Medical Cannabis

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (18:20): It is a great pleasure to be speaking on the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, because the amendments contained within this bill go to a matter that I have campaigned on for quite some time and a matter that I feel very passionate about and that is putting in place a nationally consistent scheme, which facilitates the availability of medicinal cannabis for people who are suffering pain or undergoing a course of treatment for which there is no alternative medicine and access to medicinal cannabis has provided them with relief from the symptoms that they are suffering from.

The bill fixes a number of issues that arose after the original amendment bill was introduced into the House in February this year. Labor supported the legislation when it was first brought before the House in February this year; in fact, we take some credit for the fact that the matter was brought on. In my speech on the second reading I highlighted the concern that Labor had with the speed with which the bill had been brought into the House for debate, even calling for the bill to be referred to a short inquiry in the other place. In my speech during the second reading debate I called for that inquiry to occur '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'. Today it appears that there were some unintended consequences—unintended consequences that probably would have been flushed out if such an inquiry had been allowed to occur.

The government at the time assured Labor that the bill required immediate support. It did not say why. We later found out why. It said it required immediate support and there was no time for any detailed examination. We had to pass it through both houses of parliament and enact it as soon as possible. The minister said in her second reading speech:

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.

We have absolutely no problems with that course of action, but the fact that there is an amending bill before the House not nine months later indicates that a short perfunctory inquiry would have thrown some light on the deficiencies that we are now legislating to fix. We now know that the real reason that they were in such a God-almighty rush to get the bill through this place and the other place is that the Prime Minister was feverishly working on his plans to call a double dissolution election. The rest, as they say, is history—and not a happy history for those on the other side.

We are, disappointingly, back in this place debating amendments to the original bill because there are loopholes and problems with the original legislation. We want to work with the government. We want to provide them patriotic support to fix the shambles they are so regularly creating. This is like so much that we are seeing from the government. This point needs to be made: a week ago the scheme to permit licensing for the manufacture and production of medicinal cannabis in this country kicked in, but we are back here amending the enabling legislation.

What do the amendments do? We are told they are 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. They are needed to guard against cannabis licences being transferred from one person to another person. I interrupt myself there for a minute. It does not take the intelligence of a genius to know that, if you are granting a licence for something as sensitive as the production of medicinal cannabis and you have put in place an entire scheme to ensure you have strict controls on that licence, from the get-go, from the very beginning, you should ensure that such a licence is not a transferable instrument. Any second year law student could have told you that you would put in place a scheme to ensure that the licence created under this act is not a transferable instrument. Unfortunately, the government in their haste to move the legislation into the House ahead of a double dissolution election did not rest upon this basic fact. The amendments are also needed to recover the cost of regulating the new medicinal cannabis industry.

All of these amendments will enjoy our support. They should have been done when the legislation was introduced in the House in the first place. Speaking for Labor in my speech during the second reading debate I said:

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.

Our position remains unchanged today. We continue to support sensible legislation in good faith. Labor supports medicinal cannabis. Labor was the first national alternative party of government that called for the introduction of a national scheme. We are happy that the government took up that call. They made some mistakes. We have pointed them out. We are happy that the government has taken up that call. We are committed to the approvals process through the Therapeutic Goods Administration, where medicines are approved on the basis of evidence and science. We did not support dragging our heels, which is what the Liberal government did until February this year.

There is more that needs to be done to ensure that we have in place a scheme that will permit universal access on a medical basis and on the basis of good science to medicinal cannabis treatments across the states in this country. We have said on many occasions that it is not a simple process. The fact that we are here amending the enabling legislation is evidence of that. There are myriad treaties and laws at the state and federal levels—and, indeed, I suspect there are a raft of local government regulations as well—that impact on every aspect of the supply chain. So it is not a simple task. We acknowledge that. It is why we have offered the government our full support in this process.

We should never forget what lies at the heart of this issue and that is to ensure that no family is put in a position where they have to choose between getting their loved ones the medicines that they need to relieve them of agonising pain and abiding by the law. We should be able to do both. Labor want this scheme to succeed. We say that very frankly. We want it to succeed so we can provide ongoing certain legal relief to young men like Ben Oakley, who I have had many conversations with over the last 12 months. Ben is a young bloke who is living in the Illawarra. He suffers from something which is colloquially known as stiff person syndrome. Ben has been a champion in the Illawarra—and throughout the country, in fact—for medicinal cannabis.

To say he is living proof of the tremendous life-giving effects that medicinal cannabis can have on somebody in his situation is no exaggeration: were it not for the administration of medicinal cannabis treatment, Ben would probably not be alive today. It is not an exaggeration, because one of the indications that people with stiff person syndrome suffer with is uncontrollable fits. I am not talking about a sneeze, I am not talking about a small spasm; I am talking about somebody who can suffer from literally hundreds and hundreds of fits in a 24-hour period. Many of these fits leave Ben in a position where both of his parents struggle to constrain him, and any one of those fits could lead to the loss of his life.

Ben's father, a trained nurse, has researched this deeply, and he is keen to ensure that he is no longer in a position where he is potentially breaking the law because he is accessing the medicines which are keeping his son alive. Because of the course of medicinal cannabis that Ben has been taking, he has been able to get his life back together. He will not return—in the near term, in any event—to doing triathlons, as he was doing not six months before the time when he was struck down by this life-altering condition. But, because of the treatment he is receiving, he has been able to get his car licence—an aspiration that any normal 18-year-old boy has—and he is able to attend university and get his life back on track.

When we are debating dry legislation in the heated exchanges that often occur across the bar table during debates in places such as this, it is always important that we keep in mind for whom and why we are doing it. It is for the thousands of people like Ben Oakley and their families, who know that a nationally consistent scheme that provides safe and reliable medicines that can be administered to them on the recommendation of their doctor is going to make an enormous difference to their lives, and that is why we support the legislation. I commend the bill to the House.

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