1. prevent young people and children from accessing and using cannabis in Victoria
  2. protect public health and public safety in relation to the use of cannabis in Victoria
  3. implement health education campaigns and programs to ensure children and young people are aware of the dangers of drug use, cannabis in particular
  4. prevent criminal activity relating to the illegal cannabis trade in Victoria, and
  5. assess the health, mental health and social impacts of cannabis use on people who use cannabis, their families and carers.

The Committee was also asked to assess models from international jurisdictions that have been successful in achieving these outcomes and to consider whether those approaches might be useful to implement in Victoria.

GLaD program lead Associate Professor Kate Seear was one of several people to make a submission to the cannabis inquiry, and was invited to give evidence to expand on elements of her submission. In her submission, Kate emphasised a number of things, including the potential relevance of human rights obligations, and developments in concepts and rationales regarding human rights and drug policy; international developments, including the fact that several jurisdictions had now decriminalised or legalised cannabis; the potential value of de jure or de facto decriminalisation; and the importance of taking a broad approach to examining the ‘impacts’, ‘effects’ and ‘forms of harms’ associated with cannabis, and in particular to reflect critically on the role played by law and policy itself in shaping such impacts, effects and forms of harm. As Kate’s submission explained:

the impacts of cannabis use are inherently tied up with, inseparable from and shaped by law and policy itself. As such, I encourage the Committee to think broadly about cannabis ‘impacts’ and related issues (such as health and safety), since these matters cannot be investigated without also reflecting on the way that legal and policy frameworks shape how we come to understand cannabis and what it does to people and to communities.

The Committee’s final report includes 17 recommendations and 21 findings, covering a wide range of issues. It’s first recommendation is that the Victorian government investigates the impacts of legalising cannabis for people over the age of 18.

Image shows the cover of Kate Seear's book, 'Law, Drugs and the Making of Addiction: Just Habits'

A number of these recommendations and findings related to current criminal justice responses to cannabis use in Victoria, and drew on Kate’s evidence to the inquiry. Kate had argued that Victoria’s system of drug diversion was inconsistent, flawed, too restrictive and incoherent. To offer an example: providing that certain criteria are met, adults are eligible to be diverted for cannabis possession offences only twice. On the first two occasions, possession of cannabis might be treated as a ‘health problem’ for which counselling or other supports are offered. Thereafter, however, it is treated as a ‘criminal problem’ that is punishable by law. Kate argued that this was an arbitrary and illogical distinction. She suggested that the Committee could recommend reforms to criteria such as these, opening up further opportunities for diversion and therefore criminalising fewer people.

Her submission and evidence also called for reforms to the requirement that people admit their offence on the basis that this disadvantages some groups, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Kate’s evidence drew in part on previous work undertaken with colleagues from the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland on diversion programs across Australia, and on her other work on addiction concepts in law.

We are pleased that the Committee took up these ideas, and that its findings included problems with existing diversionary programs. We are also pleased that the Committee recommended that the Victorian Government consider changes to diversion programs and eligibility criteria, including changes to the requirement that offenders admit guilt. All attention now turns to the Government’s response to the report, which is due in February 2022.

You can read Kate’s full written submission here.