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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1127


Senator WOODS (7.23 p.m.) —I wish to address tonight an issue which is currently in the public eye; that is, the question of decriminalisation of various drugs, in particular marijuana. Of course, the issue has been raised because of the motion passed at the recent AMA conference that marijuana should be decriminalised. I would like to say a few things about this.

  A number of precepts are involved in the whole question. The first, which is often put by the protagonists of the case for decriminalisation, is that marijuana is not a harmful drug. Let me say that the very best case scenario is that it is as bad or as harmful as tobacco. Would we now, if tobacco were suddenly discovered in the 20th century, legalise tobacco use knowing what we know about its health effects? Clearly the answer is no. I accept that that horse has now bolted, and it probably did so 700 years ago in Walter Raleigh's day. The fact is that is the very best case scenario.

  The real case scenario is much worse than that. There is little doubt at all that there is a predilection for the inducement or precipitation of schizophrenia by the use of marijuana. A number of studies support this view. One particular study, a 15-year study of 55,000 Swedish military conscripts from the late 1980s, showed that the relative risk of developing schizophrenia was six times higher for heavy users of marijuana than for non-users. A number of other studies support this view.

  Many doctors will anecdotally state that the commonest cause, particularly in the 15- to 25-year-old age group, of schizophrenia seems to be related at least in onset time to the use of or experimentation with marijuana. It is worse than tobacco. In carcinogenic—that is, cancer producing—effects, it is probably at least as bad as tobacco, but of course marijuana is usually smoked without the benefit of a filter so the carcinogens have the potency to reach the affected areas, normally the lungs and other areas, in higher concentrations. So there is no doubt that it is worse than tobacco as it is actually used.

  There is a lot of data on the effects of marijuana on motor coordination. By itself that may not be harmful but, of course, people with poor motor coordination still drive vehicles. One of the major problems that we have with alcohol is someone using alcohol in excess and then driving motor vehicles and causing damage not only to themselves but to other people on the roads or nearby. There is good evidence that motor coordination is impaired such that driving vehicles is dangerous in many cases.

  There was a report in 1990 from the United States National Transportation Safety Board which showed extensive evidence linking fatal accidents among truck drivers to cannabis. One-third of the victims whose bodies were examined had recently used alcohol or drugs. Almost 13 per cent had used marijuana. That is a very high and very clear association.

  There is some evidence that head and neck cancers are more common in marijuana users. A study published in 1991 showed that of 12 cases—admittedly a small number—of advanced head and neck cancer in young patients with an average age of 26 years, which is very young for head and neck cancer, all had been daily marijuana smokers since high school but did not smoke tobacco or use much alcohol, these being two of the other major risk factors for head and neck cancer.

  There are cardiovascular effects in terms of blood pressure and a whole range of other effects. These things are beyond dispute. There is no doubt that marijuana is harmful in health terms. There might be some disagreement as to how extensive that damage is, but in health terms there is no question that it is damaging.

  There are also other damaging problems. In the current environment marijuana is often sold and obtained in situations where other drugs, hard drugs—if we want to use that expression—are available. Nobody I am aware of is seriously suggesting that we should provide marijuana in tobacconists' shops, so presumably the provision of marijuana in the existing environment will continue. That is a first step in the utilisation of drugs full stop, particularly drugs which may then progress to the harder, even more damaging drugs.

  So there is I think a broad amount of agreement among many people, certainly among the majority of people, that marijuana should be discouraged. The question really is how do we discourage use? How do we best achieve this end? The AMA's view is that we should do two things: one is decriminalise and the other is educate. I have no real problem with the principle of education, but the aim should not be education after the event; the aim should be for education before the event to make sure that children in particular are well informed and, hopefully, therefore less likely to want to try the drug in the first place.

  If over half our people smoke tobacco, and that is what the statistics suggest at present, it is indeed a short step that once marijuana is decriminalised experimentation with cannabis will be that much easier and that much more attractive, especially when one considers that the vast majority of marijuana users include in their joint tobacco from their cigarette, and that of course will add to health risks.

  I have major problems about the process of education used as a stopgap. It needs to be done across the whole board. By itself it is not enough. I have major reservations about the main question here which is the decriminalisation of marijuana. The main problem is that it gives a very clear message to the community, in particular to the young in our community, that we are condoning the use of marijuana and that we are in some way saying it is not that bad. We are perhaps saying it is something which they should not necessarily avoid, that they might want to experiment with it.

  The message it gives is the wrong message entirely, particularly to young people in our society. We need to give a very clear message that not only marijuana but every other drug should be avoided. Even the use of drugs such as alcohol—because, of course, alcohol is a drug—should be minimised.

  I am disappointed that the AMA, which in so many ways, particularly during the last year under the presidency of Brendan Nelson, has done such a lot to broaden its horizons and to encourage good public health issues such as anti-smoking, inappropriate alcohol use, road traffic accidents and a few other issues as well, including the not inconsiderable importance of Aboriginal health considerations, in this one area is saying, `Okay, it may well be harmful, but what we will look at is decriminalisation.' What it is doing there is giving a message that it is okay. I am completely opposed to this tacit endorsement of drug use.

  One of the arguments that is put forward is that a criminal record will adversely affect a young person's life. I agree; I do not particularly want to see young people thrown in gaol or have a criminal record. But what I want to see even less is a population of young children suffering the harmful effects of smoking marijuana which I outlined earlier. That is a much more important issue. A drug that is illegal will deter at least some people from using it. That deterrent will at least serve to protect society in some way. It may mean lives saved from usage and the effects of that usage. I think that is very important.

  The other aspect about a criminal record is that nobody is forced to smoke marijuana; nobody is forced to take on a criminal record. Sad though I am about the need for this, it is absolutely crucial that we take a very firm stance in our society against any endorsement or any condoning of drug use in this way.

  Another aspect, of course, which is sometimes raised is the specious argument that having a criminal association with marijuana, making it illegal, in some way has not worked. The speciousness of that argument is clearly illustrated by the fact that if we look at murder, which has been a crime for as long as I am aware, people still commit murder. So no veto, of course, can ever be complete. The question is: does it reduce the usage? There can be little doubt that it does. I am therefore very strongly of the view that we should not decriminalise marijuana, not give this message to our youth, and that we should take a very firm stance as a society.

  I speak on this matter not only as a doctor with good friends in the AMA who have taken this view, but as a politician and, perhaps most importantly of all, as the father of three children. I do not want to give any encouragement to my children or to any of the children with whom I come into contact to become in any way dependent in the slightest fashion upon the use of any drug, particularly marijuana, but the same applies to tobacco, alcohol and a whole range of other drugs.

  Our society has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. If we look around restaurants now, it is rare to see people smoking. If we go to meetings, it is rare to see people smoking. There has been a swing in society against the misuse of our bodies. So why we would want to go in the opposite direction on this issue is completely beyond my comprehension. I feel very strongly about this issue. I am very disappointed that the AMA, which has been, as I say, so good in leading opinion in so many other ways over the last year or so, has in my view taken entirely the wrong step in this issue.