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Monday, 26 November 2018
Page: 11286

Illicit Drugs

Dear Mrs Wicks

I refer to your letter of 17 September 2018 on behalf of the Standing Committee on Petitions, concerning the proposal to change the laws regarding cannabis - Petition Number EN0673.

I note that the petition requests that the House change the current laws regarding cannabis to allow adult Australians to grow their own cannabis for medicinal use (the number of allowable plants would be based on current daily use). The petition appears to suggest that adults should be allowed grow plants wherever they see fit, and that diagnosis and treatment (via medicinal cannabis) would not necessarily include the opinion of a medical professional.

Currently, cannabis is a narcotic drug in Australia and its use and supply is controlled by a number of laws including the Crimes (Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act 1990, the Customs Act 1901, the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 and the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 (the ND Act). The ND Act is the enabling legislation to implement Australia's obligations under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 (the Single Convention) to which Australia is a party.

The ND Act's present strict controls on the cultivation of licit cannabis crops for medicinal use, strike the right balance between patient access, community protection and our international obligations.

A change in regulation of this nature would dismantle the carefully constructed regulation of the cultivation, production and manufacture of medicinal cannabis. Specifically, the changes that are petitioned for would not be compliant with Australia' s international treaty obligations as provided for by the Single Convention.

Australia's obligations under the Single Convention include:

the prevention of diversion to illicit trafficking and uses;

a single agency to designate areas of land where cultivation can occur;

the licensing of the cultivator by the agency;

control of cultivation and production to ensure there is no oversupply;

reporting annually to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).

As a signatory to the Single Convention, Australia is required to regularly provide info1mation to the INCB to allow it to ca1Ty out its functions including publication of both an annual report and technical reports on narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances that provide details on estimates of the annual legitimate requirements of each country, as well as data on licit production, manufacture, trade and consumption of drugs worldwide. To meet Australia's reporting obligations, my Department requires manufacturers to regularly report to it relevant estimates.

The changes suggested in this Petition would result in Australia failing to meet its international obligations to provide information to the INCB. Australia's international reputation for its progressive, balanced and comprehensive approach to dealing with problems posed by the use and misuse of drugs in the community would potentially be damaged by such a change.

There are community expectations that there should be a licit source of cannabis for medicinal use. The changes suggested in this petition would remove the necessary controls on the quality or strength of the resulting medicinal cannabis product. This could expose the community to potentially dangerous substances and outcomes.

The carefully considered controls on the supply chain that are mandated in the ND Act would be non-existent. The ND Act presently limits the grant of a licence to manufacture medicinal cannabis products to an applicant who is able to demonstrate a legitimate supply route; cultivators may only obtain a licence by demonstrating the ability to supply to a licensed manufacturer. The purpose of the scheme's design to remove the possibility of oversupply or excess production and the risk of diversion, would, should such a change occur, be destroyed - presenting the attenuated risk.

In addition to this, it is the responsibility of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TOA) to determine how medicines in Australia should be accessed, including medicinal cannabis products. This process is known as 'Scheduling'. Scheduling is a national classification system that controls how medicines and poisons (substances) are made available to the public. Scheduling is an independent process where decisions are made by a senior TOA Medical Officer, on the advice of an expe11 committee on behalf of the Secretary of my Depai1ment. It is not a decision made by me (as the Minister of Health) or the Parliament.

Substances are classified into Schedules according to the degree of risk and the level of control required over their availability in order to protect consumers. These factors include the risk profile of the substance including risks of abuse and dependency, the requirement for medical diagnosis, management and monitoring by a medical practitioner, and the se1iousness, severity and frequency of adverse effects.

The Schedules are published in the Poisons Standard and are given legal effect through state and territory legislation. The higher the Schedule, the more restrictive the controls are on the availability of a substance.

Medicinal cannabis products fall into Schedule 4 (Prescription Only Medicine), Schedule 8 (Controlled Drug) (this is the same schedule as substances such as morphine and cocaine) or Schedule 9 (Prohibited Substance) of the Poisons Standard depending on such their composition and what their intended use is. For example, products containing cannabis (including seeds, extracts, resins and any pai1 of the plant) and tetrahydrocannabinols (when extracted from cannabis) when prepared for human therapeutic use are in Schedule 8. Cannabidiol-only products (that contain less than 2% of other cannabinoids found in cannabis) are in Schedule 4. NonĀ­ therapeutic use of cannabis products are in Schedule 9.

Schedule 8 medicinal cannabis products contain tetrahydrocannabinols which are the psychoactive component of cannabis and were established as Schedule 8 due to the risk of misuse, abuse or illicit use. As cannabis and tetrahydrocannabinols are in Schedules I and IV of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, the co1Tesponding Australian Scheduling Policy Framework directs these substances should be in Schedule 8.

The Commonwealth's approach to treating cannabis as a narcotic and a medicine, including through the National Drug Strategy, reflects Australia's balanced health and law enforcement approach to reducing the impact of illicit drug use, tobacco use and the harmful use of alcohol. Relevantly, all scheduling decisions include consideration of a standard set of factors, to ensure that public health objectives are consistently met and the application of public health risk considerations is consistent within each Schedule. The factors for each Schedule are set out in the Scheduling Policy Framework and relate back to the matters required to be taken into account by section 52E(l) of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989.

Cannabis and its therapeutically active substances are included in the Poisons Standard, which assists in determining the need for particular health professionals to be involved in their supply as medicinal substances to promote their safe and quality use.

As noted earlier, Australia is a signatory to the Single Convention that aims to combat drug abuse by coordinated international action. There are two forms of intervention and control that work together. First, it seeks to limit the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import, expo1t, manufacture and production of drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. Secondly, it combats drug trafficking through international cooperation to deter and discourage drug traffickers.

Further, Australia's obligations under the Single Convention require putting in place a system of control over the cultivation of cannabis plant for the production of cannabis or cannabis resin.

Cannabis and cannabis resins are Schedule I and IV drugs under the Single Convention and require additional measures of control.

If Australia was to implement the suggested changes outlined in the petition, parties might close off international access to imported medicinal cannabis, potential exportable medicinal cannabis and potentially other drugs as Australia may be in violation of the Single Convention. For example, regulation that is not consistent with Australia's international obligations would have adverse reputational implications for Australia's licit poppy industry with medium term risks to Australia's approved status as a major supplier of poppy straw in a timely controlled manner.

There is a very real possibility that the INCB would take the opportunity to revisit global allocations, and other countries, who also trade in narcotics (poppies), may take advantage of the scenario replacing Australia' s position as a major narcotic supplier. This could significantly negatively impact the agriculture/economy of the state of Tasmania

While many Australians may view cannabis use as harmless, almost a quarter of Australia's drug and alcohol treatment services are being provided to people identifying cannabis as their principal drug of concern. This is roughly the same number of treatment episodes as for amphetamine use. Cannabis use has been demonstrated to have significant negative health outcomes, including problems with memory and learning, addiction, decreased motivation, and concentration, anxiety, increased risk of respiratory diseases, paranoia and in some cases psychosis.

The Liberal National Government's views on cannabis are consistent with the principles set out in Australia's National Drug Strategy, which identifies cannabis as a priority substance. This includes a commitment to activities which aim to prevent uptake and delay first time use, to provide access to treatment and support services (which includes drug diversion programs in some states/territories) and to prevent and disrupt the supply of cannabis to reduce availability .

Yours sincerely

from the Minister for Health, Mr Hunt