Fifty years from now, the world will undoubtedly look back at the period of cannabis prohibition with the same quizzical perspective that we now look at alcohol prohibition in the 1930s. Actually, it may be even more nuanced than this. After all, alcohol is a dangerous substance, with high addiction potential. Cannabis is not that.
But perhaps the rear-view mirror of historical condemnation of this period of time is not half a century away, but far closer. In just 10 years, it is highly likely that the world will have decriminalized cannabis. In a single decade, after all, the industry has moved leaps and bounds since both Colorado and Washington State passed voter-driven referendums to begin a recreational market.
In Australia, as in Europe, the support for recreational reform is now at a tipping point. In an online survey, conducted by polling company Essential Research between March 30 and April 2 of this year, 50% of respondents replied that they were in favor of full reform. This is double the amount recorded in a 2013 poll conducted by the National Drug Strategy Household survey.
This sea-change represents a doubling of support for reform Down Under—and further in just six years.
Beyond this, 58% want to make medicinal cannabis more affordable by allowing patients to grow their own, and 62% support scrapping current drug driving laws.
The huge switch in public opinion also stands in stark contrast to current government-backed drug policy which has seen cannabis-related arrests increase 23% over the same period of time.
This development, according to Unharm, the non-profit which commissioned the Australian survey, also shows clearly that politicians are out of step with the wishes of the community on this matter.
Of course, it is not just Australia where this is a common theme.
The need for urgent federal, if not international, drug policy reform is global.
Australian Cannabis Reform
Australia has moved, more or less, in sync with other countries on the matter of at least medical cannabis reform on a federal level. As of October 2015, the national government announced that it would legalize commercial cultivation for medical and scientific purposes. Reform has moved slowly forward since then.
According to current data, cannabis continues to be the world’s most widely used “illicit” drug, with an estimated 3.9% of the world’s population—about 192 million people—using the drug on a regular basis. In Australia, the figures are far higher than that. About 11% of the population used cannabis at least once a year as of 2020.
Why is Political Will Lagging Popular Support—Everywhere?
Australia is not the only place where popular support for legalization has reached (at least) the halfway mark. Earlier this month, another survey made international news—namely that over 50% of Europeans also supported recreational reform. In the US, two-thirds of Democrat-leaning voters and just under 50% of Republicans also support change, although this varies by state.
Why, then, has reform—even of the medical kind—stalled everywhere?
There have been unforgivable delays and punts at a federal level just about everywhere. This includes, over the last two years, the excuse that governments everywhere were consumed with the global pandemic, or more recently, the war in Ukraine.
Beyond this, there have been suggestions that the reason support is up in polls but not in the political class because younger people (under 40) support recreational reform, while older people, who vote more often, do not. This is also, according to an academic study in Europe, not correlated at all. Nor is there notably more use of cannabis by younger people.
What we are witnessing now, in the United States, in Europe, and, of course, in places like Australia, is an unwillingness to embrace popular opinion by national politicians, and worse, a willingness to spend tax money to support the Prohibition infrastructure—no matter who gets hurt in the process.
When will the balance shift, finally, in places reform is lagging?
Give it a decade. And in some places, less than this.
Sadly, the amount of suffering—of both patients and recreational users criminalized by outdated policies—may increase during this period of time. Tragically, given human behavior and history, it is also such outrageous injustices during a period of social unrest and upheaval that usually manage to tip the scales.
Cannabis reform is clearly going to be no different.