One determined woman swam upstream in cannabis debate

“The whole audience sniggered. They were laughing at me. They were so rude. I was absolutely mortified. I will never forget it.”

She left thinking: “Well, they are the experts, and they must know.”

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It was Bridie who told her: “That’s what we face all the time.” These victims were seen as bit players in a much larger production.

Walters may have seen herself as privileged, but she was no pushover. A former student of Sacre Coeur, where she was expected to rise at 5.30am to meditate at 6am, she was not someone to be pushed around.

Her lack of knowledge was her greatest asset. She didn’t need to fashion the facts to support a pre-existing position. Fresh eyes often see a problem differently.

A former teacher herself, she started worldwide research, contacting an American expert who had lost a child to drugs.

The expert invited Walters to a US conference, saying: “You will learn more here in 10 days that you will in Australia in 10 years.”

It was an eye-opener where experts freely accepted the dangers of marijuana and saw it as a gateway for more deadly products.

Back in Melbourne, she began a campaign that often contradicted an influential group of drug experts who had been pushing for the decriminalization of cannabis.

In some ways, it was a closed shop. Many of the experts were of an age where they had used marijuana in their teens, but it was essentially a different drug.

The drug of the 1970s and ’80s was a crop usually grown outdoors with a relatively low percentage of the mind-altering THC. The modern product is genetically altered hydroponic “Supergrass”, much of which is produced in suburban “grow houses”.

Acting on tips from police, members of the public, real estate agents, neighbors and power companies, detectives from the Drug Taskforce are hitting crop houses at a record rate.Credit:Victoria Police

The image of cannabis as a soft hippy drug persists, when it is actually a major spoke in the organized crime wheel. The profits are massive and if offenders are caught, the penalties are relatively minor.

A grow house can produce 100 plants every 12 weeks. At $3000 a mature plant, this equates to more than $1 million a year. Police say there are 1500 grow houses operating in Victoria producing $1.5 billion worth of cannabis.

Australia has one of the highest per-person consumption rates of cannabis (as well as ice and cocaine) in the world and consumers are prepared to pay premium prices– which is why we are seen as a lucrative market by international crime syndicates.

These syndicates (several controlled by Canadian criminals of Vietnamese descent) use local experts to scout and lease ideal rental properties.

Electricians bypass the supply system, experts set up the hydroponics and the plants are established from grafts to ensure consistent quality. Crop sitters (often illegal immigrants paid a pittance) check the timers and nutrient supply, and harvesters collect the mature plants, dry the product, then vacuum seal and wrap for the market.

As the electricians are not qualified, this process has resulted in hundreds of house fires (the latest a few days ago) and several deaths in Melbourne.

When police raid a crop house it is declared unfit for human habitation, which means innocent owners of rental properties are forced to pay huge amounts to repair and restore their investments.

When police raid a crop house it is declared unfit for human habitation, which means innocent owners of rental properties are forced to pay huge amounts to repair and restore their investments.Credit:Victoria Police

The penalties don’t match the profits. A few years ago, one professional cannabis dealer who controlled several crop houses received a community-based order.

Walters wanted to do more than rattle a few cages and hold the hands of broken parents; she wanted to take on the established thinking, armed with the most comprehensive bank of facts she could find. In 1988, she won a Churchill Fellowship to study marijuana, finding a body of evidence that heavy, long-term use could create permanent personality changes, mental illnesses, memory loss and malaise.

When she wrote of cannabis psychosis, a condition that can strike young users, many tried to write her off as well-intentioned “do-gooder”.

“The self-appointed ‘elite’ do their best to convince the Australian public that marijuana is a ‘soft’ drug. But in fact, it is an exceedingly complex substance and can cause irreparable harm to the brain of developmentally immature adolescents and young adults,” she wrote.

“They also want to convince well-meaning, law-abiding Australians that prohibition is an infringement of their rights. But I would contend that parents’ rights are the ones we should be protecting. Parents devote their lives to their children and are the mediating structures in their social development.

“More than anyone, they are entitled to be given an honest account of the risks their children take if they use marijuana and other gateway drugs.

“People such as myself are often vilified as ‘moralists’ who only wish to maintain prohibition because we believe that using mind-altering drugs is decadent/sinful.

“If someone chooses to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others, I cannot in all conscience leave the matter to chance. I believe I have an obligation to bring to your attention some facts about marijuana and other street drugs that have been deliberately misrepresented and withheld from the Australian public.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Walters, her views are based on dealing with victims, massive academic research and worldwide study. Her work by her was recognized with an Order of Australia in 2000.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is a fan, writing: “Elaine Walters, OAM, is a distinguished Australian and renowned voice on cannabis policy. For almost 40 years, she has contributed to national and international debates on the consequences of legalizing cannabis.

“She has shone a light on the impact of the drug not just on individuals, but also on families and the broader community … When too many Australians are struggling with their mental health, now is not the time for laws regarding recreational use to be loosened.”

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Walters says the debate has been hijacked by those who think the use of illicit drugs is normal, addiction an unfortunate byproduct and decriminalization inevitable.

“In the 1960s, a handful of academics at America’s leading universities were researching the effects of marijuana, psychedelics and other mind-altering drugs as a means of assisting people suffering from various mental illnesses.

“If they had maintained correct protocols and ethical standards during their research, they may have created some effective new therapies. Instead, they decided that these substances were great fun and quite harmless. Not only did these academics experiment with them for their own amusement, but they also influenced young university students to use them for non-medical or so-called ‘recreational’ purposes.

“It eventually merged into the general population and ultimately became the genesis of a worldwide youth-oriented ‘drug culture’.”

Now aged 83 and having long left Toorak for a clifftop house at Mount Martha, she remains bright, bubbly, passionate and committed. She has recently decided to stop taking strong medication for a chronic lung condition, determined to remain in control of her own destiny.

She is about to publish a series of essays (she has already written four books) alleging that many international drug experts have manipulated their research to legitimize the push to legalize street drugs. She says she is n’t concerned that her strong views of her on joints may put noses out of joint. “I won’t be here by then,” she says, without a hint of self-pity.

Her decision to stop heavy medication is to make sure she enjoys her remaining days.

She lives with a caretaker, a carer, a new pup and aging rescue dog, Gracie Fields.

With two children, two grandchildren, a great-grandchild and a library full of research, she says: “I feel very blessed here.”

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