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Monday, 7 November 2016
Page: 2980

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (18:39): Labor will not oppose these bills, as the member for Whitlam has already indicated. These bills, the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 and the Narcotic Drugs (Licence Charges) Bill 2016, are here only because of the government's shambolic legislating ability. In February this year the parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act 2016. That act amended the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 to establish a national scheme for access to medicinal cannabis. Labor supported that legislation. We had led the charge for a national scheme so that access to medicinal cannabis was equal from state to state. That should have been the end of the legislative process. The government should have been able to get on with implementing the new national scheme. But that was not the case.

Now, more than six months later, we learn that the government's legislation included loopholes and errors, and that these bills are needed to fix those errors. Everything in these bills could have, and indeed should have, been included in the government's legislation in February. For example, the government should have known that it needed to protect the sensitive law enforcement information that is available to determine whether an applicant for a cannabis licence is a 'fit and proper person'; that it should guard against cannabis licenses transferring from one person to another—for example, when a business changes hands; and, thirdly, that the legislation was needed to recover the cost of regulating the new medicinal cannabis industries. These are obvious considerations that should not have been overlooked, as the member for Whitlam quite rightly pointed out earlier on.

The government's shambolic processes have real consequences. In her second reading speech on these bills, the Minister for Health said:

It is important that the government is able to communicate on the full regulatory costs of this scheme as soon as possible in order to allow potential applicants to plan their businesses and complete their applications.

Yet here we are, still considering this legislation, a week after the start of the national scheme on 30 October. By the minister's own account, that could delay the development of the medicinal cannabis industry, and delay access to medicinal cannabis for Australians who need it to manage pain or medical conditions.

This shambolic health legislation is nothing new from this chaotic government. We saw another example of that only today when a member of the government seconded a motion that criticised the government itself. On 4 May, on the eve of the election campaign, the government signed a contract with Telstra to operate the National Cancer Screening Register, despite not having passed the necessary legislation. The government introduced that legislation in this parliament. It tried to rush the bills through to retrospectively authorise its $220 million contract with Telstra. When Labor and the crossbench raised concerns and referred the bills to a Senate inquiry, the health minister accused Labor of a 'hysterical tirade'. But the inquiry uncovered serious concerns with the government's legislation. Not least of all, the government's own privacy and information commissioner identified six loopholes in that legislation that needed to be fixed. Ultimately, the government was forced to accept many of Labor's amendments to its legislation. Far from a 'hysterical tirade', Labor improved the government's bills and added protections for Australians' most sensitive health information.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that this government is taking a second crack at legislating a national scheme for medicinal cannabis. That said, Labor does support a national scheme for medicinal cannabis. We supported it back in February and we continue to support it. For some, that decision at that time was to be controversial. But Labor is driven by science and compassion with respect to this issue. We firmly believe the time has come for a national scheme.

Labor understands that some Australians cannot find relief from pain with existing therapeutic goods and have debilitating and life threatening conditions. There are thousands of Australians who are suffering from unbearable pain, muscle spasticity, conditions like multiple sclerosis, and nausea from chemotherapy who may benefit from taking medicinal cannabis. No-one can imagine how horrific it must be for someone to see their child, their partner or their parent in immense pain, knowing that relief is available but currently illegal. I have spoken to some people who fall into this category myself. Patients who are suffering from a terminal illness or other serious medical condition should be allowed access to safe, reliable and legal medicinal cannabis if prescribed by their doctor. And I stress the point of 'legal' medicinal cannabis, because I have no doubt that some of these people, in order to relieve their pain, are perhaps accessing the cannabis illegally, not knowing exactly what is in the substance and perhaps taking additional risks because of that.

No person and no family should have to choose between getting the medicine they need and breaking the law. Right now families who are accessing medicinal cannabis products on the black market are at risk of being arrested and possibly convicted, unable to determine the exact ingredients and the quality of the medicine they are taking, and not protected in any way by any independent regulatory authority. This legislation does that. Only the Commonwealth can ensure that there is a national scheme which ensures equity of access and a safe and reliable supply. The national scheme that passed in February deals with supply by establishing a tightly controlled supply chain with multiple security measures, and it deals with demand by allowing the prescription of these medicines by a doctor through the Special Access Scheme, the Authorised Prescriber Scheme and medical trials.

This is not about allowing free access to a drug for recreational use; it is about ensuring that there is a legal and regulated market so that family members and carers are not forced to rely on the black market to relieve the pain of their loved ones. It is worth noting that the Victorian Labor government is perhaps driving the national agenda on this and pushing ahead. The Commonwealth was forced to act in February because, I suspect, if it had not then some other states would have done so. The Victorian government has committed to legalising access to locally manufactured medicine or cannabis products for use in exceptional circumstances from 2017. Again, I would not be surprised if other states were to follow. We also acknowledge that the New South Wales government has pursued medical trials of cannabis, as well as reforms to penalties for possession and use for particular classes of people.

As I said earlier, Labor supports this legislation, and we have done so from the outset. It is a pity that these amendments need to be brought into the House. But, having said that, we accept that the legislation is in the best interests of the people of this country, and it will be supported by us.