A senate committee has held a hearing in Sydney on the legalisation of marijuana for recreational purposes, as part of a series of hearings on personal choice and community impacts.
The Senate Economics References Committee met at the Erskineville town hall on Friday, hearing submissions on the "sale and use of marijuana and associated products". More than a dozen written submissions were received by the committee, with five individuals, the Department of Health and the National Rural Health Alliance giving evidence in person.
Senators Sam Dastyari and David Leyonhjelm chaired the panel, which heard ideas from medical professionals and private citizens such as how recreational marijuana could potentially be packaged and sold, including health warnings at the point of sale, plain packaging, regulations around advertising and marketing of marijuana products, and taxation. Australia legislated the use of medical cannabis products last month.
"There needs to be an acceptance that the approach to date has failed," Dastyari said.
Professor Wayne Hall, Director of the University of Queensland Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research, has written and published extensively on the legalisation of cannabis products. He argued for a system that would make marijuana available, but under a heavily-regulated system like tobacco.
"We should adopt regulatory regimes more like tobacco than alcohol. We should tax the product to deter heavy use, ban the promotion of use, and place reasonable restrictions on availability so it is not available to under-age people," he told the hearing.
Dr Samuel Douglas advocated for the legalisation of marijuana to allow for frameworks of health warnings -- including how cannabis could affect pre-existing mental health conditions -- as well as suggesting plain packaging and the labelling of different grades of cannabis strength.
"Once you sell things, you can have health warnings at the point of sale. I don't think a lot of drug dealers are asking clients what their family history of mental illness is, but under a regulated regime, you could," he said.
"Currently, that warning is not coming at the point of sale, but when they're arrested or turn up at hospital."
A man named Tim Nixon also spoke. Nixon operates a marijuana information website called Responsible Choice, and appears to be a private citizen -- the Senate Economics References Committee secretariat told The Huffington Post Australia it was unable to give any further information on his background. He told the hearing that legalisation of recreational marijuana would decrease the use of alcohol and tobacco, which he said were more harmful drugs than marijuana.
"From a harm reduction standpoint, decriminalisation of all drugs is a massive step forward. But in the regulation of cannabis, we have an opportunity to label the product with a full cannabinoid profile, so consumers know what's in it and how it was produced," he said.
"The licensing regime should make it hard to obtain a licence and easy to lose it. From a harm reduction standpoint, [legalisation] would take some of the market share away from the two most harmful drugs, alcohol and tobacco. By making cannabis use more prevalent, we would see far less of the negative health outcomes of tobacco and alcohol use, which are fatal."
"It is not helpful to categorise alcohol, tobacco and cannabis in the same category of harm, because they patently are not."
Leyonhjelm has previously spoken in favour of legalising marijuana, claiming criminalisation of the drug only serves to prop up criminal enterprises.
Gabriel Buckley, national president of the Liberal Democrats party -- of which Leyonhjelm is a member -- said he did not see why cannabis should be considered much differently to alcohol.
In the second part of the hearing, representatives of the Department of Health and the National Rural Health Alliance gave a medical perspective on the debate.
In submissions, the NRHA said cannabis was a concern issue as usage was higher in rural areas than in cities.
"Cannabis use increases with remoteness. Compared with Major cities, cannabis use is higher in Remote/Very Remote areas: 8 per cent compared with 11 per cent respectively. Its use is also higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (12.5 per cent) compared with other Australians (8.3 per cent)," the NRHA said.
"Cannabis use in rural communities produces a number of detrimental effects. These include harms to the individual, such as adverse physical and psychological effects, and harms to the community, including major financial losses."
In response to a question from Leyonhjelm about whether smoking marijuana, or being imprisoned for marijuana possession, was more detrimental to a rural community, NRHA policy advisor Fiona Brooke admitted the penalty was worse.
"It's an extremely complex area, undoubtedly being imprisoned creates much worse long-term effects on the individual and the community than use of marijuana may do, irrespective of whether it has health effects. The social effects of marijuana in communities is terrible," she said, citing imprisonment and the financial costs of marijuana usage.