Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Marijuana Legalisation in the United States: An Australian Perspective

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Marijuana Legalisation in the United States: An Australian Perspective

Article excerpt

Marijuana cultivation and distribution is banned by international agreement under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, now consolidated into the 1988 International Drug Control Conventions (UNODC 2013). The United States of America, with many other nations including Australia, is a signatory to these conventions. Despite this, however, there have been three major movements in the past 25 years that have effectively changed the legal status of marijuana in the United States and made it more widely available.

The first movement, which emerged in the 1980s following the explosion of drug use during the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, saw the de facto decriminalisation of marijuana use. Imprisonment was replaced with fines or diversion into treatment, as a response to concern about the potentially adverse impacts for young people of acquiring a criminal record for what many argued was relatively minor drug use (Caulkins et al. 2012). The second movement, which emerged in a number of US states in the 1990s, was a push to legalise the use of marijuana for medical use. In 1996, California approved a citizen-initiated referendum to legalise marijuana for medical use, although the definition of medical was very broad. By 2016, 30 US states and the District of Columbia had legislated to allow medical marijuana use in some form. As will be discussed in more detail later, the sometimes very loose definition of what constitutes the medical use of marijuana, and the varying definitions applied in different jurisdictions, has been a significant driver of ongoing debate and controversy in the USA.

The third major legislative reform movement has been the push to legalise recreational marijuana use and its commercial sale to adults.

Since 2012, eight states-Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington-have voted to legalise recreational marijuana use and the cultivation of marijuana, with the District of Columbia voting to allow adults to grow marijuana for personal use and give it to their friends (Hall & Weier 2015; Caulkins et al. 2015a; Pacula & Kilmer 2014). There have, however, been no legislative changes at the national level; this lack has led to a number of legislative, regulatory and social ambiguities and tensions of the kind that inevitably arise when communities move to address significant social issues in different ways and at different times.

We can also differentiate between de jure decriminalisation (that which is the result of changes to the law) and de facto decriminalisation (where legislation may prohibit marijuana but the relevant laws are not enforced in practice). As will be described below, marijuana use in the USA is characterised by its de jure decriminalisation in many states and de facto decriminalisation at the federal level; national laws exist that are not enforced in those states that have legalised marijuana.

The current changes to marijuana legislation in the USA are particularly challenging because they are, for the most part, unprecedented in their nature and scale. As a result, assessing the existing and anticipated impacts of these changes presents unique challenges for policymakers both in the USA and in Australia, as increasing pressure for similar legislative changes must be addressed.

Fortunately for international researchers and policymakers, the United States is also the home to many extremely qualified and experienced social and criminological researchers who are well versed in the science and methods of complex policy impact research. However, as others have observed (Pacula 2014; Macoun 2011), measuring and anticipating the effects of any continually evolving policy reform process that is occurring in a series of highly decentralised settings is not an exact science.

A number of clear lessons are, however, emerging, along with new questions that will require answers. This paper summarises the main findings of many of the US research studies already published and relates these to the Australian context. …

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