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The Decriminalisation of Cannabis in the A.C.T. (Australian Capital Territory)

Use Among University Students

By Jill M McGeorge, 1996

Paper presented at the 1996 International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm - Hobart


While debates over the legalisation and decriminilisation* of illicit drugs continue to flourish, few western jurisdictions have made any concrete efforts in reaching the goals of harm minimisation by way of such policies. The 1970's witnessed over ten US states decriminilise cannabis by deeming the possession of small quantities a civil offence, expiable by payment of a fine. Unfortunately, many states have returned to complete prohibition policies, recriminilising the possession of cannabis even in light of research evaluations that had shown little to no increased consumption of cannabis. [Carr (1975); Maloff (1981); Brownell (1988); Budman (1977); Mandel (1987); Suggs (1981).]

In Australia, the first state to decriminilise cannabis was South Australia in April 1987. In comparing trends in cannabis use as detailed in community and school studies, no differences were found in the rates of cannabis consumption between South Australia and other states [Christie (1991)]. Recent research continues to show no significant changes in cannabis consumption.

* For this research and paper, decriminilisation refers to the lessening of legal sanctions governing illegal drug use. For example, the possession of an amount of cannabis that mat have been deemed a 'criminal' offence would be decriminilised to the status of a 'civil' offence (it is still an offence but punishment is lighter). The legalisation of the same act however, would result in no punishment, as it would be deemed a 'legal' act. Definitions can differ as experts develop applications of decriminilisation theories. Refer to these reviews of the drug debate provided for further definitions of decriminilisation and legalisation: Fox and Mathews (1992), Wodack and Owens (1995), Chesher and Wodak (1990), Drew (1991).

In late 1992 the Australian Capital Territory (A.C.T.) passed the Drugs of Dependence Amendment Act (not enforced until December 1992 to early 1993). The amended act granted the possession of small quantities of cannabis (including the personal growing of five or less plants) to be an offence expiable by a payment of no more than one hundred dollars. Where the penalty is paid within sixty days, no further action is taken and no conviction is recorded.

Opposition to the decriminilisation of cannabis in the A.C.T. was based largely on the fear of increased use. A fear based largely on the assumption that arrests, court appearances and the possibility of a criminal record were an effective deterrent against the use of cannabis (Parliamentary Debates, 1992). However, it is believed that the criminal law is not an effective deterrant against such a victimless crime as drug use. [Studies investigating deterrants have found little or no connection between deterrance efforts and actual behaviour: Paternoster, Saltzman, Waldo, and Chiricos, 1983; Green 1989; Burkett and Ward 1993; Gotestam and Gotestam 1992; Erickson 1979; Nucci, Lee, and Guerra 1991; Skretting 1993.]

This study investigated the effects of the A.C.T.'s new legislation decriminilising cannabis by reviewing the patterns of use by university students in the A.C.T. and Victoria, a state that did not decriminilise cannabis.


Design A self-report survey was designed and distributed to students at wo Australian universities. The questionnaire investigated students patterns of cannabis during 1992 and 1994.


The questionnaire consisted of about twenty questions relating to cannabis possesssion and use. Previous research has found self-reported drug use surveys to be valid, especially when focusing on what is considered by many to be a relatively 'harmless' drug. The questionnaire includes a retrospective question asking subjects about their use of cannabis in 1992, about two years prior to the survey. Research has shown that certain aspects of memory recall to be accurate, especially when encouraged with memory aids (see Howes and Katz 1992; Sovell et al., 1988; Loftus and Marburger 1983; Loftus and Fathi 1985). This was done in the questionnaire with a short statement that read:

In this survey we are trying to get an idea of marijuana use in the past. Please try to recall the period of your life during 1992, about two years ago, when you were probably in the first year of university studies, and possibly between the ages of 17 and 19 years.

The use of landmark references such as the first year of university and being of a certain age would have helped in facilitating recall.


The sample consisted of third year students recruited from the faculties of Arts, Science and Economics at the Australian National University in the A.C.T. and the University of Melbourne in Victoria.


Questionnaires were distributed during the last five minutes of lectures where they were completed and returned to a container upon the students' exit from class. Eleven lectures were used to collect 437 questionnaires in the A.C.T. and in Victoria ten lectures yielded 476 questionnaires. Responses were coded and entered into a spread sheet and the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) for cross-tabulation and significance testing.



After exclusion of incomplete questionnaires, a final sample of 421 was gained in the A.C.T., and a sample of 470 in Victoria, resulting in a total sample of 891. Among 882 subjects 59.0 percent were women. In the A.C.T. mean age was 22.8 years with a standard deviation (s.d.) of 5.2 years. The percentage of women was 57.6 with a mean age of 23 years (s.d. 5.8 years). Mean age of males was 22.6 years (s.d. 4.4 years).

In the Victorian sample, mean age was lsightly lower at 21.7 years (s.d. 4.0). The percentage of women was 60 with a mean age of 21.2 years (s.d. 3.8 years). Mean age of males was 21.7 years (s.d. 4.0 years). In terms of age and gender, therefore, the samples from Victoria and the A.C.T. were well matched. The number of subjects ever having used cannabis was virtually indentical between the two jurisdictions: 53.46 percent in the A.C.T. and 53.40 in Victoria. The gender balances among those who had ever used was also fairly stable with 50.4 percent in the A.C.T. and 49.3 percent in Victoria being women.

Opinion of decriminilisation policy

Subjects were asked to choose what they thought should be the maximum penalty for a first offence of possessing small quantities of marijuana. Table one below clearly shows that the lessesning of criminal sanctions is favoured by the majority of the sample, including those who have never used cannabis.

Table 1. Minimum Penalty for Cannabis Use Supported by Sample

OPINION User (%) Non-user (%) TOTAL % User (%) Non-user (%) TOTAL (%)
Should be legal 169 (75.4) 75 (40.8) 244 (59.8) 179 (72.8) 68 (32.7) 247 (54.4)
Prison + conviction 0 7 (3.8) 7 (1.7) 2 (.8) 17 (8.20 19 (4.2)
Fine + conviction 8 (3.6) 29 (15.8) 37 (9.8) 10 (4.1) 50 (24.0) 60 (13.2)
Adjourned Bond* - - - 14 (5.7) 26 (12.5) 40 (8.8)
Prescribed penalty** 41 (18.3) 64 (34.8) 105 (25.7) 36 (14.6) 36 (17.3) 72 (15.9)
Other 6 (2.7) 9 (4.8) 15 (3.7) 5 (2) 11 (5.3) 16 (3.5)
TOTAL 224 (100) 184 (100) 408 (100) 246 (100) 208 (100) 454 (100)

* Vicorian Questionnaire Only

** 'Decriminilisation'

Current Use

A review of current patterns of use reveal no significant differences in rates of use between the two samples [x(squared)=5.34, df=6. P-value=.050], with cannabis used relatively infrequently. Table two breakes down current patterns in each state.

Table 2. Patterns of Cannabis Use in the Last Year (1994)

Every day 4 (1.8) 5 (2) 9 (2)
Every week 16 (7.3) 26 (10.7) 42 (9)
Every month 24 (11) 35 (14.3) 59 (12.7)
Every two months 33 (15.1) 38 (15.6) 71 (15.3)
Twice a year 57 (26) 48 (19.7) 105 (22.8)
Once a year 32 (14.6) 29 (11.9) 61 (13.2)
Not in last year 53 (24.2) 63 (25.8) 116 (25)
TOTAL 219 (100%) 233 (100%) 463 (100%)

Past Use

With regard to the patterns of use within the A.C.T., no significant difference exists between use before decriminilisation and use almost two years after [x(squared)=6.91, df=6, P-value=0.50]. In addition, there was no significant difference between the two samples with regard to use of cannabis in 1992 [x(squared)=6.76, df=6, P-value=0.34]. Table 3 shows the patterns of use in 1992.

Table 3. Patterns of Cannabis Use During 1992

PATTERN (1992) A.C.T. (%) VICTORIA (%) TOTAL %
Every day 5 (2.3) 5 (2) 10 (2.2)
Every week 16 (7.3) 25 (10.2) 41 (8.8)
Every month 25 (11.5) 32 (13) 57 (12.3)
Every two months 39 (17.9) 28 (11.4) 67 (14.4)
Twice a year 54 (24.8) 58 (23.6) 112 (24.1)
Once a year 16 (7.3) 28 (11.4) 44 (9.5)
Not during 1992 63 (28) 70 (28.4) 133 (28.7)
TOTAL 218 (100%) 246 (100%) 464 (100%)

Changes in Use

Students were also asked to state whether they believed their use of cannabis had changed over the two years previous to the survey. Over two thirds of the sample reported their use had either decreased or remained the same. Suprisingly, more Victorian subjects reported an increase, though this was not statistically significant.

Table 4. Changes in Cannabis Use Since 1992 (self-reported)

INCREASE 41 (18.8) 61 (25) 102 (22)
SAME 79 (36.2) 81 (33) 160 (34.6)
DECREASE 98 (45) 103 (42) 201 (43.4)
TOTAL 218 (100%) 245 (100%) 463 (100%)

Reasons for change in use were varied and did not appear to relate directly to the new law: changing value, maturation, health concerns and changing peer groups were all factors governing the use of drugs. It is these issues and other social functions which must be investigated in addressing the use and abuse of drugs.


Clear though limited support has been provided to show that the decriminilisation of cannabis did not lead to a significant increase in use among university students.

More extensive research embracing larger, more diverse samples, into the effects of decriminilisation policies must be undertaken.

Based on this work and previous research it is put forward that the decriminilisation of cannabis does not lead to significant increases in its consumption. It is recommended that, in support of the Australian national policy of harm minimisation, all states and territories begin the process of lessening, if not aboloshing, criminal sanctions against the possession and use of cannabis as a starting point towards the regulated control of substances currently prohibited.


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