Liberals threaten drug crackdown

Issue 

BY LESLIE RICHMOND

ADELAIDE — Readying for a state election, the South Australian Liberal Party has launched a populist new "tough on drugs" campaign, which law reform advocates warn will turn back the clock on legal attitudes to drug use.

Under a government proposal backed by police, the laws governing the cultivation and use of marijuana will be toughened and harsher penalties introduced.

Under a program of decriminalisation introduced in the 1980s, thanks to the long efforts of drug law campaigners, possession of up to nine adult plants, or one ounce of harvested cannabis, resulted in confiscation and a fine of $150, with no criminal conviction. The amount allowed for personal use was reduced in the late 1990s, while earlier this year the number of plants permitted was cut to three.

If the new Liberal policy becomes law, only one plant will be allowed and those convicted would face a $250 fine. New provisions on hydroponic cultivation are especially severe: growing any number of plants using hydroponics could lead to maximum fine of $50,000 and 10 years' imprisonment for up to 100 plants, and $500,000 and 25 years' for more than 100.

The government has also raised the possibility of licensing hydroponics shops, and forcing them to establish registers of equipment users.

Police minister Robert Brokenshire claims that these measures are a response to community concerns and have widespread support.

Jamnes Danenberg, the co-convener of Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP), disagrees. He says the only figures supporting Brokenshire's position that he knows of come from a Liberal Party poll which indicated that 83% of respondents approved of a tougher approach to cannabis.

Danenberg believes, however, that the survey's results are highly dubious — the number of respondents, the questions asked and the responses given all remain unspecified. He further believes that published reports showing up to 33% of South Australians have used cannabis indicates that most people support a decriminalisation approach.

Brokenshire and Premier John Olsen claim the crackdown will lower drug-related crimes and will protect public health, by removing from the markets hydroponic plants with high levels of the chemical, THC, which they claim is linked to mental illness.

However, a 1998 study — Social Impacts of the Cannabis Expiation Notice Scheme in South Australia — which compares South Australia's model with Western Australia's total prohibition, found that the more punitive approach did nothing to curb use, with levels marginally higher in Western Australia, but had a significant negative social impact.

As a result of cannabis-related offences, more people in Western Australia than South Australia lost or were denied jobs (32% in WA, 2% in SA), and more were evicted or denied housing (16% in WA, 0% in SA).

The study also extrapolated from 1995-96 figures to show that a return to prohibition in South Australia would raise the cost of enforcement from $1.24 million to $2.01 million, with a net loss to the government of $1.1 million.

Danenberg believes that the proposed measures would hand control of marijuana supply in South Australia back to organised crime, and put home growers more at risk.

"Banning hydro gives market share back to Mr Big. It means large crops, large amounts of money, and large opportunities for corruption", he said.

As for the health impacts, Danenberg points to a "dope drought, heroin plague" correlation, claiming that as access to cannabis becomes restricted, many people turn to other drugs.

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