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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1506

Senator CROWLEY (Minister for Family Services) (3.32 p.m.) —In bringing this matter of urgency into the chamber, Senator Coulter picks up on an issue that has been getting very serious discussion and also some very flippant discussion in media commentary over the last few weeks. It is not a new debate but it is a debate that should be had because it is about a very serious matter.

Senator Coulter —I raised it in 1988, and you voted against it then.

Senator CROWLEY —This is a matter that Senator Coulter has brought in here on a number of occasions and, as he has pointed out, some people have memories of cannabis going back further than 1988. The motion asks the Senate to treat as a matter of urgency:

The failure of the present treatment of cannabis users by imprisonment, the danger to both the users and to society of this way of dealing with this problem, and the lack of action in relation to the following resolution of the 1994 National Conference of the AMA. . .

I do not dispute the negative effects of imprisonment as a treatment for cannabis—if it is only for cannabis—and I think that there is more agreement than dispute about the dangers to users and to society but I cannot agree with the reference to `lack of action' in relation to the AMA resolution, which is all of 10 days old.

  Putting that aside, I would like to run through some of the issues that are raised by this debate because there are two or three serious matters for consideration that get wheeled in and out of the debate to make a point here and lose a point somewhere else. The first is that of the health impact of cannabis. The jury is still out on that one but there is a growing body of fact about cannabis and nowadays few people would say that it is a totally safe drug that does a little bit of mind altering but has little other consequence. That is an improvement on where the debate has been.

  There is now no doubt that people should be properly concerned about the impact of cannabis taken regularly in significant amounts. Whether that would also be the assessment of people who are casual or intermittent users is a different question. What worries me is the emerging evidence of the earlier onset of lung cancers from smoking cannabis. We have evidence emerging of permanent memory loss after some years of use.

  I think the greatest concern is the impact on car drivers. Perhaps we ought to be looking at ways of testing for drugs as well as breathalyser tests for alcohol use for people in possession of cars. We have some tests for these drugs, as the drugs in sport inquiry found out. Senator Crichton-Browne had an interest in the drugs in sport inquiry, and he would be aware, as I was, that when a certain rugby team was tested for performance enhancing drugs they were also tested for marijuana.

Senator Gareth Evans —Like Brent Crosswell who used to play for Carlton.

Senator CROWLEY —I remember saying in this place that I thought it was disgraceful because, whatever else marijuana is, it is not performance enhancing for rugby players. Confusing one's moral stance is also one of the things that bedevils this debate.

  Senator Panizza interjecting

Senator CROWLEY —The drugs in sport inquiry people were looking for performance enhancing drugs and they slipped in the testing for cannabis, which I think is a gross miscarriage of the drug testing protocol. To say that there is evidence about cannabis being good for anyone in sport is stretching a very long bow.

  We have had a debate about the health effects of cannabis. As I say, there is more evidence emerging and more agreement about that evidence. I do not think anyone would want to say now, as people did 20 years ago, that there is no problem about smoking cannabis. People are now much more cautious about it. The AMA resolution properly says that what we need are appropriate and adequate education programs to encourage young people in particular not to start taking cannabis because of the health consequences.

  The next question is whether or not using such a medicine or pharmaceutical should be legal or illegal. Very often the two matters get dragged together in a very messy way. To this point the use of marijuana is essentially illegal. It is regarded as an illegal substance. I think any further decision about that should await the report of the national cannabis task force which will be reporting to the ministerial council on drugs very soon. It would be useful for us to await the outcome of that report rather than make any decision one way or another about the matter.

  Unless I have misread his notice of urgency, Senator Coulter is not asking us to adjudge that today. He is asking us to endorse the AMA resolution. Given that it is only 10 days since that resolution became public, I do not believe that we are in a position to endorse it, but we can properly canvass some of the issues raised in it.

  I come from South Australia, and in that state the legal management of cannabis is different from anywhere else in this country, except the ACT which has in fact put in place something very similar to the situation in South Australia. The aim of that program is to try to be reasonable with the management of cannabis, and to make that message of reasonable legal management clear. In making it clear to the community, we ask people to see the consequences of a sensible and appropriate management. On all the evidence, that is exactly what the outcome in South Australia has been. It has been picked up by the community. The state has not gone to the dogs, which might be one way of describing it, since those changes have been introduced. That also is not the case in the ACT.

  Those changes do not encourage people to push cannabis onto anybody, particularly our youngsters. They certainly do not encourage the manufacture or circulation of the drug. But what they do say is that if people have a small amount for their own use, that is not a major crime.

  An article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 31 May refers to 1,300 people imprisoned for possession of small amounts of the drug. The best advice I have is that one should be cautious about those figures—very rarely are people with small amounts of the drug given a gaol sentence. However, if people were in gaol because they had done nothing more than be found with a small amount of cannabis, my personal view is that that is taking a mallet to smash a gnat. In the light of the consequences of imprisonment, let alone the cost of it, that does not seem to be an appropriate way of managing such cases. I am also advised that the 1,300 people in prison because of an association with marijuana, are usually there because of some other related matter. So I urge a caution on the use of those bald figures.

  This is undoubtedly a matter of grave concern to the community. The gravity has increased as the health impact of the use of cannabis has become clearer. I would strongly endorse the establishment of very comprehensive and adequate educational programs not only for school children but also for the wider community so that people understand the effects of the use of cannabis.

  Senator Coulter's motion clarifies the AMA's resolution on this matter. A lot of people in this place do keep an eye on the AMA's resolutions, but not everybody would know them. It is interesting and very constructive to note that I think this is the first time the AMA has pushed a resolution of this order which it has endorsed at its national conference. This represents a climate change within the AMA, presenting a balanced approach to management of this situation, and we should take heart from it. That has not been the history of some of the resolutions passed by the AMA in times past, so this resolution is worthy of note just for what it tells us about the AMA.

  The resolution deals with resource allocation to investigate the toxicology of cannabis, particularly with regard to the detection of quantities indicating impairment. Again, this goes to establishing a quick, easy test, like a breathalyser, which would indicate the level of cannabis influencing a person. Of course, the consequence would be that, having investigated a test and establishing it, what do we do with the evidence? We need to be clear about what we want to do with cannabis users before we actually go chasing money to establish tests if we will never use them.

  The AMA is moving to a resolution that is very much in sympathy with the program that we have in South Australia. From evidence I have seen, this program has not caused a major disruption of behaviour in the community in South Australia. We have here, though, one of those vexed questions of balancing a number of important issues, which is the charge of the ministerial council involving health ministers, Attorneys-General and police ministers. When the national task force reports to the ministerial council, that will be the place to make the best evaluation and to bring about the best conclusions for deliberation by governments.

  I thank Senator Coulter for bringing on this debate today. I also thank the AMA for having moved considerably in proposing and endorsing such a resolution. These are indications of some maturity in the community about this debate. In particular, it is based on fact rather than the preferred fictions that have washed around cannabis. Let us wait for full information in the task force report to the ministerial council. The government will then respond in the light of that considered body of evidence covering all the issues of concern here.