Why it’s time for legal cannabis: a chat with Senator Richard Di Natale

Last year the Australian Greens party pledged to introduce a bill for nationwide cannabis legalisation. After witnessing drug reform occurring in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, many Australians celebrated the notion of a similar system being put in place on home soil.

But the road ahead is long, paved with naysayers flogging the same arguments the failed war on drugs has hammered into society’s psyche since the 1960s. The truth is, a legal cannabis market remains a terrifying notion for some.

To get a handle on it all, we sat down for a chat with Greens leader Richard Di Natale. He was happy to share his reasoning on why it’s time for legal cannabis, the oft-forgotten danger of certain substances, and his own experiences with mind-altering chemicals.

This article will appear in print in Happy Mag Issue 10. Pre-order your copy here.

Legalize it scott marsh senator richard di natale
Image courtesy of Scott Marsh

Unlike the bulk of our elected Australian Government, Senator Richard Di Natale has his facts straight when it comes to drug reform.

HAPPY: Well, congratulations on getting your bill to the senate. But as I understand it there’s still a long road ahead, whichever path you take?

RICHARD: There is, there is. We just need to get a shift from one of the major parties. Might be that we’ll see this from the Labor party through the next term of government.

HAPPY: Well let’s postulate that your reform does eventually go through, whether it’s in the next five or the next 20 years. There’s this book I read, Chasing The Scream

RICHARD: Terrific book! Johann Hari.

HAPPY: Agreed. At the centre of it was this idea that addicts aren’t addicts because of some pre-existing pull towards drugs, but they’re people who have experienced trauma in their past, or they suffer from mental health problems. Do you agree with that?

RICHARD: I agree that people fall to problems with substance abuse, and that for many of those people there is an overarching trauma. I mean, I would say that using psychoactive substances whether it be alcohol, cannabis, the more traditional substances… that’s part of the human condition. For as long as people have figured out that certain plants could alter our consciousness, people have been doing that. So I think that the idea of using substances is part of who we are. When you talk about trauma and pain, you’re talking about people who are using substances not in a way to add colour to their lives, but as a way to cope with the trauma that they’re experiencing. Yes I do very strongly believe that people do become dependent on substances, that’s a way of people trying to almost self-medicate for particular trauma.

HAPPY: Right. Rather than seeking pleasure, it’s putting a blanket over something else.

RICHARD: It’s preventing pain. Rather than seeking pleasure, it’s trying to dull the pain. But it’s counterproductive when people use substances and become dependent on them. They might dull pain but they create a whole lot of other problems.

HAPPY: Of course. You touched on this a second ago, but as a doctor what do you make of the so-called mystical qualities that people apply to drugs?

RICHARD: Well drugs have always been used for people to, you know, alter their consciousness and think in different ways. Again it’s been very common, actually even in medicine psychoactive substances have had therapeutic uses. MDMA has been used in post-traumatic stress disorder.

HAPPY: It’s been used to treat depression, so has psilocybin. Are you aware of any similar studies going on in Australia?

RICHARD: I can’t say say I know any. Obviously it’s been very hard to get approval to do research on drugs that are illegal, it’s been very difficult.

HAPPY: True. In my age group –  I’m in my mid-20s – the attitude towards drugs is pretty unanimous. What I’ve found really interesting is seeing people in the generations above myself turning against the ideals that hard prohibition brought about. Have you seen those people, Gen X, Y and Baby Boomers, adopting more of a 21st century attitude?

RICHARD: Oh, I think there’s been a big shift. Absolutely, and I think that’s in part because it’s generational. For younger people and even Baby Boomers, drugs are something they’ve been exposed to right through their lives. I think what’s going on with drug reform throughout the world, for example cannabis being legal in some parts of the US and in Canada, and another couple of jurisdictions… people have seen that the world’s moving. And also just a growing awareness. As much as politicians might like to say “zero tolerance” and that you should just say no, people know that’s not possible. It just doesn’t work.

HAPPY: Do you think those people who aren’t drug users, but are passionate about reform have a key role to play?

RICHARD: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. You don’t have to be a drug user to understand that what we’re doing is not working. In fact worse – it’s hurting people. We’ve got good evidence for particular interventions, pill testing is a great example, where we know that it saves lives, we know that when people can test their pills they’re less likely to take a dodgy pill and so are their friends. We know it saves lives. You don’t have to be somebody who’s a drug user to understand that. You should be basing your health policies on evidence.

HAPPY: I’m admittedly a little tuned out from this, the music community I imagine is quite different from the senate, but what are the current arguments from the Australian anti-drug community?

RICHARD: Oh, they’re all the tired old arguments that you’re sending the wrong message…

HAPPY: Same ones that were around 50 years ago?

RICHARD: Yeah. There’s no mystery to it, it’s all about fear and this idea that you’re sending the wrong message. But really we’re sending the wrong message now, because what we’re doing to people is saying you should be doing this in a way that’s more dangerous.

HAPPY: Talking about cannabis specifically, do you think there’s an issue in that community with people tending to downplay the negative effects the drug can have?

RICHARD: I think that’s true for some people, and look, all drugs have a potential for harm. I mean the biggest harm associated with cannabis is that it’s often smoked, and smoking anything, whether it be cannabis or tobacco, is bad for you, it’s harmful. So that’s one of the most significant harms that’s often downplayed. I think there’s this question of the impact it can have on the developing brain, it’s often used as a treatment for anxiety; people will self-medicate and it can make people’s anxiety worse. There’s the question of a link with psychosis, although that’s still contested within medical circles, but we do know it has the potential to exacerbate psychosis if you’re somebody who’s predisposed to it.

It’s not a drug without harm, but we’ve also got to recognise that when compared to other drugs like alcohol, if it’s ingested or vaporised, it’s much less harmful. Alcohol has the potential for overdose, people die from alcohol frequently. You can’t overdose on cannabis. Alcohol has a range of systemic effects on people’s bodies, people’s livers and other endorphin systems, whereas cannabis does not have those same impacts. Cannabis is not without harm, there’s no such thing as a harmless drug. But relative to alcohol it’s a safer drug, and it is also something that people are using right now, so why not acknowledge that choice and make it safer for them when they’re using it?

HAPPY: Australia has an entire infrastructure, from hospitals to support groups to advertising, to cope with alcohol and tobacco abuse. So what needs to be put in place before large-scale cannabis use is something that we’re faced with?

RICHARD: Well we need to do better with our drug and alcohol treatment sector. We need to do better with our mental health sector. They’re the two areas where all drugs, including alcohol, where we don’t invest enough. The systems are very fragmented, there’s long waiting lists, so if we’re going to make a much more sensible effort, part of that is making sure alcohol and drug treatment is available to everybody when they need it. It’s making sure that mental health services are available in a way that young people are able to use them when they need them. Having said all of that, if we were to tax and regulate cannabis and make it available legally, we’re unlikely to see any increase in consumption.

HAPPY: You think so?

RICHARD: People are already doing it, what we’re more likely to have is people being open about their problems and if they’re getting into trouble, accessing treatment… that can only be a good thing.

HAPPY: It’s a good point. You think if we did just flip the legalisation switch, it wouldn’t be as drastically bad as some people imagine?

RICHARD: That’s right.

HAPPY: Great.

RICHARD: In fact, I think what you’ll see are benefits because people will come forward for treatment, people who are using the drug, instead of getting it via a dealer, will be getting it from somebody professional, get accurate information about the drug like quality and purity, get more advice on how to consume it, shift away from smoking to other consumption patterns. There are all kinds of health benefits that would come from a legal market.

HAPPY: People who would be scared to tell their doctor that they smoke…

RICHARD: Yeah, that’s right.

HAPPY: Interesting. I think at this point I have to ask if you’ve used cannabis or other drugs? Say, in a place where they’ve been made legal or decriminalised.

RICHARD: No. Like many people my age I’ve used cannabis, but not through the legal framework.

HAPPY: So you have in Australia?

RICHARD: I have smoked cannabis in Australia. I’m one of many who have used it and an example of the fact that simply because we’ve got laws that say you can’t use it, we still have generally around half the people my age who have.

HAPPY: It’s refreshing to hear that, from someone in parliament.

RICHARD: Well I can also say that unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale.

HAPPY: Love it. It sounds like you had a pretty positive experience, but have you ever had the flipside? Something negative happen to yourself?

RICHARD: Oh, I haven’t used it enough to… I’m not that well travelled. I just used it socially and no, I think probably the worst side effect of it was actually smoking it.

HAPPY: Do you think you’ll rejoin a community of legal users if your reform does eventually go through?

RICHARD: Oh… maybe. Who knows? When I finish this job, I might need it.

HAPPY: Sounds about right! Maybe I’ll shout you your first legal gram when you retire.

RICHARD: (laughs)

HAPPY: To finish us off, what can the everyday citizen do to support the Just Reform It campaign?

RICHARD: I would stress making sure that people are lobbying their local politicians, doing what they can to contact their local member of parliament and making it very clear that this is a reform that they’ll base their vote on. So find out who your local member is, write to them… here’s a little tip – a handwritten letter. Politicians tend to read those! I would say do what you can to lobby your local MP, particularly if you live in a marginal seat. Let them know that this is the thing on which you’ll base your vote.

HAPPY: Well that’s about all I have, thanks for taking the time.

RICHARD: Absolute pleasure. No worries.


This article will appear in print in Happy Mag Issue 10. Pre-order your copy here.