Our evidence to decriminalise the personal use of cannabis

Our evidence to decriminalise the personal use of cannabis

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

A photo of a woman and a man standing in front of a building with a sign Parliament of Victoria

L–R: Sharon Keith, Managing Lawyer Summary Crime and Dan Nicholson, Executive Director Criminal Law

We’ve given evidence to a parliamentary committee about why we support decriminalising the personal use of cannabis.

‘We would rather see those cases out of the criminal justice system – our experience is it causes harm to our clients who actually need a health response, sometimes to deal with addiction, often to deal with mental health conditions,’ Dan Nicholson, Executive Director Criminal Law, told the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into the Use of Cannabis.

Dan and Sharon Keith, Managing Lawyer, Summary Crime, Bail and Remand Court, gave evidence to the inquiry, which has received 1300 submissions. Sharon shared some of the experiences of our clients, whose stories we detailed in our submission.

Charles's story

Charles is 50 years old and on a disability support pension. He also experiences mental health issues. He was placed into custody and brought to court on charges of cultivate and possession of cannabis. Upon his arrest, police accepted that the cannabis was for Charles’ personal use, to manage his mental health and other health issues. Despite these mitigating circumstances, Charles was refused bail by police and held in custody because he could not articulate reasons for bail – due to his disability and mental health issues. When he was brought to the Magistrates’ Court, Charles was released onto a diversion plan with a condition to pay a $100 donation to charity.

Sharon explained that many of our clients are facing mental health issues which may be exacerbated by the criminalised nature of their cannabis dependence; ‘It takes enormous courage and vulnerability to admit when something is wrong ... and the criminalisation and stigma adds another barrier to reaching out,’ she said.

‘These cases also clog up the courts and corrections system – our submission points out that there 8000 or 9000 cannabis offences recorded each year in Victoria, and that half of all drug arrests in Australia are for possession of cannabis,’ said Dan. ‘The criminal justice system, the court system, the Corrections system, certainly legal aid services – these are all overburdened and have significant backlogs, particularly during COVID. It’s a good time to get things out if they aren’t playing a meaningful part in addressing community harm or community safety,’ he said.

Our recommendations

Dan and Sharon reiterated the recommendations from our submission.

Recommendation 1 – Cannabis use, and possession of small quantities for personal use, should be decriminalised to reduce the disproportionate impact of arrest, remand, and conviction.

Recommendation 2 – If not decriminalised, the indictable offence of cannabis possession should be reclassified as a summary offence, to avoid the situation where people are remanded for possession of small quantities of cannabis.

Recommendation 3 – The use of cautions and diversions for cannabis possession and use should be increased through:

  1. Legislating a caution scheme for children and adults.
  2. Reviewing the police cautioning policy to reduce barriers to granting cautions.
  3. Removing the requirement for police to consent to diversion.
  4. Providing diversion training and support to police officers and reducing workload disincentives.

Recommendation 4 – Therapeutic programs should be resourced and available statewide, including the Court Integrated Services Program, Therapeutic Courts, effective and culturally appropriate diversion programs, and integrated services which can address intersecting issues in a person’s life. These programs can provide the supports people need to stay in the community rather than spending time in prison for cannabis possession.

More information

Read our Submission to the Inquiry into the Use of Cannabis in Victoria (10 pages).

Read a transcript of our evidence (once available).

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