Effects of Cannabis Decriminalization in the Australian Capital Territory on University Students' Patterns of Use

By McGeorge, Jill; Aitken, C. K. | Journal of Drug Issues, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Effects of Cannabis Decriminalization in the Australian Capital Territory on University Students' Patterns of Use


McGeorge, Jill, Aitken, C. K., Journal of Drug Issues


Prohibition has been the fundamental tenet of drug policy in most countries throughout much of this century, despite mounting evidence of its ineffectiveness in reducing production, trafficking, and consumption. Proposals for policies that favor relaxation of criminal penalties for drug use are frequently defeated with the argument that decriminalization will lead to increased use. However, this effect has not been observed in the few countries and states which have decriminalized cannabis. The most recent instance of cannabis decriminalization occurred in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 1992. To evaluate the effect of decriminalization on cannabis use in the ACT, a sample of students at the Australian National University were surveyed to determine their patterns of use before and since enactment of the legislation. A control group was recruited from students at the University of Melbourne. Patterns of cannabis use were found to be very stable over time, with no significant changes discernible for either sample.

Introduction

The near-uniform prohibition on psychotropic drugs that currently exists worldwide encourages the belief that the world has always maintained a collective disapproval of these substances. In fact, international solidarity in drug policy is very much a 20th century phenomenon, and the history of societal attitudes to drugs is far but uniform. Production of various drugs has at times been actively promoted by some rulers and governments and simultaneously prohibited by others. In the mid17th century, Sultan Murad IV of the Ottoman Empire enforced his prohibition on tobacco by beheading or crippling smokers, but the appetite for smoking did not diminish (Szasz 1985). Laws banning opium were decreed in China in 1792 and trading was punishable by strangulation; 40 years later the British went to war to force the Chinese to continue the opium trade (Szasz 1985). During the United States' prohibition of alcohol between 1919 and 1933, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned every year while Americans drank more liquor than ever before (Association of the Bar of the City of New York 1994); at the same time, the cultivation of cannabis was being encouraged by the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture (Szasz 1985). Less than 5 years after the end of the Prohibition era, cannabis was declared an illegal substance by the United States federal government (McDonald et al. 1994), and it remains prohibited in the USA and almost all other nations to the present day.

Australian Cannabis Policy

Australia has largely followed international orthodoxy in forming policy relating to cannabis. Although the drug was barely known in this country, the Commonwealth banned the import and export of cannabis in 1925 in deference to the Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs (McDonald et al.1994). Use of cannabis by the artistic community, youth ,and students only developed to a recognizable level in the 1960s (McDonald 1994). Since that time the prevalence of cannabis use in Australia has increased markedly. A 1973 McNair survey found prevalences of 12%, 22%, and 2% among respondents aged 14 to 19, 20 to 29, and 30+ respectively (Donnelly and Hall 1994), for an overall "ever used" figure of approximately 10%. In 1995, cannabis use (ever) was reported by 31 % of all respondents to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services 1996). Although the reported prevalence of use in 1995 is three times the 1973 figure, growth in cannabis use appears to have remained relatively stable over the past decade. "Ever used" figures obtained in national surveys for 1985, 1988, 1991, and 1993 were 28%, 28%, 32%, and 34%, respectively (Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health 1994).

Public Debate

As laws proscribing the production and use of cannabis and other drugs in Australia have progressively tightened, they have been matched by increasing public concern and debate about all aspects of drug policy. …

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