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Reform of minor cannabis laws in Western Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand

Swensen, Greg (2006) Reform of minor cannabis laws in Western Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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The past three decades has been a period of intense and sustained debate in a number of major Western countries about the wisdom of police continuing to apply legislation which can severely punish offenders by fines and even imprisonment because of laws and policies that prohibit the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis.

The large and growing number of young adults who have been exposed to the drug, some of whom have been charged and received criminal convictions with attendant deleterious effects on their employment and wellbeing, has forced policy makers to re-evaluate the justification for continuing to criminalise cannabis.

This thesis examines in detail the law reforms that occurred in early 2004 with respect to cannabis offenders in Western Australia (WA) and the United Kingdom (UK) and what lessons these reforms may hold for other jurisdictions interested in decriminalisation of minor cannabis offences.

A study was undertaken to compare the shortcomings and advantages of the different approaches to reform followed in WA and the UK. Reference to the reform in the UK, will be confined to meaning England, Wales and Northern Ireland as the necessary administrative guidelines have not so far been issued for Scotland.

In WA the reforms required a substantial legislative effort to establish a complex framework that outlined in detail the circumstances when police may issue cannabis infringement notices (CINs), whereas in the UK the approach involved limited legislative activity by the reclassification of the legal status of cannabis and by providing police with administrative guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Commissioners as to how to exercise their discretion in issuing formal warnings for a minor cannabis offence.

A comparison is made with New Zealand (NZ), where in spite of there being a similar process of deliberation and consultation as in WA and the UK, the government refused to implement formal reform because of a perception it was unable to decriminalise minor cannabis offences because of the restrictions imposed of agreement between the Clarke Labour Government and a minor political party.

The example of the failure of government in NZ to achieve reform illustrates the importance that in some jurisdictions there will be a significant role for non parliamentary advisory bodies and lobby groups to argue for reform and to garner public support when reform has stalled or been frustrated.

The thesis also includes a preliminary exploratory study using a number of indicators, such as prevalence and conviction data, to determine if the reforms implemented by the CIN scheme have resulted in or are likely to create unanticipated harms and to explore some of the issues in being to determine whether changes in law enforcement practices and priorities have impacted on the cannabis market or are likely to change the way cannabis may be transacted in WA.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Law
Supervisor(s): Crofts, Thomas
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