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Tuesday, 23 February 2016
Page: 1938

Mrs ELLIOT (Richmond) (18:15): As speakers on this side of the House have said previously, Labor supports the need for medical cannabis and this bill, the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016. We support it because we understand the fact that there are many in our community who want to be able to access that for their very complex and painful medical conditions.

Patients who are suffering from a terminal illness or other serious medical conditions should be able to access safe, reliable and legal medicinal cannabis. In supporting this idea, we are driven by the science, by compassion and by the need to treat people with dignity. We firmly believe that the time has come for a national scheme.

In my electorate I have had so many locals and so many families calling for action on this issue. A diverse range of people from a diverse range of villages and towns throughout my electorate have approached me and told me their personal stories.

Can I also make the point that when it comes to health policy, there have not been many opportunities in this parliament where we have found common ground with the Liberals and with the Nationals. We have, indeed, criticised the government for many of the harsh health cuts made. But in this measure I think it is very important to note that we do have an agreement. I think it is fair to say that such a bipartisan view reflects the community's view across so many varying and differing sectors.

As an example, I note and commend groups such as the CWA, which supports measures like this. I look at the New South Wales CWA annual state conference in Tamworth in May 2015. They moved a motion there that controlled medical marijuana use should be allowed and sanctioned by the government. So we can see the support that is there. There is that massive support right across the community. It is for this reason that this bill is indeed a step in the right direction.

The reason for supporting this legislation is very clear. We know there are Australians suffering from pain or dealing with medical conditions who have sought relief from other medications that just have not worked. These same people are telling us that medical cannabis is providing relief for them. Even for those people who may not have met these people and heard firsthand of some of the very difficult situations that people are in, many would have seen some of those really disturbing television reports—particularly of young children suffering multiple seizures and so desperate for relief. I do not see how anyone cannot be moved by such personal stories.

In my electorate, I would like to read from a story that appeared in the Tweed Daily News in September 2014 by the journalist, Alina Rylko. It was a story called 'Cannabis oil soothes son'. It was in relation to a Tweed family with a 15-year-old permanently disabled son, who said:

… they have radically reduced his seizures with cannabis oil after exhausting all other legal treatments.

The couple, who do not want to use their real names for fear of prosecution, are calling for politicians to legalise the substance …

So that more families could experience the therapeutic benefits that their son had. They said:

… they have "exhausted" their neurologists, looking for ease from the seizures, which with every bout cause more brain damage.

"Some medications made him very aggro and had bad side-effects … It makes it hard for us to leave the house, go to special school, and to get out into the community."

The couple said that at special school their son was the only one using cannabis oil, due of course to the stigma attached to it:

"But there's of the kids there having seizures all the time … It would be so much more peaceful … if these kids were not having seizures, if they just legalised it."

That story was in the Tweed Daily News, as I said, from September 2014.

As it stands, the situation means that families who access medical cannabis products are now accessing it illegally and, in fact accessing it on the black market. That means, of course, that they are at risk of being arrested and convicted, it means they are unable to determine the exact ingredients and quality of the medicines that they or their loved ones are taking and it means they have no independent authority which has, in fact, assessed them. And, of course, no-one—no family—should have to choose between getting their loved one the medicine they need and breaking the law. It is simply an unfair choice to have to make.

I would like to point out the reaction from some of the locals in the town of Nimbin, which is in my electorate. Firstly, I would like to recognise that Nimbin is a wonderful, eclectic and creative town full of fantastic people who I think are sometimes criticised unfairly. When it was announced that this legislation would be brought forward to the parliament their reaction was one of being very pleased about it. But the point they made was—and this was a local anecdote in one of the papers—'We have been watching a long line of sick and dying people coming to town who are so desperate to get some sort of relief.' That is what they have been telling me in Nimbin for many years. Of course, many people were going to places like Nimbin, desperate to get some sort of relief for the pain that they were in. Indeed, there are thousands of Australians who are suffering from unbearable pain and chronic conditions who may benefit from medicinal cannabis. As I have said, patients who are suffering from a terminal illness or other serious medical conditions should be allowed access it.

This bill will put in place the supply chain arrangement that will allow the legal production of medical cannabis products. It is important to note that with the governments of New South Wales and Victoria pushing ahead with some of their state based schemes, this has really forced the Commonwealth to act now. Whilst we acknowledge the work of the government in bringing this bill to the House, it has indeed been Victorian Premier Andrews who has really provided national leadership and driven the national agenda around this.

The Victorian government is committed to legalising access to locally manufactured medicinal cannabis products for use in certain circumstances from 2017. And, indeed, the New South Wales government has also pursued medical trials of cannabis. I also note New South Wales Labor's strong support for medicinal cannabis.

If we turn to the specifics of the bill, only the Commonwealth government can ensure there is a national scheme which ensures equity of access and a safe and reliable supply. The bill deals with supply, but also establishes a tightly-controlled supply chain with multiple security measures. It deals with demand by allowing the prescription of these medicines by a doctor through a number of ways: special access schemes, authorised prescriber schemes and, of course clinical trials. The legislation is about ensuring there is a legal and regulated market so that family members and carers are not forced to rely on the black market.

The amendments will establish a licensing scheme for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes and two types of licences will be created. Firstly, an authorisation to cultivate cannabis for manufacture into medical cannabis products and, secondly, an authorisation to cultivate cannabis for scientific research into the cannabis plant that is to be used for medical cannabis.

The bill amends the Narcotic Drugs Act to permit the licensing of growers of medical cannabis in Australia. It provides new definitions for the issuing of licences for cannabis cultivation and production and it provides for a fit-and-proper-person's test to be applied to licensees by the Department of Health. The bill also overrides states and territories where there are direct inconsistencies with the licensing provisions that are in fact contained in the bill.

In addition to a licence, a cultivator will need a permit, and permits will be issued to control the amount of cannabis that is actually going to be produced. It is also important to focus on the access by the end users—the patients. Access to medical cannabis for those patients will be determined by suitable medical practitioners in accordance with the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 and will be through either clinical trials, authorised prescribers or the special access schemes. Of course, it will predominantly be state governments that determine those particular schemes that will be in place.

In terms of the national Criminal Code, this bill establishes a scheme that allows the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. In turn, this creates a supply chain for cannabis medicines. These products can then be accessed by patients and carers with appropriate medical oversight through existing pathways through the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. The possession of cannabis products appropriately supplied under these provisions is not a criminal offence, and the national Criminal Code makes it clear that it will not be an offence to possess cannabis if it is duly authorised under another law of the Commonwealth such as through this particular legislative scheme that we have been speaking about tonight.

There are some issues that we would like to see the government working on with the legislation. We would like to see them move quickly to ensure that we do not have a patchwork of medical cannabis legal access arrangements emerging across the various states and territories. As I have said, we have seen Victoria and New South Wales moving to have these trials in place, and we do not want to see that patchwork of schemes developing without the national scheme in place. I certainly encourage the government to work quickly with the states to ensure that this rollout happens in a very timely manner.

Furthermore, we acknowledge a concern that we have with the drugs being accessed using the special access scheme and the authorised prescriber schemes when they are not eligible for PBS listing. We are concerned that these drugs in fact would remain expensive. That would mean that some families may not be able to access them then, so we ask and look to the government for some leadership in ensuring a fair approach to accessing the medical cannabis and ensuring that that can be achieved without becoming prohibitive for many families who are very desperate to be able to access it.

Those are a couple of concerns that we have that we would like the government to address, but the fact is that this bill is a really important measure to address a very real problem in our community. This is a very important step on the pathway to reform and change in this area. We have heard from many speakers on both sides tonight that the community has called for action on this issue for a long period of time. We have heard so many personal stories tonight about the need to have medical cannabis in place. I think it is particularly good to see the bipartisan support for measures like this.

In conclusion, we on this side of the House certainly do support these measures and can see the benefits for so many people, particularly those who are suffering from terminal illnesses and very complex illnesses as well, to get some relief through medicinal cannabis. It is for those reasons that Labor supports these measures. I commend the bill to the House.