Lax state laws on cannabis will come under renewed pressure after the federal Government addressed rising public concern by creating a top-level advisory group to tackle the drug problem.
Parliamentary secretary for health Christopher Pyne said yesterday five experts would be recruited to the new body, which would review current evidence on the links between cannabis and mental health problems, and identify what could be done.
Mr Pyne said the group – which he will chair – would also report on “what steps the commonwealth Government could take to change the direction of cannabis use”.
Many experts have told The Australian over the past two weeks that the evidence has now become overwhelming that cannabis causes not only psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, but also depression and anxiety disorders – particularly when smoked by young people whose brains are still developing.
“There’s a causal link between cannabis and mental health disorders, from recent reports, but there’s resistance from the state attorneys-general and others in the community, who insist in believing that cannabis is no more harmful than alcohol,” Mr Pyne said. He said that although state attorneys-general believed the laws should not be changed, “I feel the commonwealth needs expert advice to give us the weapons to change thinking on cannabis in Australia”.
South Australia and Western Australia, and both territories have removed criminal penalties for possession or use of minor amounts of cannabis.
Although still illegal, these offences now attract parking-offence style “fines” that do not bring a criminal record.
Experts understood to have been asked to join the group include Adelaide public health physician Robert Ali; director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Council Richard Mattick; former NDARC director Wayne Hall; Professor of adolescent health at the University of Melbourne, George Patton; and chief executive of the Ted Noffs Foundation Wesley Noffs.
Mr Pyne said the group would meet in Canberra before the end of this year.
While there are no national statistics for new cases of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia, figures last month from South Australia show a disturbing link between drug use and mental health problems – and a further association with criminality.
Forensic psychologist Craig Raeside reviewed more than 2000 people facing criminal charges and found more than 75 per cent used marijuana, and 58 per cent amphetamines.