Australian Public Health Conference 2021: spotlight on cannabis policy reform

three cultivars of the cannabis plant, via Wikipedia creative commons

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

Nothing, not even a once in a century pandemic will stop the annual Australian Public Health Conference 2021 which starts Thursday 23 September in a virtual-only format.

The two-day conference has a packed program and registrations are strong, with places still available.

A cannabis middle-ground

The opening session on Thursday features a keynote by Perth-based clinical psychologist, Professor Simon Lenton, whose address is titled Beyond Cannabis Prohibition – Middle ground policy options for cannabis public health policy.

After many decades of cannabis prohibition with criminal penalties, the cannabis policy landscape has been upended by the emergence of legal, recreational commercial cannabis markets, principally in North America.

“The attractiveness of a ‘tax and regulate’ approach seems obvious, but our experience with tobacco and alcohol should alert us that profit-driven commercial models can undermine public health,” Professor Lenton said.

His presentation will look at some of the early data out of North America, and describe some of the middle ground options for legal cannabis that he believes deserves more attention in the policy debate in moving beyond prohibition.

Professor Lenton’s address will look at case studies of the impact of cannabis legalisation in Uruguay (2013) and Colorado in the US (2014).

He’ll speak of emerging issues where “in North America there are now signs of rampant profit-driven commercialisation of cannabis.”

He sees the biggest problems emerging among the adult community, rather than younger people.

“There is now evidence of increased potency, increased harm, advertising restrictions avoided by the use of online promotion, and a greater impact on communities of disadvantage and communities of colour,” Prof Lenton explained.

Cannabis Social Clubs

Professor Lenton will share examples of ‘middle-ground’ options for cannabis use policy, somewhere between prohibition and a heavily regulated cannabis market. This includes ‘cannabis social clubs’ where 100-200 users register with government and have their plants grown for them.

“There is no promotion, no commercialisation and no profit incentives,” Prof Lenton said.

Spain currently has around 400 social clubs and with no profit motive to increase cannabis consumption or initiate new users, the clubs offer a more cautious, public health-centred alternative to large-scale retail cannabis markets dominated by commercial enterprises.

In Australia, several governments have taken steps towards managing personal cannabis use, but decriminalisation doesn’t deal with the supply side, Prof Lenton said.

The Victorian Government had shown some interest in exploring the cannabis social club model as a result of its recent Inquiry into the Use of Cannabis Use, he added.

The final report from the Victorian inquiry says, in short, cannabis social clubs could make it safer for Australians to access cannabis if these were heavily regulated, the site Pondering Pot reported. It suggests regulations limit the age of club participants to 18+, impose quantity restrictions, and closed membership.

The PHAA would like to acknowledge and thank the sponsors of the virtual 2021 Australian Public Health Conference – Principal Sponsor, the Australian Government Department of Health, and Support Sponsor the University of Sydney.

Image: Three cultivars of the cannabis plant. Source: Wikipedia

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