Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:57): I rise to speak on this bill, the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 and the related bill. These two bills are very important and, as the previous speaker has said, they complete the legislation necessary in relation to medicinal cannabis.
The senators in this chamber might recall that the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee was referred this bill in the last parliament. It was a private member's bill submitted, as I recall, by Senator Di Natale and it was a rather complex bill. The committee took some time, and I think we held inquiries in three or four different places throughout the country, investigating medicinal cannabis. The committee was persuaded—relatively easily, I might say—by the evidence that came before us that, with the proper safeguards, medicinal cannabis would be a useful addition to the suite of drugs, tools and procedures available to Australian health practitioners to deal with some illnesses. The committee was persuaded by a number of very telling pieces of evidence from people who spoke about their family's involvement. People were telling us that they were breaking the law—illegally sourcing cannabis—and they did not care. In fact, I do recall that as a committee we warned a couple of people. We said, 'Perhaps you'd rather give your evidence in camera; perhaps you'd rather not give the evidence at all,' because they were effectively conceding that they were breaking the law by using medicinal cannabis that had been imported from overseas or obtained locally in some cases. To a person, people said to us: 'Thanks for the warning, but this has been so beneficial to a member of our family that we don't care. If the police want to arrest us as we leave here, let them do it.' That was because medicinal cannabis is the only drug that has given their loved ones relief. There was quite a bit of that evidence and, as I said, the committee was persuaded that the idea was a good one.
There were some reservations about the complex nature of the bill—and I mentioned that it was a complex private member's bill. I mean no disrespect to Senator Di Natale. As an opposition member in this chamber he does not have access to the resources that governments have when preparing bills. The committee looked into the various provisions of the bill very, very carefully and, as I recall, our suggestion was that the bill perhaps not be passed because of some difficulties with the technical aspects of it. But the committee recommended to the government that it take it over, and I have to say all credit to Senator Di Natale, who did not object to the committee's proposition that the government take over the bill or introduce its own bill for the long-term purposes of allowing the use of medicinal cannabis under very strictly controlled conditions that were safe for the users. Madam Acting Deputy President Reynolds—I think you were a member of that committee, from memory—we were pleased to support Senator Di Natale's bill in its concept but not in its exact detail.
As a result of that, all credit then goes to the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Sussan Ley, who understood and accepted the broad recommendations of the committee that the time had come for medicinal cannabis to be available in Australia. She and her department then embarked upon the process of drawing up the legislation, getting it before parliament and having it pass through parliament. I heard what the previous speaker said, rather disingenuously, when she criticised the government for not getting the first bill right and having to come back with the two bills before us: the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill and the Narcotic Drugs (Licence Charges) Bill. With due respect to the previous speaker, I think she was just having a bit of a slash. Labor, even though they agree with the bills, cannot allow them to go through without having something nasty to say about the government, so I guess we can excuse her for that rather partisan comment. These bills actually are the completion of the suite.
I have to say I have been surprised at the number of Australians who are interested in this whole subject. I knew from the committee hearings that people benefited from medicinal cannabis. They gave very substantial and very persuasive evidence. But since then, in particular up my way—and I understand this happens everywhere around Australia—I have heard that there are a lot of enterprising farmers who want to be part of a new growth industry of medicinal cannabis.
You can never raise this subject without smiling. I remember I inappropriately said—it was only a joke but you should not joke about this—at one stage during the course of this: 'Come up to North Queensland. You don't need to cultivate. There is plenty up there growing wild that you could use.' But the growth of medicinal cannabis requires a very special process. The evidence given to us told us that medicinal cannabis, as many of you know who may have smoked it in the past—I have to say I am probably the one person in Australia that for no particular reason has never, ever smoked marijuana.
Senator Williams interjecting—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: You too, Senator Williams. I probably would have if I had been around somewhere it might have been, but I never did.
Senator Watt: You didn't inhale?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: No, I did not even inhale. I never did it. It was never in an area where I could have done it. And, of course, I was a solicitor in a small country town and upholding the law. I remember I used to defend young people when, in those early days, the possession of just one seed would send them to jail, and if they worked for the government it was an automatic loss of their job. As a young solicitor I used to defend a lot of young people who, unfortunately, had obviously given something by someone. They did not know what it was. The seed had dropped out of their pocket and the police had found them and arrested them. We used to have quite some fun. I defended so many of these people—some successfully and some not successfully, I have to confess—that the police thought at one stage that I was in the business. I am sure this is very interesting to anyone who might be listening to this, but I remember my flat in those days before I was married used to be sort of party central in my small country town. I remember that one day the police cordoned off the flat. They were going to raid this party we were having. It went astray when someone went out to relieve themselves and came across these police hiding in the grass sort of thing. That was a bit of a joke, and I used to joke with the policemen when I saw them in court next time. I can assure them all these days after that there was no distribution, or even evidence as I was aware, of the use of marijuana. That gets me off the track of these bills.
The purpose of the Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 is to put in place protection for information provided by law enforcement agencies used in decision-making under the Narcotic Drugs Act. These protections prevent disclosure of sensitive law enforcement information provided by law enforcement agencies, the improper release of which could have the effect of disrupting criminal investigations revealing law enforcement intelligence gathering and investigative techniques or of the endangering lives of the informants and witnesses.
Madam Acting Deputy President, I know you understand and I think most senators understand that we are dealing with a narcotic drug in the wrong hands—clearly in Australia there are too many illegal narcotic drugs in the wrong hands. This bill is setting out to make sure that we do not make it easier for criminal elements to do things or get information that will help their vile trade. We want to make sure that those who are using the cannabis for medicinal purposes are able to properly grow it. I started to say that there are many people I know, including a very good organisation up in Mareeba-Atherton area of Queensland, who are seriously looking into and in fact have prepared for the growing of medicinal cannabis under very strict conditions. They have put a lot of science and effort into this work. I think, last time I spoke to them, they were working closely with the government to make sure that all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed, and that is the way it has to be.
I also started to say that, for those of you who have smoked the drug, you know that it has two elements. One of the elements is the good part, speaking in simple language that I understand—I do not understand the technicalities, but there is a good part of cannabis that provides the medicinal relief that we had evidence of—and then there is the bad part of the cannabis plant. They have technical names, which I knew at the drop of a hat during the inquiry but I have forgotten now. The bad part of the plant is the bit that gives you the lift or sends you away on a trip when you stand in one place. I was told that, over the years, the bad guys, the criminals, used to cultivate and manipulate the growth of these drugs so that the bad part—the part that gives you the lift—increased in percentage in the plant. It was good for their trade and for those who wanted to be spaced out by smoking cannabis. They told us that the plant in its natural form was about 45 per cent good staff and 55 per cent bad stuff. So it is important that, when you grow cannabis for medicinal purposes, it is genetically modified to have the correct elements in the plant.
Without the bill before us, law enforcement agencies would be reluctant to engage with the Commonwealth in providing the necessary information to manage the risks. The agencies understand and support the need for this cultivation scheme, but they only participate fully if doing so will not compromise their own law enforcement activities. The amendments complement the amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act that this parliament supported in February this year, in the last parliament. The recent amendments implement a medicinal cannabis framework in order to allow Australian patients to access medicinal cannabis products in a way that will allow compliance with our international obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That is something that came up during the inquiry. Madame Acting Deputy President Reynolds, as you will recall, we understood that particularly the then Liberal government in New South Wales was well in advance on work on medicinal cannabis, but some of the scientists and researchers who gave evidence indicated that they were a bit reluctant because they were dealing with a prohibited plant—namely, cannabis sativa—and, although they were using it for research purposes and continued to do it, they did not understood that they might have been at some risk. Other researchers indicated that they would have been doing more except that they were not prepared to take the risk of being arrested and ruining their careers.
The New South Wales government, as I recall, had given certain exemptions or assurances, but it became essential for the Commonwealth to get involved because of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. There was another international convention that only the Commonwealth could deal with. That is why it became essential for the Commonwealth to have overall control, overall involvement or supervision of what the states were already doing. Victoria had already started as well and, since then, my own state of Queensland has allowed, through state legislation, the growing of properly attributed medicinal cannabis, cannabis sativa.
These amendments are necessary so that licences are only issued to persons who will work to meet the objectives of compliance with our international obligations and are not available to the bad guys. The risk of criminal elements diverting precious medicines to illicit uses is too great. This would be detrimental to patients who would benefit from the availability of medicinal cannabis and would mean that a government sanctioned system could be creating another public health risk. We do not want that to happen; nobody wants that to happen. So the bill is to address those issues.
It also includes provisions to allow the secretary to refuse to grant a licence where the applicant has provided false or misleading information. So, if there is a connection to the criminal gangs and people mislead the authorities with information, the secretary will be able to refuse the licence. It also allows the secretary to refuse to grant a licence, provides for the making of standards and guidelines, allows for the revocation of licences and permits where applicable standards are not met, and allows for cannabis seeds grown in the course of medicinal cannabis research to be supplied to other cultivator licence holders for propagation purposes. So this bill does address the sorts of things that I have been talking about. Minor technical amendments are also included in this bill to address the amendments we made in the last parliament.
The cultivation licensing scheme commenced on 30 October this year, and that is why it is important this bill is dealt with today. I am pleased to hear about the support from the Labor Party and, I am sure, the Greens—and I imagine Senator Leyonhjelm, who had an interest in this committee as well, will indicate his view on the bill shortly. It is intended that these amendments commence at the same time as those in the Narcotic Drugs (Licence Charges) Bill 2016 to ensure the scheme endorsed by parliament in February can operate efficiently.
The Narcotic Drugs (Licence Charges) Bill is the other of these two bills. I will briefly refer to it. It simply seeks to recover the direct costs that government incurs in regulating the medicinal cannabis industry through both direct fee recovery and imposition of levies. Charges or levies under this bill include those where costs cannot otherwise be reasonably assigned directly to a particular licence holder or applicant.
In conclusion, I urge support for the bill. I think those who advocated long and hard for the use of medicinal cannabis will be encouraged by this bill. The fact that we will grow it and produce it in Australia is another plus for us, and this bill will help to bring that to fruition as soon as possible.