Criminal penalties for minor cannabis offences - PhD Project

  • Research program: Harm reduction policy and strategies
  • Project status: Completed
  • Start date: December 1998
  • Expected end date: December 2003
  • Completion date: November 2010
  • Funded by: NDRI
  • Lead organisation:

Issue. This thesis tests fundamental assumptions underpinning the application of criminal penalties to the personal use of cannabis. Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in many countries and like all drugs it has the capacity to cause harm. However, while much research has been conducted on the harmful effects of cannabis, there has been little research on the extent which the strict prohibition of cannabis deters the use of the drug, or has adverse social impacts, among those apprehended for minor cannabis offences.

Background. The theoretical underpinning of criminal law in general, and drug law in particular, is classical deterrence theory which asserts that the probability of law-breaking is inversely related to the certainty, severity and celerity of punishment. However, normative approaches suggest a range of other variables such as public attitudes to use, the perceived fairness of the law and its enforcement, peer influences, and the utility of cannabis use are likely to far outweigh the deterrent value of a criminal conviction.

Method. Four studies were conducted: a public attitude survey regarding attitudes to cannabis and the law; an analysis of criminal justice system population data; an in-depth interview study of cannabis users convicted for the first time under a strict prohibition scheme; and a comparison of the deterrence and social impact effects of a conviction for a minor cannabis offence under strict prohibition in Western Australia with the impacts of an infringement notice under the prohibition civil penalties scheme which operates in South Australia.

Results. When the terms are explained there are high levels of public support for non-criminal penalties for cannabis, but not for legalisation. Under a strict prohibition with criminal penalties scheme minor cannabis offences accounted for the vast majority of drug offences. A large minority of people charged with possession and use of cannabis were likely to be first timers, and almost all of these were likely to get a criminal conviction as a result, yet many of these were an otherwise non-criminal section of the community. Neither criminal nor civil penalties had much impact on the cannabis use of vast majority of those apprehended. The social costs of conviction for a minor cannabis offence under a total prohibition scheme were far greater than those of an infringement notice under a civil penalty system. It appeared that being apprehended for a minor cannabis offence under the prohibition system, compared to a civil penalties system, was more likely to erode users’ attitude toward police.

Implications. This results support the application of civil, rather than criminal penalties for minor cannabis offences. It has already had an impact on drug policy and been reflected in legislative changes for cannabis in a number of Australian jurisdictions. It is the foundation for ongoing research.

Professor Simon Lenton
Tel: 61 (0)8 9266 1603
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Professor Tim Stockwell
Tel: 1 (250) 472-5305
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Name & Contact Details Role Research Program Location

Lenton, S. (2005). ‘Windows of opportunity’ and other useful ideas for understanding drug policy change. ADCA News. [UJ126]

Lenton, S. (2005). Deterrence theory and the limitations of criminal penalties for cannabis use. In Stockwell, T., R., Gruenewald, P., Toumbourou, J. and Loxley, W. (eds.) Preventing harmful substance use: The evidence base for policy and practice. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [CH113] Abstract

Lenton, S. (2004). Cannabis law reform: Western Australia passes new legislation. Of Substance, 2, (1), pp. 7. [UJ125]

Lenton, S. (2000). Cannabis policy and the burden of proof: Is it now beyond reasonable doubt that cannabis prohibition is not working? Drug and Alcohol Review, 19, (1), pp. 95-100. DOI: 10.1080/09595230096192 [RJ324] View web page