Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (10:48): Today is quite momentous day for those who have been eagerly awaiting the first steps towards legalised cannabinoid treatments for medical conditions in Australia. I want to start by congratulating the Minister for Health, Ms Ley, her advisers and the department for moving as quickly as they have on this particular issue. It first came to my attention, would you believe, at a convention of the Liberal National Party of Queensland—not always seen as the most progressive-thinking group around the country. But, long before it became a public issue, two motions were passed at a Liberal National Party state convention in Queensland supporting the use of medicinal cannabis. I want to say to those people involved in the LNP who first raised this that it really does show that the process works. It has taken some time, but it does work. It is interesting that ordinary people, through their own political parties, can raise these issues, which do, as in this case, lead to legislation starting the process.
I also want to give credit where credit is due to Senator Di Natale. Senator Di Natale also shared the view of the importance of medicinal cannabis, and, because things were not moving as quickly as he and others would have hoped, he introduced a private senator's bill, which was then referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry. That committee, which I had the honour of chairing, held a number of public hearings into medicinal cannabis in which Senator Di Natale and other committee members fully, enthusiastically and intelligently participated. We took an enormous amount of evidence from clinicians, from academics, from ordinary people—from people who came forward and confessed that they were breaking the law. As we do as a committee, we suggested to those people that they might want to give their evidence in camera, but all of them said no, that they were using cannabis because it was the only treatment that their family had been able to access that was effective in dealing with certain types of illnesses. Epilepsy was one of those illnesses. Those people were very courageous to come forward and give us evidence. To a degree, their evidence had an influence on the committee in recommending that something be done through legislation to allow for the use of medicinal cannabis. Senator Di Natale's bill was one that he prepared—with the help, I assume, of the Library and the Clerk's officers—but, of course, Senator Di Natale did not have the resources of the department to look into every aspect.
Whilst the committee supported the bill in the broad, the committee was persuaded by the department that there were certain issues in Senator Di Natale's bill which had not been looked into. The issues related principally to international conventions and international agreements on narcotic drugs. Senator Di Natale's bill, together with the committee's report, encouraged the government to move quickly. I want to thank again the minister, Sussan Ley, and the Prime Minister of the time, Mr Abbott, both of whom gave the idea of medicinal cannabis a very big tick. At the joint party room meeting where this was raised, both Mr Abbott and Ms Ley confirmed that this was something that had to be done but that it was complicated. I thank departmental officials and the parliamentary draughtsman for their speed in completing this bill. It is never easy when you are dealing with narcotic drugs to get the legislation right, making sure all the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted. Despite the comments of previous speakers, it is here in record time and all congratulations to the department, the draughtsman and the minister's office for achieving this.
I also note with a little surprise that the Labor Party, the Greens and the independents have not required this matter to go back to a committee. Had that been necessary, any committee hearing would have been very brief because the committee had already looked into the matter in some detail. It is here in the parliament; it has been passed in the lower house; it will be passed here; and it will eventually come into effect. It is a great example of how parliament can work effectively and quickly where there are issues which need addressing. As I say, the issue originated in a state convention of the LNP in Queensland. I also want to thank the New South Wales government which appeared before the committee and gave very good evidence—not only the department, but also academics, scientists and clinicians researching the issue. They explained to us that they sometimes had difficulty in accessing the plant for investigative or research purposes; at times they were at risk of breaching the law. The New South Wales government actually made it a commitment at the last election and allocated—do not hold me to these figures—something like $60 million towards the research and the implementation. I note that the Victorian government is also doing something along similar lines.
It is important that the Commonwealth legislates, because the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is something that only the Commonwealth can deal with. We want to make sure too that any legislation in relation to the medicinal use of cannabis is national in scope so that trouble does not arise in various states from competing or contradictory legislation. I want to make it very clear that this bill has nothing to do with, and is diametrically opposed to, the recreational use of cannabis, which remains a criminal offence—and in my view so it should. A lot of the mental health problems that we see around our country today, I believe and evidence suggests, are the result of the early use of cannabis as a recreational drug. I emphasise that this bill will not make cannabis available for recreational use or for any other purpose other than strictly controlled medicinal use.
Whilst the legislation will pass through the parliament today, this is only the first step. Some will say that the process is convoluted but there is a lot of work to be done from here on in. Australian grown cannabis for medicinal use will not be available for some time. This bill creates a new agency, the Office of Drug Control and it will oversight the program. It will be very strict about the operational standards. In layman's language, this bill will eventually allow the controlled growing and processing of cannabis under strict conditions. As I understand the bill—and it is quite a big bill—not all doctors will be able to prescribe medicinal cannabis; only specialist clinicians will have the authority to prescribe it under certain controlled circumstances. I say again, cannabis is the most used illicit drug in Australia, and Australia unfortunately has one of the highest per capita rates of illegal cannabis use in the world.
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I wonder if Senator Ludlam knows too much about this drug! This is a serious proposal which, as I say, has cross-party support. I am surprised that Senator Ludlam would make light of it in view of the fact that his leader played a very significant role in getting us to where we are today. The National Drug Strategy survey said that 35 per cent of the Australian population reported having used cannabis at some time in their life, with 10 per cent having used it in the last month and 3½ per cent having used it in the previous week. So it is a problem. Chronic cannabis use can be associated with a number of negative health and social effects, including increased risk of respiratory diseases associated with smoking including cancer, decreased memory and learning abilities and decreased motivation in areas such as study, work and concentration.
The Australian government has made a commitment to work collaboratively with states and territories to not only share knowledge and information on the issues relating to the appropriate use of therapeutic products derived from cannabis but also consider health and law enforcement concerns in the context of the Commonwealth authority and obligations to control the cannabis plant in Australia under the international convention. I repeat—I want to keep emphasising this—that in no way will this legislation provide for the decriminalisation of this drug, which many scientists say does have long-term health effects. I know from my own experience that there are a lot of forward-looking farmers who are keen to get involved in the growing of the cannabis plant under controlled conditions. We do that in Australia with the poppy, which is used in the manufacture of heroin for medicinal use. We have a very strictly controlled regime there. This will be a similar—not the same—control arrangement with the growing of the cannabis plant. As I say, there are forward-looking, sensible farmers who are already seeing an economic livelihood in growing the cannabis plant under very controlled conditions. The plants that apparently grow wild—as I said jokingly, they are pretty prevalent in my home area of northern Australia—have been genetically modified over the years to have a higher proportion of the bad stuff and a lower proportion of the good stuff in them. The control of the growing will of course ensure that the plant is grown under very strict conditions to get the best outcome for medicinal purposes.
I mentioned the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which does severely restrict what Australia, or any signatory to the convention, can do. This bill will require amendments to be made to the Therapeutic Goods Act to include regulation making power to provide for future flexibility, if needed, in relation to authorising medicinal cannabis. Cannabis cultivated in Australia will be able to be legally manufactured into products to be used to conduct clinical trials and to develop therapeutic products to be used in accordance with the Therapeutic Goods Act. It came as a surprise to me to find that presently doctors can prescribe cannabis, under very strict conditions. I do not think a lot of doctors are aware of this, and I even wrote to the AMA when I found out about it. It is a very convoluted process, but those who think they have a use for medicinal cannabis today should speak to their doctor who should speak to the department, if necessary, about the very restricted circumstances in which cannabis can already be used. This bill, however, will take the process a lot further. We will grow the plant in Australia, therefore we do not have to rely on imported product that we do not really know the origins of or how it has been grown or what its properties are. It is an important step forward.
In going through this rather lengthy process in double-quick time the government is conscious that the all-important issue is the safety of patients and the community, and that is why it is essential to have very high safety standards for medicinal cannabis products and very rigorous clinical controls on access to them. But it is a step in the right direction. I know from the committee hearing that a number of people in Australia will be delighted that this bill has reached the parliament today, and in all expectation will be passed today. As I say, there is still a way to go but it is the first step in making this drug available. The evidence given to the committee was quite clear. A lot of people did not know exactly why the cannabinoid drug worked, but the evidence was that it did work for certain illnesses. We now have a process beginning whereby those people who have been illegally using it in Australia will have it legally available. We did have evidence of some people having to fly to the United States twice a year to get their children access to medicinal cannabinoids, and those people will now have the ability in the months ahead, when this legislation is fully implemented, to get this treatment in Australia at a fraction of the cost that it has cost people in the past.
I am delighted to support this bill. I again give credit to Senator Di Natale for bringing this matter forward and I again give credit to the minister and her advisers and the department for moving as quickly as they have to make sure that this legislation is adopted by the parliament today so that the wonderful properties and the good use of this drug can be made available to Australians who desperately need it.