Pot, politics and the press—reflections on cannabis law reform in Western Australia

Simon Lenton
Drug and Alcohol Review 23 (2): 223-233
June 2004

Windows of opportunity for changing drug laws open infrequently and they often close without legislative change being affected. In this paper the author, who has been intimately involved in the process, describes how evidence-based recommendations to ‘decriminalize’ cannabis have recently been progressed through public debate and the political process to become law in Western Australia (WA). This paper describes some of the background to the scheme, the process by which it has become law, the main provisions of the scheme and its evaluation. It includes reflections on the role of politics and the press in the process.

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The Cannabis Control Bill 2003 passed the WA Parliament on 23 September.The Bill, the legislative backing behind the Cannabis InfringementNotice (CIN) Scheme, came into effect on 22 March 2004. This made WA thefourth Australian jurisdiction, after South Australia, the AustralianCapital Territory and the Northern Territory, to adopt a prohibitionwith civil penalties scheme for minor cannabis offences. The process of implementation and evaluation are outlined by the author, foreshadowing an ongoing opportunity to understand the impact of the change in legislation.

Concluding comments

The effectiveness of the Western Australian cannabis law reforms and their implementation is yet to be determined. However, the process of reform has been novel in that in contrast to the earlier North American examples, legislative or de jure reform has not been blocked by the adoption of de facto reforms. This paper suggests some explanations for this. The majority of the public were in favour of legislative change, and the public dissemination of the results of the social impact of a cannabis conviction contributed to making the adverse consequences of strict prohibition publicly evident.

The policy window opened briefly when the then Labor Opposition, with a commitment to evdence-based drug policy, was reviewing its policy platform prior to the election. In this they distinguished themselves from the Liberal Government which had made de facto reforms by introducing a cannabis cautioning scheme, but pledged that they would not make de jure changes. When Labor won the election with a policy of cannabis ‘decriminalization’, they had a perceived mandate for de jure reform, which was reinforced by endorsement of the Community Drug Summit.

The establishment of the Ministerial Working Party on Drug Law Reform brought together key stakeholders from within and outside government who had a commitment to evidence-based drug policy reform and the capacity to design a scheme which was practical and workable from an operational point of view. Public statements of support from the highest echelons of the WA Police Service was critical, as was the fortitude of those parliamentarians who supported the evidence-based scheme, despite the political risks.

Finally, the position that most of the media took in wanting to contribute to an informed public debate rather than simply sensationalize the issue was crucial.

It provided a setting for research evidence and the progress of the law reforms to be considered by the community while also allowing views across the spectrum of opinion to be aired and considered by the public, policy makers and legislators. It is yet to be seen whether the media will continue to take this stance as the scheme is implemented and the evaluation results emerge.