Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill 2016; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
Today we introduce legislation that signals another significant step towards Australians accessing a safe, legal and reliable supply of medicinal cannabis product for the management of painful and chronic conditions.
Australia is now on track to have a nationally-consistent licensing scheme regulating the controlled cultivation of cannabis for medicinal or scientific processes.
It is another example of the Turnbull government taking on challenging reform and delivering what we promised.
It is also another example of the Turnbull government working with the parliament to deliver sensible changes benefiting Australians in need.
But we must also ensure, in undertaking this important reform, time and consideration is taken to protect the wider community against the possibility of unintended consequences.
As mentioned at the start of this speech, the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill is the next step in this process and contains amendments to protect the integrity of the medicinal cannabis scheme. Cannabis is a crop of significant interest to criminal elements and preventing infiltration of organised crime into the legitimate medicinal cannabis industry must be a priority for the Commonwealth.
As members will well remember, the Narcotic Drugs Act was amended earlier this year to create a regime to allow for the first time the cultivation of cannabis in Australia for the purposes of providing access by Australians to medicinal cannabis. As I said at the time, it is important that we have an effective national licensing system to enable a sustainable supply of safe medicinal cannabis product to Australian patients in the future.
An important element of such a system is ensuring that only those who are 'fit and proper' can be granted a licence. The Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill contains additional amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act to protect sensitive law enforcement information used in making licensing decisions so that infiltration by criminal elements into the medicinal cannabis scheme can be prevented.
It is critical to ensure that participants in the medicinal cannabis scheme are of good character and repute. This is an important part of the antidiversion controls for the scheme and allows the Commonwealth to comply with our obligations under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961.
The Commonwealth is working with law enforcement agencies from all jurisdictions to put in place arrangements for the sharing of information around the suitability of licence applicants. The Commonwealth accepts that there are limitations to what types of information can be shared through such arrangements, but remains committed to protecting the integrity of the scheme.
The primary purpose of the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill is to put in place protection for information provided by law enforcement agencies used in decision making under the act. These protections prevent the disclosure of 'sensitive law enforcement information', the improper release of which could have the effect of disrupting criminal investigations, revealing law enforcement intelligence gathering and investigative techniques or exposing the lives of people involved in criminal investigations to risk. Leaks of this type of information can have serious implications for the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies and so it is in the public interest to prevent this from occurring.
The provisions in the bill prevent the release of sensitive law enforcement information to the applicant, their lawyers and to the public at large when decisions are being made on whether to grant or revoke licences. The bill also carries protections against release of this information during related tribunal and court proceedings. The bill creates offences with harsh penalties for revealing sensitive law enforcement information, except within some very narrow confines including, for instance, where it is necessary to allow its use for the proper administration of the Narcotic Drugs Act licensing provisions.
The bill also includes provisions to allow the secretary to refuse to grant a licence where the applicant has provided false or misleading information; to provide for the making of standards and guidelines to support the detailed elements of the scheme; to allow for the revocation of licences and permits where applicable standards are not met; and to allow for the supply of cannabis seeds grown in the course of medicinal cannabis research to be supplied to other cultivator licence holders for further propagation purposes.
In February this year, this parliament supported the introduction of the legislation to enable the legal cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purpose, in order to supply Australian patients and to comply with our international obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. These amendments are necessary so that licences are only issued to persons who will work to meet these objectives. The risk of criminal elements diverting precious medicine to illicit uses is too great—this would be detrimental to the patients who would benefit from the availability of medicinal cannabis and would mean that the government sanctioned system would be creating another public health risk.
Without this bill, law enforcement agencies around the country will be reluctant to engage with the Commonwealth in providing the necessary information to manage these risks. These agencies understand and support the need for this cultivation scheme; but they rightly can only participate fully if doing so will not compromise their own activities.
The cultivation licensing scheme commences on 30 October 2016. It is intended that these amendments commence at the same time to ensure that scheme endorsed by the parliament in February can operate effectively.
I commend the bill to the House.