Senator Adam Bandt: “I would bet that a majority of members of parliament have smoked grass”

With Australia moving at a steady albeit glacial pace towards far-reaching drug reform, Greens leader Adam Bandt gives Happy Mag the update on marijuana legalisation.

In 2019 for Happy Mag’s inaugural Drug Issue, I spoke with then leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale to discuss his party’s newly introduced plan for cannabis regulation and broader drug reform in Australia. It was the first time Di Natale admitted to using cannabis on record, and preceded a number of other Australian members of parliament speaking openly about their drug use.

Senator Adam Bandt is the currently serving leader of the Australian Greens and, working alongside his fellow members such as David Shoebridge, has continued to platform the urgent need for drug reform in Australia. To him it’s a simple matter: people are being locked up when they shouldn’t be. The current model puts unnecessary strain on the judicial system and on the quality of Australian living.

Bandt also believes there are a number of Australian parliamentary members who’ll happily roll up a joint in their private lives despite pushing anti-drug messaging to their constituents. As of 2019 11.9% of Australians admitted to using cannabis in the last 12 months, and while Bandt didn’t name any names beyond his own, it stands to reason that he’s probably right.

We also broadly checked in on Australia’s current progress towards cannabis legalisation, including the effects of legalising the substance for personal use in the ACT petri dish as of January 2020.

Cannabis Legalisation Australia Adam Bandt
Photo: Matteo Paganelli

HAPPY: Hey Adam, thanks for taking the time. In your understanding, how has the movement towards cannabis legalisation progressed over the last two years?

ADAM: It’s still going in the right direction, we’re just not getting there fast enough. I think we all hoped that the Liberals would get kicked out at the last election and we’d be in a stronger position to push the government to go further and faster on legalising cannabis. Sadly, that wasn’t what happened. We’ve continued to take the fight up in NSW parliament, introducing a private members bill there, and of course we’ve seen some progress in the ACT. At the moment, the current government federally doesn’t give any indication that they want to adopt a more sensible approach, but we’re hoping if we can kick them out in the next election and get the Greens into the balance of power, we might be able to get drugs back on the agenda again.

HAPPY: Obviously a lot has changed in the past couple of years that nobody could have predicted, so with that in mind, where would you place drug reform on the party’s current list of priorities?

ADAM: Look, it’s very important because at the moment, we’re finding people, charging them, pushing them through the justice system, and in some instances, locking people up for something that shouldn’t be a crime in the first place. So it’s a fundamental issue, not just about people’s liberties, but about people’s health. Other countries around the world and even territories in Australia have moved in the right direction, and the world hasn’t ended. In fact, it’s probably got a little better and happier. To make sure that we’re a happier country and one where we push fewer people through the justice system, it’s a really important reform.

HAPPY: I realise you and Richard are different politicians – coming from a medical background, his approach to drug reform was very healthcare centric. So I wanted to ask you, are there any economic or environmental benefits to this reform that aren’t spoken about as much as the public health or legal benefits?

ADAM: There’s huge health benefits and we’re going to push those strongly, but this reform will just make people’s lives better. For me that’s the critical thing. I would bet that a majority of members of parliament have smoked grass, and yet they get up and defend laws that say people should be subject to criminal penalty for doing that. I think if you can push for reform that takes a crime off the statute books and recognises that this is something people are doing and have done for a very long time, and shouldn’t be something that could potentially wreck people’s lives, then we should do it. For me it’s about recognising that a lot of people are smoking right now – many of them are in parliament – so it’s time to recognise the hypocrisy and just legalise it.

HAPPY: Has the original roadmap for legalisation, such as the establishment of an Australian cannabis agency, remained intact given everything that’s changed over the past few years?

ADAM: It has. In a nutshell it’s the states who are in charge of making smoking marijuana a crime – or possessing. But the federal government can say it’s a legal drug and open up the way for it to be properly regulated. And even further down the line – this is part of our framework – have a national system for selling it so it’s not run on the black market, people can have their own plants at home, and the buying of selling it is out in the open. We’re pushing at the federal level saying “this is an above-board thing that can be bought and sold”, and at the state level to say “let’s make it no longer a crime”. In NSW we’ve just introduced a private members bill and we’re hoping to get David Shoebridge – who’s the member in NSW who’s been campaigning really hard on drug law reform and particularly, sniffer dogs at festivals and stopping abuses of police power – we’re hoping to get him into the senate at the next election.

HAPPY: Speaking about ACT specifically, has that been a success so far in your opinion?

ADAM: It has! On one level it’s meant that nothing has changed because people were smoking before and people are smoking now, but on another level it’s made a huge difference because people don’t have to worry about being caught. So it’s reduced pressure on the courts and made life easier for people. There’s been no suggestion that it has had any negative effects, it has just made people’s lives better.

HAPPY: Is that something you can measure or quantify? How people are feeling now versus before ACT decriminalised the drug?

ADAM: Look, I don’t know if it can be measured, but it’s a pretty straightforward thing in my book. If you can pass a reform that can relieve pressure on people without it adversely effecting anyone else, why wouldn’t you do it? That’s been the experience in the ACT. And on the other side, those who say “the world is going to end if we legalise it”, look to the ACT. It’s still, the last time I checked, a well-functioning society where people are living a good life. That hasn’t changed, it’s probably only got better. Whether you can find the evidence, I don’t know, but I think you can point to where we’ve had sensible reform in Australia and see that the sky hasn’t fallen in, it just looks a little bit brighter.

HAPPY: And smokier, maybe. So what’s stopping other states and territories from following this precedent, now that it has been set in Australia?

ADAM: I think it’s fear. The evidence is stacking up from both the health and economics perspective, but also critically from a justice and fairness perspective. This is now a common sense reform, and I think the pressure is going to be irresistible. Ultimately we’re going to see this change in Australia. Once it happens in another state, I feel like dominos are going to fall fairly quickly, but why hasn’t it happened so far? Fear from governments that they’ll in some way be seen as soft, but again, my message to them is take off your hypocrisy goggles because you probably have a bunch of bunch of people in your parliament who have done this or may still be doing it! War on Drugs… great band, crap policy. We’ve got to move past it in Australia.

HAPPY: Are you one of these people in parliament who’ve used cannabis before? And if so, how has that informed your stance on this issue?

ADAM: I have used cannabis before and you know, I’m still here, I’ve managed to be elected to parliament, not withstanding having smoked before. I think it’s just time to recognise that it’s something a lot of people have done and are doing. In terms of how it has influenced my stance, again I think it’s just such a simple thing; people are doing this, it’s not causing other people harm, it’s forcing people into our justice system for no good reason, and it shouldn’t be the case. These laws get changed by people pushing and saying “society has changed but the law hasn’t caught up”, and that’s the situation we’re in at the moment.