The Legalize Cannabis Party, formerly known as the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (or HEMP) Party showed surprisingly strong results in the Australian Senate election this week. While it narrowly missed gaining a Senate seat in Queensland where it performed the best (and there are the most patients), the single-issue group clearly made gains and added to their success last year when they picked up two upper House seats in the Western Australian election.
The Legalize Cannabis Party advocates for “positive policy reform relating to cannabis for both health and personal users.” It has been organizing for reform since the late 1990s. They also know how to run a savvy grassroots campaign—which clearly paid off for them this year.
But does this success at the polls—even if a narrow miss at elected office in the Senate—mean that Australia is ready to legalize cannabis during the term of Anthony Albanese, the country’s 31st prime minister?
Some people are not so sure—pointing out that despite the dramatic increase in support in just six years that has led to a slight majority of Australians who want to legalize cannabis, there are other factors at play. In 2019, despite a slight pro-cannabis edge in national polling, 78% of respondents also said they would not use the drug even if it was legal.
A similar scenario played out in the 2020 national election in New Zealand when cannabis reform was also on the ballot as a referendum. It was narrowly defeated.
Reform In Steps
It is easy to forget, particularly when you work inside the industry, that so much of what this vertical is about is still foreign to those outside it. Despite larger and larger numbers of the “cannacurious,” the tide has not quite clicked over in even the United States or Germany—perhaps the two countries right now closest to full and federal recreational reform.
Many lawmakers in particular, want more evidence to back up their support—usually calling for more studies, or a gradual approach that starts with “medical reform,” first. This does establish an industry infrastructure (see Germany as the prime example of this). The problem, as so many countries are finding out (particularly in Europe) is that this does not solve the issues faced by patients—from affordability to decriminalization of possession and limited home grow for personal use.
It also may not solve infrastructural and regulatory problems as the German industry is also poised to find out.
Regardless, this is, if there can be a “conventional wisdom” about this so far disruptive industry, the traditional path that every legalizing country has followed so far. Namely that medical reform comes first. Or perhaps with a twist like the U.K., accompanied by a regulated CBD market.
Both Australia and New Zealand are following the pattern, almost exactly.
How Far Are Australia and New Zealand from Full Reform?
That is a good question. If one looks at the trajectory in Europe, it took Germany five years, plus a national election which swept out the ruling party, to change the equation. That said, expect delay and difficulty even then. In Germany, the bill has still not been introduced (although it will be this summer and passed by the end of the year).
In Canada, this transition took 17 years from the time the Supreme Court decided that patients should have the right to grow themselves.
In the United States, not counting California’s medical transition in 1996, it has so far taken 8 years for there to be serious discussion in the Senate after numerous legalization bills have succeeded in the House.
One thing is for sure. The tide has turned everywhere. And even though both New Zealand and now Australia, both with burgeoning medical markets of their own, may have just turned their backs on full reform, the percentage of the population who supports this idea is growing annually.
Give it time. And given the pace of reform elsewhere, not much more by the looks of it.