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Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Page: 2439


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (16:07): Today I rise to speak on the urgency motion put forward in this place by Senator Hanson. I want to place on the record that Labor have consistently fought for improved access to medical cannabis in circumstances where it's clinically desirable for patients. We've been listening to patients. I've met with patients. I know that the shadow health minister Catherine King has also met with patients. We have put forward our own clear thoughts on these issues. But what we have seen coming from the government, on the other hand, is them very much dragging their heels on this issue. When they finally established a national scheme, it was so complicated and had so many barriers to access that people simply gave up. This goes some way to highlighting the kinds of issues that Senator Hanson has raised in the Senate today. Instead of prioritising access for patients, what the government did at that time—and still does—was stigmatise desperate Australians who were unwell, who were dying or who had serious conditions such as epilepsy and were trying to overcome the barriers in the system to access medical cannabis.

But I want to be clear about the motion that's before us today. It is simply a statement of opinion before this place. Being so, it's an attempt by Senator Hanson to try to hide her failure to stand up in this place for better medical access to cannabis.

Senator Hanson: You're pathetic! You're absolutely pathetic!

Senator PRATT: I'm happy for you to interject, Senator Hanson, but the critical matter is this: when, in May, this Senate voted to disallow the government's restrictions on access to medicinal cannabis, under category A of the Special Access Scheme, in recognition that access to category A has always been tightly restricted to people with a terminal illness, and only if it's clinically appropriate, Senator Hanson and her colleagues voted with the government against the disallowance. So Senator Hanson voted that medicinal cannabis should only be made available and tightly restricted to people with a terminal illness. Those are not the circumstances which you've brought to the parliament today. I'm very glad to hear you've had a change of heart. But I need to call you out on it because it was disappointing to advocates and families, at the time, when you voted against easier access to medicinal cannabis for those who needed it. So today's attempt, I think, from Senator Hanson, is an attempt to hide those failures.

Even though the Senate did successfully disallow the government's regulations—the government and One Nation voted together; the Greens, the Labor Party and others voted to disallow the regulations—the government has not responded appropriately, and I would call on Senator Hanson to use her close relationships with the government to put some real pressure on them. Terminally ill patients should, at that time, have been given easier access to a prescribed therapy to ease their suffering. But what we've seen instead from the government in the months since is an attempt to block the parliament's will and to continue to deny relief to dying Australians. Labor supports today's urgency motion and, indeed, the principle of urgency on this topic, because the government deserves to be sent a clear message that more needs to be done, and we want to send a message of support to all of those people who are suffering from their failure to act. We think the status quo is simply not good enough.

We know that there are people for whom access to medicinal cannabis is clinically desirable for their conditions. I spoke to a young woman with epilepsy in Western Australia. She buys her medicinal cannabis on the black market, because it's the only thing that gives her any respite from regular epileptic fits, but she has no clear pathway to purchase it in a legal manner.

It's important to note that, even if today's vote is successful, it won't actually change anything for people seeking improved access to medicinal cannabis. Senator Hanson's urgency motion fails to recognise some significant things about the way our system works currently, and things that simply have to be fixed properly for people to get access to medicinal cannabis. One thing I'd like to highlight to the chamber is Australia's international obligations under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961. What patients seek, as to access to medicinal cannabis, is a considered policy—that's what we need: to provide access, through a GP, to a regulated, quality supply of medicinal cannabis. And that is not what this motion before us puts forward today.

Senator Hanson: I think you'd better read what's on the sheet!

Senator PRATT: I can read the motion. It says that there's professional support for medicinal cannabis and that it needs to be listed on schedule 4 of the Therapeutic Goods Act. But let's be clear: there are different schedules, and, I'm not sure as to whether it belongs in schedule 4 or a different schedule. We have tightly controlled opiate drugs, which are also very desired on the black market for drug use, that are prescribed, and, as far as I understand, they don't belong on schedule 4, so we need to look very carefully at which schedule these drugs belong on.

We need to make sure that people have a clear, accessible pathway. I have spoken to patients in Western Australia who, despite the supposed process of the TGA and the supposed processes of state governments to give people access to medicinal cannabis, could still not find a prescribing doctor. And the paperwork attached to being a prescribing doctor and putting yourself out there and finding a supplier—which you can't find regularly through a pharmacy—has proven just too great for too many patients in getting access to the medicinal cannabis that would help them and their children and their families.

So Labor, in 2015, made a very clear commitment that we wanted to work with state and territory governments to ensure there were nationally consistent laws to allow successful access to medicinal cannabis for those who are terminally ill or who have other clinically identified medical conditions that medicinal cannabis may benefit. What we've seen in the Turnbull government is a government that is too slow in catching up and in adopting a similar policy to Labor's. And it's been even slower, I have to tell you, in implementing anything. You've been too focused on getting headlines and have forgotten about patients. Let's be clear: this is not about allowing free access to a drug for recreational use—although I would like to put on the record how proud I was to be part of the Gallop Labor government that back in the early 2000s decriminalised cannabis in small quantities because of the large social toll that it was taking on the community in terms of putting people on a criminal pathway.

But that's not what we are debating today. It is about ensuring that there is a legal and regulated market so that family members and carers aren't forced to rely on the black market to relieve the pain of their loved ones. We have seen in report after report that patients are facing barrier after barrier. It's almost impossible to find a prescribing doctor. When I spoke to patients in Western Australia, they could not identify any, despite the fact that doctors now have a right to prescribe this drug. So they've given up hope that things will become easier and they don't believe what the Turnbull government says. They've trusted them before and things have not improved. (Time expired)