The South Australian government has been accused of ignoring the evidence as it seeks to introduce harsher penalties for cannabis possession, with a quadrupling of fines and prison sentences to be implemented.
SA’s attorney general, Vickie Chapman, has used a 2012 murder in which a 17-year-old from Adelaide affected by alcohol, ecstasy and cannabis shot and killed a teenager as justification of the need to introduce tougher cannabis penalties.
Chapman said the crime had prompted “everyone to sit up and reappraise the significance of cannabis and the dangers of using the drug’.
“This is a serious drug and those who have previously said it was a recreational drug, not much worse than tobacco, really those days are over,” the attorney general told ABC radio.
SA became the first state to decriminalise minor cannabis offences in 1987. The highest penalty for cannabis possession or use in the state is $500, but the most common fine is $125 for carrying 25 grams or less.
But the proposed legislation would see cannabis elevated to the status of “other controlled drugs” such as ecstasy and heroin, meaning people possessing or using it would face a maximum fine of $2,000 and up to two years in prison.
It would also include tougher penalties for members of outlaw motorcycle gangs. A bikie caught in the supply or administration of a controlled drug would face a $75,000 fine and 15 years in jail. Adults selling to children or using them to commit drug crimes would also be barred from receiving suspended sentences.
Chapman’s push for tougher penalties follows a coronial inquest into the 2012 murder of 18-year-old Lewis McPherson in Adelaide. McPherson was shot dead outside a New Year’s Eve party in Adelaide by 17-year-old Liam Humbles.
Described as a “a complicated individual being paranoid, erratic and angry”, Humbles was estranged from his parents and did not attend school or work. He also had a history of aggression.
Humbles was also a drug dealer and had undergone five drug diversions relating to drug possession but had never been arrested.
The inquest heard that on the day of the shooting Humbles had consumed “significant quantities” of alcohol, taken ecstasy and smoked cannabis.
In his findings the deputy coroner, Anthony Schapel, recommended a limit to the number of diversions a child could undergo and called for an increase in the maximum cannabis possession fine.
Alex Wodak from the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation said Chapman’s attempts to link cannabis use to murder were “nonsense”.
“Most people who smoke cannabis crawl into a corner and fall asleep or they eat ice cream,” he said. “They don’t go around murdering people. That’s not the pattern. This is just nonsense.”
Tim Mellor from the SA Law Society said that the government’s bill reflected a lack of “evidence-based justification” for increasing drug-related penalties.
“The bill, in our view, fails to sufficiently recognise that drug addiction is a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” he wrote in a submission to the government. “To ‘win the war on drugs’, the medical and social issues that underpin drug addiction must be addressed.”
If passed, the SA bill would overturn three decades of cannabis policy in the state.
When the government abolished criminal penalties for possession in 1987 it prompted similar changes in the ACT and Northern Territory.
In the 1990s a major study comparing cannabis decriminalisation in SA to more punitive policies in Western Australia found that tougher penalties had “no impact on [the] patterns of cannabis or other drug use”.
However, it found that people prosecuted for cannabis possession in WA were “more likely to report relationship problems, accommodation problems and further involvement with the criminal justice system related to their first minor cannabis offence”.
Wodak pointed out that the proposed law is out of step with international moves to remove criminal sanctions for cannabis possession and use, warning that SA risked falling “completely out of step” with the rest of the world.
“At best, the South Australian government is right and the rest of the world is wrong,” Wodak said. “What they’re talking about doing is absolutely crazy.”