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June 2, 2023

Cannabis laws steeped in racist US past

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Change can be painfully glacial. 

Then sometimes, after years of apparent stagnation, it can happen quite suddenly, like the proverbial iceberg flipping.

NSW now lags the nation in drug law reform. Qld has just decriminalised possession of small quantities of all drugs, including ice and heroin. It’s ‘three strikes and you’re out’ in Qld. First time will be a warning, and the second and third times, police must offer the chance to participate in a mandatory drug diversion program.

In 1996, Bob Carr introduced legislation to decriminalise cannabis at my urging. It passed the lower house, but was thwarted in the Legislative Council by a single vote – that of the controversial Labor MP, Franca Arena, who was heavily pressured by the Coalition opposition to change her vote after indicating she would support it.

Twenty-seven years later, there has been no progress on drug law reform in NSW.

The new Labor Premier, Chris Minns, claims to have no mandate for drug law reform, but he will be obliged to rely on Jeremy Buckingham’s vote in the Legislative Council. Jeremy has just been elected as the first Legalise Cannabis Party member, and will waste no time in ensuring his voters’ wishes are satisfied.

My first speech in NSW Parliament in 1988, a long one and a long time ago, was on the legalisation of heroin in response to legislative amendments on illegal drugs that were being debated. 

I didn’t support the use of heroin, which I regarded as second only to tobacco, in the harm it caused.

Nevertheless, the criminalising of heroin use in 1953 caused the use of heroin to increase and create major crime problems. Desperate users broke into homes and robbed banks to pay for their habit. A heroin addict can be a one-man crime wave. 

As a member of the Legislative Council, I met a number of users. They were ordinary people, self-medicating, to make their pain go away. One said to me, ‘I only feel okay when I’m on heroin’.

Prohibition turns damaged people into criminals. The entire community pays the price.

Jim Snow, former Labor MP for Eden-Monaro, told me when he was a pharmacist in Queanbeyan, he dispensed legal heroin. 

He said there was no problem with it. There were no dealers making profits from it and the heroin was of a known purity. 

People didn’t die from accidental overdoses. The problems started when it became illegal. Massive amounts of police time and money are wasted, as well as court time and the cost of imprisoning offenders.

The whole crazy cannabis abolition era has overtly racist origins. 

It was started by that fanatic, Harry J Anslinger, after alcohol prohibition ended in the USA. As former Commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he successfully demonised marijuana, which is the Mexican name for cannabis. 

His racist campaign included accusations that urban black men used it to entice young white women, who became sex-crazed, and instantly addicted. Anslinger wrote, in a now infamous 1937 article, ‘Marijuana: Assassin of Youth’: ‘How many murders, suicides, robberies, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year can only be conjectured’.

Anslinger headed the Narcotics Bureau from 1930 to 1962. During his tenure, marijuana became classified as one of the most dangerous drugs, listed on Schedule 1, with no acceptable medical use. 

At the same time, media magnate William Randolph Hearst, also supported the criminalisation of marijuana, perhaps in part because his companies producing paper from wood were being replaced by hemp. He campaigned heavily against it in his newspapers, depicting it as a drug of murder, torture and hideous cruelty.

The Marihuana Tax Act was passed in the US in 1937, with less than half an hour of debate. Some of those voting on it didn’t even realise marijuana was cannabis.  

It’s clear that the entire campaign of cannabis prohibition was largely based on racist lies. 

American policies were slavishly adopted by Australia and other countries. We’re still stuck with that appalling legacy today.

Meanwhile, eight million people die from tobacco use each year worldwide. That genuinely dangerous drug, which killed both my parents before they reached 60, can still be bought in supermarkets! 

Now, tobacco corporations are pushing vaping to vulnerable people.

It has now been determined there is no safe level of alcohol use, and yet it’s promoted as an integral part of our daily life. That demonstrates the madness of current drug laws. 

We know cannabis has a myriad of medical uses, and thousands of people across Australia use it beneficially, and now legally, for numerous conditions. 

It really is such a ridiculous waste of police time, and scarce resources, prosecuting harmless individuals for possessing or using cannabis.

Perhaps Jeremy Buckingham can use his powerful position holding the balance of power to persuade a reluctant Chris Minns that Legalise Cannabis’ clear mandate trumps Labor’s supposed lack of a mandate. It’s way beyond time to reform these old laws, which are so steeped in racism.  

Richard Jones is a former NSW MLC, and is now a ceramist.

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  1. Richard, the damage done by freely available cannabis and ice is horrific. It isn’t even analogous with heroin in ”the good old days”. The plant varieties of cannabis have been bred beyond any resemblance to ancestral THC levels. That is utterly different from tobacco or alcohol. The situation is not what you fondly imagine. This is an issue demanding to be addressed.
    Also, in Sydney, you may recall the Skaf brothers? How did they lure their victims? What drug did they share? These monsters are now legion.
    And Ice – if ever war on a group of people involved in distributing a drug was justified, it is against that drug.

    The whole ”cool with drugs” thing is a tired, dated, nonsensical fantasy.

    • The damage done by the war on drugs and zero tolerance is greater still than legalization ever could. You want to talk about the Americans “dragging us into unwinnable wars” that’s it right there.

    • Good post Matt.
      Poor old Rchard, he is as cracked as some of his pots.
      Cannabis (THC/CBD) – Yes.
      “Leaf” cannabis – yes.
      All non-medical manufactured drugs – no.

      • All medical manufactured drugs – no
        GMO/Hybrid Cannabis – no
        Coca plant – yes please. But just for me. I get hay fever.

  2. Well Nimbin would go broke if cannabis was legalised.

    Either that or the town would have to clear a million hectares of Lantana to grow enough of it to be economically viable.

    Jeremy will be busy fighting this industry 😁

  3. If you don’t think the public are responsible enough to have guns, then they are not responsible enough to have drugs, nor choose a government.


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