A panel of cannabis experts and campaigners have called for civil disobedience and other action as part of a renewed push to reform drug laws that they say are destroying families and communities and making criminals of otherwise law-abiding young people.
The call was made at the 20th annual MardiGrass cannabis law reform rally at Nimbin on Sunday and followed hot on the heels of the Australia21 Report, which concludes the war on drugs is a failure and urges a serious discussion on decriminalising marijuana and other drugs.
Prime minister Julia Gillard came under fire recently from drug-law reform campaigners when she immediately dismissed the findings of the report by experts including a former federal police commissioner.
Up to 100 people attended the Nimbin Town Hall debate, which looked at taking the next step in the campaign against cannabis prohibition.
Former NSW MLC Ann Symonds, the founder of the Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, said that the time had come ‘to get active again’ and revitalise movements against prohibition.
The former Labor MLC said Australia should follow the lead from Europe where much recent positive drug-law reform had taken place ‘and we need to get it done here’.
Ms Symonds said it was ‘an absurd situation’ Australia was in ‘where we demonise some drugs but not others’, and reform had to happen state by state rather than federally.
She said people power was important in reform, as was the case with getting a medically supervised drug-injection centre in Kings Cross approved after the NSW Drug Summit in the late 1990s.
Ms Symonds said she would re-enter the fight against prohibition especially to legalise medical marijuana, used by cancer sufferers.
Australian Drug Law Reform president Dr Alex Wodak said the Australia21 report should ‘encourage’ the anti-prohibition movement.
‘The chances of us turning this thing around is looking different from just a few years ago; if there’s a co-ordinated disciplined campaign we could make inroads with this,’ he said.
Dr Wodak, a former director of the Australia21 group, said he felt civil disobedience was ‘sometimes the only way to win a particular argument’.
He said without civil disobedience, the injection centre and trial at Kings Cross would never have gone ahead.
Dr Wodak said campaigners had to see it as their ‘duty’ to write letters to newspapers and politicians urging for reform because ‘if enough people get the message out, things will change faster’.
‘Our opponents are winning the propaganda wars; we’re way behind,’ he said.
Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party secretary Graham Askey said support for his political party was ‘disappointing’, especially given that 50,000 Australians were arrested every year for drug possession.
‘Over 20 years, that’s a million people; we should be doing much better in electoral terms,’ he said.
Mr Askey said campaigners had to ‘get politicians not to be afraid’ of being pilloried by radio shock jocks if they took a stand for reform, as the top broadcaster Alan Jones was ‘on our side’ on the decriminalisation issue.
Moose, who ran the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in the 1980s, said at its peak the group had 10,000 members and rallies drew up to 5,000 people.
‘And that was pre-internet age, and technologies have changed so we should take advantage of that. I want the laws changed so my kids and grandson don’t have to grow up with prohibition,’ Moose said.
Panel mediator Rak Razam said the Australia21 Report ‘says it’s time for a change’ but critical mass support of people was needed, and that meant lobbying lawmakers.
Activist Matt Riley said in the US more than 50 per cent of people favour legalising marijuana ‘because they are more informed on the issues, unlike in Australia where it’s all repressed and the information is not there’.
‘We need to stand up and be visible. I’d like to see 20,000 people smoke in public,’ he said to applause.
Mr Riley said people supporting reform feared the opposition’s ‘totalitarian mentality’, which accused them of being ‘soft on drugs’.
Mr Askey said if the 50,000 people charged with drug possession each pleaded not guilty ‘the whole system would collapse’.
Lawyer Steve Bolt said the vast majority of Australians favoured drug law reform.
‘There may be as many as five million people; we have to let go of the idea that we’re a struggling minority. It’s a no-brainer, there’s no war to be fought, we’re part of a majority wanting change’.
Dr Wodak said the debate would not be won in Nimbin so the argument had to be pitched to the ‘twinsets-and-pearls ladies of St Ives to win them over’, preferably mums.
He said 69 per cent of Australians, and growing, supported medical cannabis and 75 per cent of those supported a trial of medical cannabis.
He said cancer sufferers should be prepared to go public for the cause and they could ‘change the debate around because Australians are compassionate people’.
He said the pharmaceutical industry, like the tobacco and alcohol lobbies, actively worked to derail drug law reform.
Moose said that like the gay liberation movement, people needed to be fearless about action and come out of the closet in order and get the message across.