Regular cannabis use has become more accepted than smoking tobacco, the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) has found.
The 2019 data, compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and released on Friday, asked around 20,000 people aged 14 and over about their attitudes towards drugs.
It found, for the first time, 20% of respondents supported regular cannabis use compared to 15% in support of tobacco.
As cannabis became more widely acceptable, more Australians were in favour of greater penalties against tobacco use, in line with falling rates of smokers nationally.
Some 85% of Australians supported stricter law enforcement against supplying minors with tobacco, while about seven in 10 thought the use of electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes should be restricted in public places.
Support was highest in the ACT, with 72% in favour of the restriction of e-cigarette use, compared to 61% in the Northern Territory.
At the same time, a record two in five Australians now support legalising cannabis, an increase of 16% in the past decade.
In some areas, including Sydney, support for legalising cannabis was as high as 60%. In Melbourne, 57% thought the drug should be made legal for personal use, while 47% of Brisbane residents were in favour of its legalisation.
In the ACT, where the drug has been decriminalised since 2020, some 66% of Canberrans supported its legalisation for personal use.
The findings followed a growing global trend in favour of legalising cannabis for recreational use. Some 19 states in the US have legalised the drug, joining a string of nations including Canada, Spain and Uruguay.
They also followed burgeoning support for legalising marijuana at the ballot box. Micro party Legalise Cannabis picked up between 2% and 7% of the Senate vote in the May federal election in most states and the Northern Territory, despite running no advertising during the campaign.
The RMIT associate lecturer and drug policy consultant Jarryd Bartle said reforms that had occurred in the US and around the globe were likely linked to the increasing trend in support of cannabis legalisation in Australia.
“It’s been a demonstration that a legalisation model could work here,” he said.
“Legalise Cannabis getting a significant proportion of the vote was another indication there is – particularly amongst younger Australians – a trend in support of legalisation.
“The evidence is legalisation doesn’t result in an increase in regular users of cannabis and it also doesn’t result in people under 18 picking up cannabis … that’s all good signs in favour of legalisation.”
All states and territories currently practice some form of decriminalisation, but differences vary in terms of what quantity is considered personal use and what penalties are offered.
South Australia was the first state to decriminalise minor cannabis offences in 1987, introducing the option to pay a fine instead of receiving a criminal charge.
Decriminalisation, though, is separate to legalisation.
Some 78% did not think possession of cannabis for personal use should be a criminal offence (decriminalising the drug), however there was also an increase in social acceptance of lighting up.
One in five approved of the regular use of cannabis by an adult – an increase of 12% compared to 2010.
Nevertheless, nearly four in five Australians interviewed (78%) said they still would not light up if it became legal.
In the ACT, where cannabis was decriminalised, interest in trying the drug was highest. Around 11% of people said they would try the drug if it were legal, compared with 7.5% in Tasmania.
Bartle said while Australians had a “natural conservatism” towards policy change, seeing other nations “have a go” was making it a more comfortable position to hold, while younger people were particularly more willing to rethink how the nation had approached criminalisation in the past.
“Our comfort levels are changing. I think we’ll have strong proposals within the next five years,” he said.
Support for pill testing also increased. In 2019, 57% of people supported pill testing at designated sites.
People in the ACT, where the first fixed pill testing site was opened last month, were the most likely to support the measure (70%), compared with 54% in the Northern Territory.
An earlier coronial inquest into festival deaths recommended pill testing along with other harm reduction measures, leading to a pill testing trial at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo in 2019.
The survey found two in five Australians aged 14 and over had used an illicit drug in their lifetime and three in four had drunk alcohol in the past 12 months, compared to around one in 10 who had smoked tobacco daily.
Support for the legalisation of other drugs remained relatively low, with minor increases compared to 2010 for some drugs, including cocaine (8% compared to 6.3%) and ecstasy (9.5% compared to 6.8%).
The majority of Australians supported referral to treatment or an education program if a person was found with small quantities of drugs.
However, more than half (54%) were in favour of a caution, warning, or no action if they were found in possession of marijuana.
The next NDSHS survey will kick off later this month to be completed in December 2022. The survey informs government policy planning on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.
July 14, 2022 at 11:23PM Caitlin Cassidy