Growing your own gets amber light

26th April 1996 at 01:00
AUSTRALIA. Geoff Maslen reports on plans to legalise marijuana and improve drug education in Victoria. A radical plan to legalise marijuana and force schools to teach children about illegal drugs is being opposed by school principals and parents in Victoria.

The controversial recommendations were made by a government-sponsored drug advisory council, headed by Professor David Penington, former vice-chancellor of Melbourne University. If accepted by the state parliament, the council's proposals would dramatically soften the drug laws and enormously increase the budget for drug education and treatment.

The use or possession of small quantities of marijuana by students or adults should no longer be an offence and smokers should be allowed to grow up to five plants at home, said the council. Students could carry small amounts of marijuana to school, although selling would remain illegal. The council proposed that drug education be incorporated into the primary and secondary curriculum, that teachers should be given more training in drug education and that guidelines be distributed urgently.

Professor Margaret Hamilton, a member of the advisory council and director of a Melbourne drug and alcohol centre, said parents should realise that 50 per cent of young people had tried marijuana before leaving secondary school.

Legalising the drug would simply place an already widely used substance on the same footing as alcohol and tobacco, to which students had free access outside school, she said.

The fact that half of all students experimented with marijuana did not mean they would become habitual users, nor that they should be branded as criminals for experimenting, Professor Hamilton said.

Professor Penington said the number of heroin and marijuana users in Victoria exceeded the per capita figures for Amsterdam, widely regarded as a drug mecca. Half of all Victorian men and 40 per cent of women under the age of 25 had smoked marijuana in the past year yet they were flouting the law. "It is no good, if it's so widespread, to pretend that it is a criminal activity, " he said.

However, the National Principals Association said drug education in Australian schools has been a total failure. A state parents' group said its members were not ready to accept that students of any age could just walk into school with a joint.

Drug education in Victorian schools has been criticised for not reducing use. Only four hours a year is devoted to drugs in primary schools, rising to 12.5 hours in the upper secondary years.

Schools could not discuss the dangers of marijuana because, in a climate of prohibition, young people were sceptical about what they heard, Professor Penington said.

Parliament is expected to debate the report next month.

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