Cannabis use in Australian aboriginal communities soars

A report released last week from Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission has highlighted a sharp increase in marijuana use amongst aboriginal communities in the Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait Islands. According to the report up to 60% of people in these communities may be regularly using cannabis. This is having a real negative affect on already socially deprived communities especially because of high prices. Cannabis users in remote aboriginal communities – sometimes 500 miles from the nearest city – can pay up to four times what someone buying cannabis in a city would pay.

Problematic substance use amongst aboriginal Australians has alarmed the authorities as well as elders in the community. This has led to attempts solve the problem; however many have been reactionary and have ignored the poverty and poor employment prospects that many community members face. Some argue that the increase in cannabis use has been caused by the government introducing non-sniffable Opal fuel into the regions where petrol sniffing was widespread. The Northern Territory Emergency Response policy which was implemented by the government in 2007 banned the sale of alcohol and pornography in some areas in an attempt to cut down on alcoholism and child abuse. They also introduced a controversial system of welfare vouchers to encourage community members to spend money on food instead of alcohol. A UN special envoy strongly criticised the measures stating that they “infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatize already stigmatized communities."

Another report released last year from James Cook University claimed that the increase in marijuana use was responsible for a rise in chronic health problems such as depression and acute psychosis. Dr Alan Clough from the university has also made the link between cannabis and suicide saying that "unfortunately the community also saw a clear link between a rise in the suicides that were happening in those places.” An editorial also written by Mr Clough claims that the withdrawal symptoms of cannabis makes people violent which he supports by the fact that “community violence increased when cannabis supplies were scarce.” The professor also mentions how the increasing use of cannabis was putting a strain on the already inadequate public health services. "It's difficult for the health services in particular because there's really not a lot that they can do, apart from try and calm people down who are behaving in a psychotic manner and try to keep them calm until they sober up essentially and become more normal." Giving a response to why there are such high levels of cannabis use in these communities Clough states that “I think the role-modelling has probably been poor and in fact community people have told us this.”

Two years ago the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the shameful treatment of aboriginals throughout Australian history. However aboriginal communities still exist on the margins of Australian society and there members are incredibly disadvantaged in health, employment, education and the criminal justice system. Unemployment rates for aboriginals are significantly higher than white Australians and a recent UN document states that aboriginal health is 100 years behind non-indigenous health.

The suggestion that there is a link between violence and cannabis use amongst aboriginal communities does not look at the predetermined factors that are relevant towards the group mentioned. In reality many experts would argue that smoking cannabis is be less harmful to the individual and to society than drinking alcohol or sniffing solvents. Blaming the social situation of aboriginal communities on cannabis is irresponsible. Cannabis abuse in aboriginal communities is a symptom of the severely reduced opportunities that these communities face. A crack down or no tolerance approach to cannabis use in these communities could have an effect on usage however cannabis would most likely be replaced by another drug – legal or illegal – if social conditions do not improve.