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Words by Robert Eisen
Illustration by Zoe Efron

On 1 January 2014, 37 newly licenced marijuana shops opened their doors throughout the state of Colorado. Thousands of delighted Americans queued up in almost freezing temperatures to buy newly packaged, state approved marijuana. That day, Colorado made history as the only state in the world to allow marijuana to be sold to anyone over the age of 21. This model of legalisation is likely to serve as a blueprint for legislation around the world, and will not go unnoticed by the many advocates of marijuana in our own country. In Australia, however, the question remains as to whether marijuana should be legalised for medical purposes, let alone for the general public, so don’t prepare for a trip to the Smith Street Pot Shop just yet. Legal marijuana is still light years away from hitting our shoreline, as politicians are only slowly coming to terms with the issue.

Although medical marijuana is the most viable option for Australia, it is unlikely to be introduced anytime soon. Unlike Australia, Colorado has a history of medical marijuana, with legislation dating back to 2000. These proved to be the foundations for the current laws. In Colorado, licenses to supply the drug were first granted to those already supplying medical marijuana and were later extended to others. Australia has only just begun to consider legislation to legalise medical marijuana, but even still, there have been some encouraging signs of a change. In May 2013, the NSW Government Legislative Council began an inquiry into the use of cannabis for medical purposes with its findings due to be released in February 2015.

Washington State’s system of legalisation, however, presents an alternate path for Australia. Although in Washington medical marijuana has been in various stages of legality since 1998, their 2014 policy created a new system under which growing, processing and selling the drug all require different licences. The government determines how much marijuana is needed by the producer and caps their output accordingly. Such a system has a number of difficulties that include a complex system of licensing according to supply and demand and issues surrounding federal law, which still deems marijuana illegal. The Washington State model seems less likely for Australia, as state governments are likely to favour further decriminalisation over legalisation.

This has already been achieved to some degree in most states and territories. In Victoria for example, possession of up to 50 grams of marijuana carries no criminal conviction. Decriminalisation is less of a political minefield than legalisation, the latter of which would be a tough sell to both Liberal and Labor voters. The Greens remain the only major political party open to discussion on the legalisation of medical marijuana. They have lavished praise on the NSW decision to open the inquiry into medical marijuana with Greens spokesperson for health Senator Richard Di Natale stating that, “Medical cannabis can help relieve the pain and nausea experienced by cancer patients but they are unable to access it because of Australia’s drug laws.”

So far the Colorado experiment has been largely viewed as a success, though a couple of issues have been pointed out, with reports of tourists crossing state lines with marijuana, and minors getting hold of the drug. Major banks have also shunned retailers, as selling marijuana still violates federal law forcing business to operate mainly with cash, which poses safety risks. These issues and others such as the increased consumption and the negative effects of the drug mean it is better for Australia to introduce the drug as a ‘medical experiment’ first, before outright legalisation.