Over the past four or five decades we have witnessed great leaps forward in terms of human rights in Australia.
Women were the first major group to overcome much of the oppression and discrimination they traditionally suffered. Australia was one of the first nations in the world to give women the vote, and though it has been a long road, we now have women occupying the highest positions in the state.
Our indigenous Australians were given the vote in 1967, and although they still lag a long way behind mainstream Australia in socio-economic terms, they at least technically have the same rights as white Australians.
The most recent group to have their rights recognised are homosexuals. Where once a man could be imprisoned for engaging in homosexual activities, it is now illegal to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their sexuality in most areas of life (religious organisations exempted). Any homosexual couple can walk down the street hand in hand and not risk attracting the attention of the police, or being fired from their jobs or evicted from their home. When gay marriage is finally legalised their battle will be all but over.
Whilst there remains significant prejudice amongst certain sectors of the public against all three of these groups, Australia can be proud of its record in leading the world in providing them with legal equality.
However, there is one more group in Australia that suffers legal discrimination worse than anything experienced by homosexuals, women or aboriginals (in recent decades at least).
This is not some insignificant group. It consists of perhaps two million Australians. These people come from all walks of life and all age groups. They are professionals and tradesmen, mothers, fathers and grandparents. They look just like everyone else, have jobs and raise families. They pay mortgages and play sports. There is almost certainly one living in your street and maybe even in your home.They make up some ten percent of our population and the vast majority are otherwise law abiding citizens. But, like the homosexuals of past decades, if their true nature is exposed, the consequences can be devastating.
If discovered, they may be fired from their jobs or struck off their professional registers. They may have their homes searched by the police. They may be arrested, imprisoned and even have their lawfully earned property confiscated by the state.
So who is this persecuted minority and what have they done to deserve such persecution?
They are cannabis smokers and their only crime is to smoke cannabis.
But surely I am exaggerating. Pot smokers are not persecuted, are they?
If caught with even a small quantity of cannabis, they may be arrested, charged and convicted. The penalty for possession of 10 grams (about a week or two’s smoking for a moderate user) in Western Australia is up to two years imprisonment. Whilst the “criminal” would be unlikely to be sentenced to imprisonment for minor possession this potential penalty enables the “crime used property confiscation” laws to kick in. A person caught with even a small bag of weed being stored in their home, or growing even a single plant for their own use, runs the risk of having their home confiscated by the state.
And what is the justification for this persecution?
Is it because of the potential harms of smoking marijuana? It would seem not, given that the state does not generally ban things simply because they are harmful. If it did then alcohol, tobacco and rock fishing would all be prohibited. As would fast food and motorcycles.
We do not punish people because they are unhealthy or engage in risky behaviour. We do not dish out fines or threaten the obese with imprisonment. Nor do we make criminals of those who sell them burgers and chocolate.
So why is marijuana illegal and why has the government of WA chosen to “toughen” these laws, and increase the persecution against pot smokers?
There are probably a number of reasons.
In the same way that many people feel the act of homosexual intercourse is a moral ill in itself, many people feel that the use of marijuana is a moral ill. These people wish to force their own moral values onto others and are quite happy for the blunt instrument of the criminal law to be used for this purpose.
Another reason of course is to win votes from an electorate who have been conditioned by 50 years of “drug war” propaganda into thinking that drug use (other than alcohol and tobacco) is the greatest evil of our age. Unscrupulous politicians can exploit the ignorance of these voters by “cracking down” on drug users, the majority of whom are marijuana smokers.
Another possibility may be the lobbying power of vested interest groups such as police, seeking more powers and greater funding. There are only two groups really that benefit from this prohibition. They are the law enforcement industry (including the prison industry) and of course the criminal gangs who can make enormous profits from selling marijuana on the black market.
Finally there is always the slim possibility that some politicians are ignorant enough to believe that marijuana use will be reduced by toughening the law. Given that our politicians have advisers who have read the research into drug policy, I don’t for a minute think this possibility is in the least likely. All the research into this issue shows that criminal sanctions do not decrease use. They simply cause great harm to those who are convicted and to their families.
So what is to be done?
How will this persecution be brought to an end? The answer lies in history. How did women, blacks and gays win their rights?
None of these groups won their rights through sitting back and waiting for the government to act on its injustice. They won their rights through standing up and demanding them.
It’s mind boggling to consider the courage it must have taken for those first gay men and women to “come out of the closet” and announce to the world that not only were they gay, but that they were not ashamed of the fact. The consequences of them “coming out of the closet” must have been very serious in some cases, and would have included job losses, being ostracised from family and friends and generally being the subject of ridicule and exclusion from the wider community. However, at least by that stage, the laws against homosexual sex were seldom if ever enforced.
Unfortunately that is not the case with marijuana. In the 2008-9 year there were over 55,000 arrests for cannabis in Australia. Of those, 86% were for possession alone.
When that arrest can lead to conviction, criminal record, potential property confiscation, job loss and a myriad of other harsh penalties, it will again take a great deal of courage for this persecuted minority to stand up and demand their human rights.
So when will these two million Australians “come out of the closet”?
Perhaps the love of the weed is truly the “love that dare not speak its name”.
Daniel Weisman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.