House debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2016


Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading

12:39 pm

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Throsby, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be speaking to the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016, which will make a medicinal cannabis licensing scheme legal in Australia. The Labor opposition will be supporting the bill. We will asking that it be referred to a very short inquiry in the other place to ensure that the policy intent of the government and the Labor opposition has found its way into the bill and that there are no unintended consequences.

This bill is in line with Labor Party policy, which is to work with state and territory governments to ensure that there is a nationally consistent law which allows lawful access to medicinal cannabis for people who are needing it in this country; to ensure that the Commonwealth regulates the medicinal cannabis which is supplied to eligible patients and for scientific research purposes; and, finally, to ensure that we can work with state and federal regulators to improve controlled access to medicinal grade cannabis for legitimate scientific and medical research.

We have been pushing for changes to this law for quite some time. Over the last 12 months we have been consulting widely among stakeholders and ensuring that our policy settings are consistent with the direction that we want to go in. In our national conference last year I moved an amendment to our platform which would make it clear that, in government, Labor would introduce a scheme which would make available cannabis for medicinal purposes for patients who need it. Indeed, towards the end of last year, I announced that, if elected, a Shorten Labor government would make medicinal cannabis legally available. Over the course of this year, the government and I have been working with all parties, particularly my Labor colleagues from states and territories around the country, to ensure that the bill the government presented two weeks ago meets the objectives.

There has been a lot of discussion in state parliaments and territory parliaments for over 2½ years now on the issue of medicinal cannabis. Being a member from New South Wales, I am mindful of the parliamentary inquiry that was conducted by the New South Wales parliament, initiated in 2012 and conducted in 2013, which recommended the introduction of a uniform national scheme and also said that there would be mechanisms for a state to introduce such a scheme if there was not sufficient political will at the national level to do so. Of course, we are also aware—and you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, being a member from Victoria—that the recently elected Andrews Labor government went to the last election with a firm commitment to introduce laws which would make available medicinal cannabis by 2017 and, in particular, make available medicinal cannabis for children with severe epilepsy. It was also elected on a platform to introduce and to invigorate the process of medical and scientific trials into other indications.

Around the country, we also saw the Labor Premier of Queensland announce last year that she was keen to ensure that trials and law reform through a national or state based scheme was introduced together with Labor oppositions in Victoria, Tasmania and other states, and here in the Australian Capital Territory. I believe that that has occurred because of the vigorous campaigning of community advocates. Who could not have been moved by the passionate pleas of Lucy Haslam? Dealing with the grief of the loss of her son Dan, she has been walking the halls of this place lobbying all sides of parliament to ensure that we could reform our laws to ensure that families in the situation that she was in with her son Dan would not face the same hardship. I am pleased to see that, as a result of strong community advocacy, pressure from the states and pressure from the Labor opposition, we have a bill before the House in this session.

I have spoken about the push from state governments. We were faced at the beginning of this parliamentary year with a situation where we could have a patchwork of state and territory laws in relation to this issue. There is a significant problem with that approach. I believe the government had its head in a bucket of sand for too long over this issue and was leaving it to the states to take the lead. I always argued that there was a problem with that approach because we have a complex series of state, territory and Commonwealth laws that touch upon this issue. In addition to that, we are party to international treaties, which place obligations on the Commonwealth government, in relation to cannabis and other prohibited substances.

Making medicinal cannabis legal is a lot more difficult than changing one particular law in one jurisdiction. The Commonwealth currently has laws to regulate the import, export and manufacture of cannabinoids and cannabis raw materials used to make medicinal cannabis products. Cannabis is subject to the international treaty obligations of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, which binds member parties so that the illicit use of narcotic drugs can be tightly regulated. The Poisons Act at state and federal levels also classifies or schedules drugs, providing different levels of access to the medicine and the poison. Rescheduling cannabis is another critical step in making medicinal cannabis available. Rescheduling this medicine is not dealt with in this bill but the Therapeutic Goods Administration is already considering the proposal.

It is clear that there needs to be a greater level of national leadership when it comes to medicinal cannabis. The patchwork of access arrangements cannot emerge across different states and territories. It would be intolerable if we had a situation where people could lawfully access and possess and use medicinal cannabis products whilst in Albury, but when they cross the border to Wodonga they could be finding themselves in breach of the law or vice versa. Pick any of the other border towns around a nation and you can come up with similar examples. We need a uniform system of laws, both medical as well as criminal, in relation to the access of this drug. We also need uniform clinical guidelines to be developed, guidance on what products are produced and national leadership to deal with problems as they arise.

Labor gives this commitment today. We will work with the government and all interested parties to ensure that the Commonwealth government can provide national leadership to get the job done and ensure that we can—as we aspire to do—make these products available in a safe and legal way. Labor's approach is driven by the science but it is also moved by compassion and I will have something to say about that in a moment. Australian Labor is committed to the approvals of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which are based on the best available scientific evidence.

We also recognise the very human need of thousands of Australians for medicine. Right now, there are families accessing medicinal cannabis products on the black market—that is, illegally. They do this at the risk of being arrested or convicted as they are unable to determine the exact ingredients of the products they are purchasing or the quality of the medicines they are taking. There is no independent authority that has assessed or verified the claims made by the cultivators and the manufacturers of these products. Families find themselves caught between the risk of criminal action, on the one hand, and using an unreliable supply, on the other hand, and knowing that their loved ones will suffer if something does not change.

Good policy advances on the basis of sound evidence and reason, but it cannot divorce itself from emotion and compassion, and there is plenty of emotion and plenty of compassion on display on the subject of medicinal cannabis. Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting, with my parliamentary colleague the member for Cunningham, an extraordinary young man from the Illawarra, Ben Oakley. He came to parliament with his mother, Caroline, and his father, Michael, to tell their story and to advocate for change. He is from the city of Wollongong. He is 20 years old. He suffers from a very rare disease known as stiff person's syndrome.

Three years ago he was competing in triathlons. Today he would find it very difficult to walk the distance from this chamber to the cafe across the hallway. He is struggling with this condition but shows enormous bravery. Just to give you an example of the condition and symptoms he suffers with, he has in excess of 90 or 100 spasms a day. Any one of these spasms could trigger a series of events that would bring his young life to an end. He has tried the whole range of available drugs recommended by medical practitioners. None of them bring the relief he needs to give him some semblance of living a normal life.

In an act of desperation his father, Michael, accessed medicinal cannabis resin, in the form of capsules, when everything else had failed. Ben describes the results of taking this as absolutely miraculous. He is able to complete his schooling. He is able to contemplate going to university and fulfilling his passion of getting a degree and having a career—something he thought would never be available to him because, quite realistically, he thought he might not live to see his 21st birthday. The medicinal cannabis has helped him get control of his spasms and has helped him get a handle on his life. But his father and mother are having to access an illegal supply chain to get their hands on the medicines that are making this lifesaving change on this young man's life. That is why this legislation is so important.

I would be surprised if there were not dozens of stories that had been brought to any of the 150 members so lucky to have a seat in this House by constituents in the same situation as young Ben Oakley

So while I say good policy advances on the basis of the best evidence and clear reason, we cannot avoid being moved by the examples of young Ben Oakley and literally thousands of other people in similar situations—people who are suffering from nausea as a result of undergoing courses of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, and people who are seeking relief from pain because of some trauma or accident they have suffered, who have tried all of the opiate-based therapies and for one reason or another find that medicinal cannabis provides not only a better quality of relief but a better quality of life. It is for these people that we are moving these changes in the House today.

This bill is a first critical step that will enable medicinal cannabis to be produced in this country. Primarily it amends the Narcotic Drugs Act to permit the licensing of growers of medicinal cannabis in Australia. It also provides a fit and proper person test to be applied to licensees by the Department of Health. If adopted, the bill will ensure that Australia remains compliant with its obligations under the single convention. We know that there is broad public support for making cannabis products available for medicinal purposes. Survey after survey, poll after poll has proved this point. But there is also broad public support for having a regulatory system which ensures that Australian medicines are safe. In ensuring that we alter our laws to make medicinal cannabis available, we do not want to be throwing the regulatory baby out with the reformist bathwater. The AMA have previously called for a coordinated approach to medicinal cannabis and raised concerns about previous bills that have been brought before the parliament. The AMA said:

The AMA believes the current system adequately provides for the regulation of therapeutic narcotics. Medicinal cannabis should be held to the same standards of evidence, safety, quality, and efficacy as other therapeutic narcotic products. This will ensure that medicinal cannabis can be standardised and regulated in its pharmaceutical preparations and administration, thereby reducing the harm to potential users.

There is much force in this argument. If you are a parent who has a child with drug-resistant epilepsy and you want to ensure that they are receiving the medicine that is going to provide them with relief, you want to ensure that the medicine that you are providing your child is manufactured in accordance with the best manufacturing processes. You want to ensure that it does what it says it can do on the label. You want to ensure that there is a consistency of quality and quantity in the dosages that are provided to your child. Whether we are talking about a child with drug-resistant epilepsy, somebody who is suffering the ravages of pain undergoing a course of chemotherapy or somebody who is seeking to alleviate the pain that they are suffering in the final stages of their life, all of them deserve to have access to a product which is safe, reliable and affordable, and to be able to access that product without having to put themselves at risk through accessing it through the black market.

Currently all therapeutic goods such as medicines and devices must be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration—the TGA—and be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods—the ARTG. Once listed on the ARTG, a product may then be considered for listing on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme—the PBS. Once listed on the PBS it attracts, according to the conditions of its listing, a government-funded subsidy. In providing a licensing arrangement for medicinal cannabis products, the TGA regulatory system is left in place. Unlike the cross-party bill that was moved in the other place, this bill does not provide for a new regulator of medicinal cannabis products. Instead, the three existing pathways are utilised to get medicinal cannabis to patients who need it: firstly, through the authorised prescribers scheme; secondly, through the special access scheme; and, thirdly, through clinical trials.

An authorised prescriber can prescribe to their patients an otherwise unapproved medical product for a specific medical indication. The authorised prescriber must have special training and they must monitor the outcome of the therapy. They must also report back to the TGA about their prescriptions of the product twice annually. This is one of the schemes that will continue to be available.

The special access scheme is the other key way in which people will be able to access this treatment. The SAS enables patients to get access to a medical treatment not otherwise approved for use in Australia. Again, the patient's doctor needs to apply to the TGA. This is done on a case-by-case basis, so if a patient suffers from a condition that may well be treatable by medicinal cannabis products and they perhaps live in a remote community not close to an authorised prescriber, their GP may apply to provide the product to their patient through the SAS scheme.

The third mechanism by which a person may gain access to medicinal cannabis products for clinical purposes is through clinical trials. These are also regulated, apart from through the ethics committees of hospitals and universities, through the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Clinical trials can also provide access to as yet unapproved medicines. Of course, there is a risk with this. The persons engaging in those clinical trials do so in full knowledge of the associated risks. Of course the benefit of clinical trials is that the data gathered in clinical trials provides part of the dossier that is then used to assess whether a therapeutic product is safe and effective for use. These kinds of trials are an important step in the process of having a medicine listed or approved for use in Australia.

These are the three bases which will continue to be available as a result of this bill. So the bill does not disrupt or dislodge these mechanisms, but it does deal with an issue that many of the stakeholders who I have consulted with have said needs to be addressed if we are to make this product available more freely and more affordably in Australia, and that is the issue of having an affordable means of supply. The bill provides for licensing of growers and manufacturers. There will be two types of licences created by this bill: an authorisation to cultivate medicinal cannabis for manufacture into a medicinal cannabis product and an authorisation to cultivate medicinal cannabis for scientific research purposes.

To gain a licence, you must meet the strict conditions that are set down in the bill. It is proposed within the legislation that it is proper that anyone given a licence to produce medicinal cannabis fits a strict 'fit and proper person' test. The bill provides for the test to include tests in accordance with the regulations, looking at things such as criminal history; previous civil penalties; a revocation of any previous licences; connections, including business associates and family; a requirement that the person be of good repute in character, honesty, professional and personal integrity; and a capacity to comply with licensing arrangements. Other relevant considerations will be a person's previous business experience, their financial status and previous record of compliance with requirements of the Narcotic Drugs Act.

There are important security provisions within the bill as well. Australia has vast experience in managing controlled substances, such as the growing of poppies for the purpose of producing opiate based medicines. We also have the benefit and example of experience from our overseas partners. Growers licenses must be connected to the supply chain, meaning a grower will need to have an arrangement in place with a manufacturer in order to get a licence. Permits will be issued to control the amount of cannabis that is produced. This system will ensure that an oversupply of cannabis does not occur. The objective of this—or the malady this drives at—is to ensure that we do not have stockpiles of excess cannabis products being produced, thereby enhancing the risk of diversion for unlawful purposes. Similarly, a manufacturer must be able to demonstrate their connection to the supply chain and that, in turn, dispensing to the patient is consistent with the Therapeutic Goods Act. This will have the effect of restricting the number of licenses.

I understand that there will be many advocates within the community who will be disappointed by some of these provisions, and I ask them to consider the fact that we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We are, undoubtedly, advancing the cause of those who are advocating for change through the legislation which is before the House today. There are some mechanisms that a Labor government would do differently, but the measures within the bill, while not meeting all the needs of the advocates within the community, will definitely advance the cause.

The bill has strict security provisions which will apply to licensees, ensuring the product is not diverted into illicit uses. There will be substantial penalties for breaching the licence conditions and for unauthorised activities. It is also worth noting that the existing Criminal Code already captures offences such as the cultivating of cannabis without a license. These will continue to apply. The Secretary of the Department of Health will maintain the power to order the destruction of cannabis or cannabis products to prevent or rectify an accumulation of the product.

These are the main features of the bill. As I have said, they will enjoy the support of Labor members of this House. We will ask for a brief but focused Senate inquiry, to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of the legislation. But we should focus on what the objective is. The key point is this: no family—no family—should have to choose between getting their loved ones the medicine that they need and breaking the law. No parent should have to make this choice; a choice between seeing their son or daughter, their husband or wife, suffering uncontrollable pain or dealing with the dangerous side effects of a medical condition—having to witness that—or providing them with the medicine that they know is effective but which, on the other hand, is breaking the law. This is an intolerable choice.

This bill, and the processes that follow, will ensure that eventually Australian families will not have to make that choice. We know that there are thousands of Australians who are suffering from unbearable pain—muscle spasticity from conditions like multiple sclerosis or nausea resulting from chemotherapy—who will benefit from medicinal cannabis products. No-one can imagine how horrific it must feel for someone to see their child, their partner or their parent in immense pain, knowing that relief is available but that it is illegal to use. We must change this.

It behoves all members in this place to support this legislation and to monitor it closely to ensure that we have the right regime in place—one that drags our nation into the 21st century and deals with the needs of constituents like mine, in the case of Ben Oakley and in circumstances that have been advocated so powerfully by Lucy Haslam in memory of her son, Dan. It behoves all members of this place to ensure that we do what we are elected to do: to change the law in a considered, responsible way to ensure that we provide a better way for families such as these.

1:06 pm

Photo of Andrew NikolicAndrew Nikolic (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to hear the member for Throsby say that Labor will support the Narcotics Drug Amendment Bill 2016, and I am pleased to say that both sides of the House appear to be in heated agreement that this bill is at the forefront both of medical science and human compassion.

The bill represents policy which is sensible, enlightened and humane. This is because it is, first and foremost, about the alleviation of human suffering in a way that is ethical, efficient and legal. This is most especially the case for the terminally ill, who will be the direct beneficiaries of this bill and the treatment which flows from it, but it is also the case for affected families and friends who will be indirect beneficiaries by virtue of knowing that their loved one's pain has been eased. No-one who has borne witness to the pain of someone in the throes of terminal decline would wish either experience—that of the afflicted or the carer—on another. Any observer to such suffering would agree readily to whatever was legally possible and available to lessen such misery, and this bill seeks to do just that, enshrining a practical and clinically proven improvement plan to pain relief in Australian law.

Despite Australia's affluence and modernity, terminal illness in our country is widespread. Mine is a medical family. My wife is a career nurse, our daughter is a surgical registrar in Melbourne and we are in contact with many family, friends and patient groups in very poor health and who require targeted relief from pain and suffering. But those interested in this bill will also encompass members of the wider Australian community, many of whom might reasonably have concerns about the legality and protections built into this intended scheme in order to prevent and curtail unintended and illegal trafficking of narcotics in Australia.

It is fair to say that these concerns have been heightened in recent days by the extraordinary and, may I say, irresponsible Greens party proposal to decriminalise the drug ice—methamphetamine. It is a proposal that has been met in my community with understandable outrage, and it is very clear to me that the Greens party has learned nothing from the National Ice Taskforce.

Public concern about these matters of illegal drugs is reasonable and understandable and has been taken into account by the government when crafting the provisions in this bill. I note also that this bill has already been widely well received across the political spectrum. We hear an example of that this morning in the bipartisan speeches the member for Throsby and I are giving and also in the vocal support and endorsement of the broader Australian community. I am pleased to say that, in my home state of Tasmania, Premier Will Hodgman has provided active and high-profile endorsement to policy action in this area. In so doing, the Premier of Tasmania has shown himself to be a progressive and compassionate political leader.

If and when this bill is passed and becomes law, it will contribute to considerable good in every state and territory, including my home state of Tasmania. But, as ever, this bill represents a balancing act between competing priorities and views. In this instance, I and many others across the political divide are likely to be in fierce agreement that this bill gets the balance right.

Let me now address the nature of this bill, the good which will accrue from it and the community safeguards that are included in it. The government has taken great pains to frame this bill and the policy effects that flow from it. An appreciation of policy risks and desired benefits is, after all, always a dynamic tension in every bill that is debated in this House. The main and rather obvious risk relates to public perception and trust. Sections of the community quite rightly harbour valid concerns and reservations about the likelihood of this bill giving rise to an increase in cannabis used for illegal, non-medicinal purposes.

On this point, I can state unequivocally that this bill in no way legalises cannabis for non-medicinal purposes in Australia. Cannabis will continue to be categorised as a highly regulated drug, and its use and supply will continue to be controlled by a number of existing Commonwealth, state and territory laws. Importantly, the Australian government is not proposing to legalise the cultivation of cannabis for other than clinically-prescribed and closely regulated medicinal purposes.

As a result, these legislative amendments will ensure that Australia continues to comply with its international obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in relation to cannabis for medicinal use and related research. Furthermore, the Commonwealth will amend the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 to establish the authority within the Department of Health to approve and regulate the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and scientific use required under the single convention. Cannabis material cultivated in Australia may then for the first time be legally manufactured into products to be used to conduct clinical trials and develop products to be used in accordance with the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. The TGA standard should be our standard for quality, safety and efficacy. These products can also be made available for patients outside clinical trial protocols through other pathways in the Therapeutic Goods Act.

The Commonwealth already has sufficient legislative authority to regulate the import, export and manufacture of cannabinoids and cannabis raw material, but cultivating cannabis in Australia for the express purposes of medicinal or scientific use is yet to be approved. Additionally, the Commonwealth is working with states and territories to ensure that their respective legislation allows for access to defined patient groups. The bill has been crafted to ensure that cannabis is only available by medical prescription from an Australian formally credentialed medical professional. This constitutes an enduring central protection in the bill.

This approach establishes a formal delineation between cannabis which is legally and professionally prescribed by a medical practitioner and that which is otherwise illegally sought by an individual user and/or peddled by criminals, gangs or syndicates. In any such case, delineation is apt to further assist police agencies to monitor and track both legal and illegal cannabis transactions Australia-wide. As a result, the use of cannabis for the specific and prescribed purpose of abating patient suffering and the continued hunt for illegal cannabis distributors or networks are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are complementary elements of a holistic and sensible policy.

Much potential good will accrue from this bill. Amongst the most significant of these positives is that it will dignify and formalise within a legally controllable framework what already takes place on a regular basis. In other words, it will make legal that which is morally right and humanely justifiable while at the same time upholding the law against that which remains illegal in the eyes of the law and many in our community.

And I echo the words of the member for Throsby relating to the many reports of seriously ill patients and their families in our communities who are currently accessing black market cannabis to relieve suffering. In doing so, they are exposing themselves to the risk of criminal prosecution and the health risks of using products that may not be safe and may not deliver expected results. Accessing illegal products in this underground manner is potentially dangerous and expensive. Because of this, the Commonwealth government is committed to facilitating the supply of legal, safe, quality medicinal products to appropriate patient groups.

This means enabling the domestic cultivation of cannabis for use in clinical trials, scientific research and other medicinal purposes as allowed under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. To achieve this goal, this bill seeks to amend the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967, in order to ensure that Australia meets its obligations under the United Nations single convention. The government has approached this issue in a way which is collaborative and constructive. Since the minister's announcement on 17 October 2015, the Department of Health, in conjunction with other Commonwealth agencies and in discussion with state and territory governments, has been analysing the amendments required to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967.

Let me speak briefly on Community safeguards. The Commonwealth will continue to safeguard the community against the illegal use of cannabis. Furthermore, the government is confident that its suite of protective measures will ensure that the illegal trafficking of cannabis is not further promoted by this bill. To this end, the government has made a commitment to work collaboratively with states and territories to not only share knowledge and information on issues relating to the appropriate use of therapeutic products derived from cannabis, but to also consider health and law enforcement concerns for its control in Australia.

It is, of course, vital that we have a clear national licensing scheme to ensure the integrity of crops for medicinal or scientific purposes only. These legislative amendments will allow the government to track the development of medicinal cannabis products from cultivation to supply. Additionally, from a law enforcement perspective, there are a number of issues which require consideration when exploring options for access to medicinal cannabis. They include: ensuring secure possession and use among patients and carers alike; preventing the influence of criminal elements on the production, supply, transportation and administration of cannabis for its approved use; identifying child safety and welfare requirements; enforcing road safety, relating to driving under the influence of cannabis; and mitigating crime associated with an increased diversion of controlled drugs for unauthorised use or misuse. Commonwealth and state and territory criminal, drugs and poisons legislations will be both complementary and comprehensive, in order to ensure that all necessary controls are in place.

In the end, the subject of this bill is not a silver bullet to end pain and suffering—particularly those with chronic conditions or who are approaching the end of life. Nevertheless, it does constitute a significant and welcome addition to the modern arsenal of pain relief for the terminally ill. For this reason alone, this bill should be welcomed. But, it goes much further still, to guarantee careful and prescriptive targeting, and safeguards against illegal use. It is inescapable that this is good policy.

It also a case of world's best, most-informed and enlightened approach to the increasing need for available and affordable pain relief. Australia's ageing population will only accentuate this requirement in the future. Accordingly, I commend the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016, to the House.

1:19 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to join my colleague the member for Throsby in supporting the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 in this House. At the outset, I would like to pay tribute to the member for Throsby for the work he has done in developing Labor's policy position in this area and in helping to promote this important reform for the benefit of the many Australians who are counting on this parliament.

I have to say the government has been a bit of a late starter when it comes to this particular area. When I first got elected to the shadow ministry, I went and spoke to the then Minister for Health, Minister Dutton. It was not necessarily on the government's radar at that point but there was some indication that something might need to happen. Stephen and I of course then went to see Minister Ley very early on, and it has taken a while for us to get to this point. So I am very pleased that the government has come to the point it is at now.

It has also happened because really there is not a choice for the Commonwealth in this space at the moment. We have states and territories—Victoria and New South Wales in particular and some interest in Tasmania—wanting to proceed with clinical trials. If the Commonwealth does not act, there is a missing piece of all of this. I acknowledge the work that has been done to get to this point. I think there are still some elements that are going to continue to have to be worked through and this bill is one of the first steps in terms of the Commonwealth doing that.

As I said, I also want to particularly pay tribute to Jill Hennessy and Daniel Andrews in Victoria, who have really pushed the Commonwealth to be in this position. If they had not, the trials in Victoria could not have gone ahead in the way we had anticipated they should.

Ultimately what this bill is about, absolutely at its heart, is easing the suffering of those for whom medicinal cannabis can ease their pain, ease their suffering and provide relief that cannot be obtained by the existing alternatives. This is not about decriminalising marijuana for recreational use. I want to make that very clear. This is not about in any way entering the debate about how we deal with drug abuse or drug use in this country. This is solely about ensuring there is a legal and regulated market for medicinal cannabis so that carers can access a safe, legal and reliable supply of pain relief for their loved ones—people like Cherie and Trevor Dell in Sydney, who use medicinal cannabis to help their three-year-old daughter Abbey, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as CDKL5, which results in constant violent seizures. Cherie and Trevor are not criminals. They are just parents trying to do what any parent does, the best for their child.

Cherie and Trevor tried every legal medicine and treatment for Abbey but found the only product that worked to ease her seizures was medicinal cannabis oil. As they told the Leader of the Opposition when he visited them last year, before the cannabis oil treatments Abbey suffered dozens of seizures every day, with some of them lasting 45 minutes. Now they have possibly one per day and some days are seizure free. But cannabis oil is illegal in this country and, desperate to relieve Abbey's suffering, they turned to the underground suppliers that provide illegal medicinal cannabis oil to families in need across the country. As a result of this, they were visited by the police.

No-one here, it should be stressed, in any way blames the police for this; they are simply enforcing the law as it stands. That is why we here today, working with the states and territories to have changes to the law to benefit not only Cherie, Trevor and Abbey but also the many Australians with epilepsy who believe the evidence that cannabidiol, one of the compounds in marijuana, can stop seizures and boost the quality of life of those with epilepsy. People like Dan Haslam, the young man with terminal cancer whose story of how he used cannabis to treat his severe pain and nausea from chemotherapy was so moving for many across the country. He certainly has been a very persuasive voice, as has his mum, in this debate. And, as it always should be when we talk about making important changes to health legislation in this country, it is important that it is evidence based and strongly supported by the medical literature that cannabinoids may be used for treatment in a number of key areas including: treatment of muscle spasticity and neuropathic pain, notably in multiple sclerosis; treatment of nausea, vomiting in chemotherapy patients; appetite stimulation, particularly for AIDS patients; and pain relief in palliation.

The Australian Medical Association has expressed cautious support for further trials. In a statement on 1 May 2014 it said:

There is a growing body of evidence that certain cannabinoids are effective in the treatment of chronic pain, particularly as an alternative or adjunct to the use of opiates, when the development of opiate tolerance and withdrawal can be avoided. Controlled trials have also shown positive effects of cannabis preparations on bladder dysfunction in multiple sclerosis, tics in Tourette syndrome, and involuntary movements associated with Parkinson’s disease.

All of us here accept that, given the very strong feelings about drug law reform in Australia, for some this decision will be controversial. But driven by science, by evidence and by compassion, we firmly believe that the time has come for a national scheme. It has not been political to observe that during the term of this government there has been little opportunity for Labor to find common ground in health policy with the Liberal and National party. However, on this measure—the introduction of medicines based on cannabis—we have agreement.

We are, of course, in many respects, lagging behind the states, with the governments of New South Wales and Victoria already pushing ahead with their state-based schemes. The Victorian Premier in particular deserves, as I said, much credit for providing national leadership, and driving the national agenda on medicinal cannabis with the Victorian government committed to legalising access to locally manufactured medicinal cannabis products for use in exceptional circumstances from 2017.

The New South Wales government has also vigorously pursued medical trials of cannabis, and provided law enforcement by 'depenalising' offences related to possession and use for particular classes of people. But Labor strongly believe that only the Commonwealth government can actually lead this debate. As the Leader of the Opposition said, when he wrote to the Prime Minister back in November:

Only the Commonwealth Government can ensure there is a national scheme which ensures equity of access and a safe and reliable supply …

  …   …   …

… a person’s access to—

pain relief—

should not be dictated by … [the] state or territory they live in.

It is important that these changes are delivered as soon as possible so that families currently relying on medicinal cannabis to ease the pain of their loved ones can do so legally and safely. The decriminalisation of the use of medicinal cannabis will also enable more carers to access much needed respite. We cannot tolerate a situation where access to legal and safe medicinal cannabis is determined by your postcode, and allow a system to continue where parents in one state can legally and safely relieve the suffering of their children, while those in another state are faced with a choice of allowing that suffering to continue, or to risk prosecution.

Only the Commonwealth government can ensure there is a national scheme which ensures equity of access and a safe and reliable supply. Only the Commonwealth can establish a tightly controlled supply chain with multiple security measures. Only the Commonwealth can enable the prescription of these medicines by a doctor, if that is ultimately where we are able to land on this in the future. Only the Commonwealth can establish a licensing scheme for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes by creating two types of licenses: an authorisation to cultivate cannabis for manufacture into medical cannabis products, and an authorisation to cultivate cannabis for scientific research into the cannabis plant that is to be used for medical purposes.

A key component, of course, of this bill is the establishment of a strict fit and proper person test that will apply to the applicant and also to associates of that applicant by assessing criminal history, business and family connections, and financial status. Perhaps the most important element of this legislation is that in providing a licencing arrangement for medical cannabis products, the TGA regulatory system is left untouched. That was an important consideration for us. We understand, and I acknowledge the presence of TGA staff here today, this is incredibly complex. I understand, Philippa, this would not have been an easy bill to draft, nor is it an easy regime to, in fact, be working your way through, but it is though proper regulation. It is going to be important that the Commonwealth does participate in that. This is a crucial development, and far superior to other suggestions in this place that a separate, specific legislator be established.

The TGA is well-regarded globally as an effective regulator of therapeutic products, and it sends a very important signal that, in many ways, what we are doing here is no different than the regime adopted for the approval of any other therapeutic good. As I said at the outset, it is crucial that the Commonwealth leads the way here. It is crucial that it does so to ensure that a patchwork of medical cannabis licit access arrangements do not emerge across the variety states and territories. We are also concerned that these drugs will remain expensive, and potentially prohibitively expensive for some families. Approval of medical cannabis does not mean subsidised access via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and it is vital that Australian governments also provide national leadership to ensure a fair approach to access of this medicine is achieved. No family should have to choose between getting their loved one the medicine they need and breaking the law. We will certainly be supporting this bill. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! It being just on 1.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order No. 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.