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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15633

Mrs GALLUS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs) (5:21 PM) —Today I want to address an issue that has bedevilled governments and societies since 3000 BC. But first of all I dedicate this grievance debate speech to an 83-year-old friend of mine who believes that smoking marijuana would relieve the pain associated with his prostate cancer and would alleviate the debilitating pain suffered by his 80-year-old wife, who has arthritis in her leg, her hip, her hands and her feet—in fact in all her joints. Currently he clearly does not have access to marijuana and he is not sure where to go for it or what its legal status is were he to acquire it.

On that basis I had a look at the legislation. Not surprisingly—or perhaps surprisingly, depending on which way you look at it—it differs between the states. In New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania it remains a criminal offence to possess marijuana. In Queensland you can get two years imprisonment for having marijuana—and I am not talking about large amounts; I am talking about amounts less than 50 grams—and/or a $60,000 fine. Indeed, you can actually get up to 15 years imprisonment in Queensland. In New South Wales and Western Australia it is a $2,000 fine and/or two years in jail. In Tasmania it is a $5,000 fine and/or two years imprisonment. In Victoria, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT the possession of a small amount of marijuana is a less serious offence and no conviction is recorded unless the fine is challenged or not paid. In Victoria the fine is $500, in the Northern Territory it is $200, and in South Australia and the ACT it is between $50 and $100. So you can see why my 83-year-old friend and his wife are somewhat confused as to the status and what would happen to them if they could get a hold of marijuana.

The current statistics on use are not good in Australia but the best surveys that we have come up with so far indicate that 33 per cent of people have used marijuana in Australia. That compares very closely to the levels in the United States—32 per cent in the States have used it. The US has some very good surveys, and that figure has come up over and over again. Of that 32 per cent who have used it, five per cent indicated that they are current users. Moving from that to medical use, eight states in the United States of America have guidelines which allow medical use, and I believe several more states are looking at this. In 2001 Canada declared that the medical use of marijuana would be allowed. We know the situation in the Netherlands where you can get it in a coffee shop. Both the American and British medical associations have recommended clinical trials of smoked marijuana for a variety symptoms.

This brings me to what has brought this debate up, other than my elderly friend: the New South Wales Premier declaring that he would consider the medical use of marijuana in the state of New South Wales. I am no great fan of the Premier of New South Wales; however, I think at this time he has made a good move. He says:

After a long period of careful deliberation, the Government now intends to establish a medicinal cannabis scheme in New South Wales.

... ... ...

Under the proposal ... patients will be able to access cannabis through a new Office of Medicinal Cannabis to be established within the New South Wales Department of Health.

While we can say that is an excellent move forward for the people of New South Wales who are in pain or are suffering from AIDS or any other of those wasting diseases which marijuana has been shown to help, again it adds to the confusion facing my elderly friend and his wife because they are in Victoria and this will not apply to them.

However, it is a move that is being echoed around the world. I refer to the Institute of Medicine, a United States organisation which was recently asked by the White House to have a look at the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The recommendations of this highly prestigious and conservative organisation include that trials for patients with debilitating symptoms, which includes pain and vomiting, be allowed under much the same way that has been suggested by New South Wales if there has been a failure of all approved medication to provide relief and this is documented and if the symptoms can reasonably be expected to be relieved by the marijuana; that such treatment would be subject to medical supervision; and that an oversight strategy would have to be put in place. That seems to be a highly reasonable way of looking at the situation and it is from an organisation that can hardly be called left wing.

However, I would be doing the IOM an injustice if I suggested that they said there were no problems with it. They have looked at a number of problems. On dependence, they basically dismissed the argument that, if people are allowed to go on marijuana, they will become dependent on it. They said there was no physiological reason why this should be so. Indeed the figures in the Netherlands would also indicate this. Although marijuana is legal there, the incidence of using marijuana is no greater than in the United States. There is also the argument that it could be used as a gateway drug to heroin, but in the Netherlands the incidence of young people moving on to harder drugs is 0.3 per cent compared to 1.7 per cent in the United States, where marijuana is banned. There are good reasons for dismissing those two arguments against the use of marijuana for medical purposes: one, it is a dependence drug, because it is not, and, two, that it is a gateway drug, because it is not—although clearly people who have used harder drugs have started off using marijuana.

Having removed those two arguments against the medical use, two very important arguments remain—that is, the arguments in regard to schizophrenia and the smoking of marijuana, as it is similar to the smoking of tobacco. I will firstly address the issue of schizophrenia. There have been three studies lately that have looked at marijuana smoking and schizophrenia. One was an Australian study which for seven years followed 1,600 Australian school pupils aged 14 to 15. Daily cannabis use was associated with a fivefold increase risk of depression at the age of 20. Weekly use was linked to a twofold increase. I know that there have been other studies that have questioned those findings; however, the fact that they did find this is quite disturbing. Similarly, a study in the UK evaluated data of over 50,000 Swedish conscripts and found that those who used cannabis by the age of 15 were four times as likely to have a diagnosis of a minor schizophrenic disorder by the time they were 26.

It is because of these figures that the Prime Minister has expressed cautious approval of the move in New South Wales. The Prime Minister has said that he would certainly look at permitting the medical use of marijuana but not if it involved smoking the drug. However, I would like to make a plea for the elderly people in the community who have chronic pain, who cannot have it relieved any other way and who would enjoy the social aspects of sitting down in their own home to smoke marijuana once or twice a week to relieve their pain. In this case we cannot be looking at the long-term effects that it has on young people nor at the effects of tobacco smoking—which we all know of and would not want to encourage in the younger members of our community—but at the effect marijuana has on those who are chronically ill or elderly and for whom it is highly appropriate. (Time expired)