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Australian Peak Medical Body Finds No Sufficient Evidence to Legalize Cannabis

‘Legalising cannabis for recreational purposes sends the wrong signal to the public,’ the AMA said.

Australia’s peak medical body has opposed a proposal by the Greens to legalise cannabis, saying that there is insufficient evidence to warrant its legal use for recreational purposes.

If passed, the Legalise Cannabis Bill (pdf) would allow for the sale of approved cannabis strains for recreational use across all Australian states and territories—a move that has both sides in contention.

“The AMA is concerned that if cannabis were legalised for recreational purposes, it may increase health and social-related harms,” said Steve Robson, president of the Australian Medical Association.

“Legalising cannabis for recreational purposes sends the wrong signal to the public, and especially to young Australians, that cannabis use is not harmful.”

Mr. Robson reasoned that since Canada legalised cannabis, its use among the youth has increased, along with those who present to the emergency department with physical and mental health disorders.

“People can experience immediate impacts to mental health such as reduced brain function, anxiety or panic attacks, paranoia, or memory loss,” Mr. Robson said, adding that users are more likely to develop psychoses or schizophrenia.

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“Long-term use can impair brain function, damage the person’s throat and lungs and cause bronchitis or cancer, cause cardiovascular system damage, and mental health conditions such as depression.”

Recreational Use Should Be Prohibited: AMA

Mr. Robson has called for more stringent criminal penalties for the trafficking of cannabis; he has also called for the prohibition of personal recreational use.

“The AMA believes that it is consistent with a principle of harm reduction for the possession of cannabis for personal use to attract civil penalties such as court orders requiring counselling and education (particularly for young and first-time offenders), or attendance at ‘drug courts’ which divert users from the criminal justice system into treatment,” Mr. Robson said.

He said while cannabis use should not be legalised, the current approach to cannabis regulation could be improved, saying that cannabis use should be treated as a “health issue, not a criminal issue.”

The AMA said it was concerned by the proposed “cannabis cafés,” which would normalise use, and that vulnerable groups would be targeted by retailers due to a lack of restrictions on cafe locations.

According to the Greens’ proposal: “Local sales by cannabis cafes are intended to ensure no one large corporation becomes a monopoly supplier across NSW and ensure connection between cafes and dispensaries, and their local community.”

In addition, the AMA president said he was concerned users would self-medicate without consulting doctors, and without the quality control outlined by the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s (TGA) guidelines.

“Australia already has an existing, high-quality process for assessing the safety, quality, and efficacy of therapeutic products through the TGA,” Mr. Robson said.

“For most conditions, there will be more evidence-based treatments available through a doctor or allied health professional that patients should explore before self-medicating on cannabis products.”

The Greens Say the Bill Will Reduce Harm

Meanwhile, Greens Senator David Shoebridge said that legalising cannabis would reduce criminalisation and poor health outcomes, which he says are caused by the illegal purchase of cannabis on the black market.

“A legal market immediately reduces harm to almost 60,000 people every year who will no longer get dragged into the criminal justice system for the crime of cannabis possession,” Mr. Shoebridge said.

The Greens also claim that the legal sale of cannabis would bring in either $28 billion or $36 billion in tax revenue over nine years.

Currently, more than a dozen stakeholders are in support of the Greens’ legalise cannabis Bill, including “All Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform,” Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, and the Penington Institute.

In its submission, the Penington Institute said it “strongly endorsed” the development of a legal and regulatory framework for the legalisation of cannabis.

“Cannabis prohibition doesn’t work: it fails to control supply, leaves the market in the hands of criminals, and costs billions of dollars in enforcement, all while hindering a public health-led approach to managing the health harms that are associated with problematic cannabis use,” the Penington Institute said.

In a submission, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) said there is a need to seriously consider the impacts of this bill on public health.

“[T]here is strong evidence that recreational cannabis is harmful, particularly to susceptible groups such as people with mental health disorders, young people, and the unborn child,” RACGP president, Nicole Higgin said.

“If the bill became law, it would be essential to run a comprehensive public awareness campaign about the potential harms of cannabis.”

Currently, only the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) allows residents to possess up to 50 grams of dry cannabis, or 150 grams of “wet” (newly harvested) cannabis, if a resident grows their own.

It remains illegal to buy, sell, gift, or smoke cannabis in a public place. Drug-driving laws still apply. It remains illegal to grow, possess, sell, and use cannabis, with the exception of medicinal cannabis with a prescription, in all other states and territories.

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