Decriminalisation of Medical Cannabis
(Private Members Statement, 23 October 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Tonight I speak of an issue important to my constituents: the decriminalisation and regulation of cannabis use for medical purposes. I welcome the Premier's announcement of a clinical trial to investigate the use of cannabis for medical conditions. However, I believe the legislation proposed by the member for Tamworth and Dr John Kaye could be safely passed without a trial. Medical use of cannabis is permitted in States and countries across the world, including Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic, Finland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Uruguay, Spain and 23 States in the United States.
Cannabis has been widely used in the treatment of terminal illnesses such as cancer to relieve pain and the symptoms of chemotherapy, including loss of appetite, neuropathy and nausea; it is also used to treat debilitating illnesses. Evidence shows that cannabis can reduce the number of fits suffered by children with epilepsy. HIV sufferers use cannabis to alleviate symptoms related to their chronic condition and their medication. Cannabis can reduce painful chronic muscle stiffness in multiple sclerosis, and there is evidence that it can slow the progression of early on-set Alzheimer's. In fact, it is widely used in the United States, France and the Czech Republic to halt the progression of Alzheimer's. It is also used in the management of osteoporosis and Parkinson's disease.
I note that the Premier and the member for Tamworth have referred only to terminal illnesses. However, the trial and future legislation should also include other conditions that cause chronic and significant suffering regardless of the long-term prognosis. I understand there are concerns that medicinal cannabis could increase use of the drug in the wider community because of the additional supply. Although opium is highly potent and highly addictive, it is grown under controlled circumstances and processed into pharmaceuticals like codeine. Morphine and amphetamines are all administered in some form medicinally and remain illegal for recreational use. It is difficult to see why cannabis, which was demoted to a class C drug in the United Kingdom in 2004, cannot be treated in the same way.
TasCann is working in Tasmania and on Norfolk Island towards a licence to cultivate quality-assured cannabis plants for overseas export for medical use using seeds supplied by Australian universities and seed banks in Canada and Europe. Linking with this organisation in the future could help to ensure a certified standard of medical cannabis. Without legislation to support the use of cannabis in the treatment of terminal and debilitating conditions, patients will continue to use the drug to manage their conditions at the risk of prosecution. Families and carers are breaking the law every time they try to help relieve the pain and suffering of their loved ones. This is a cruel burden to impose on those caring for loved ones.
Another benefit of regulation is that cannabis use to control suffering would be more likely to be monitored by a medical practitioner. While Positive Life supports medicinal cannabis laws for the many HIV positive people using it to manage their condition, the organisation raises concerns that cannabis could interact with HIV medications and have negative impacts on mental health. It prefers a model that would see medical practitioners prescribe cannabis to identify side effects or changes in mood. The existing Cannabis Cautioning Scheme, which gives police the discretion to merely caution an adult for minor cannabis offences, is too flexible. It provides no guarantee that someone will not be charged. The Premier has promised to formalise guidelines for charging terminally ill adults while the trial is in place, and I hope that this is extended to other debilitating conditions. A register of medicinal cannabis users would provide greater guarantee to users and their carers against prosecution.
Lucy Haslam, mother of the 24-year-old cancer sufferer Daniel Haslam, who met with the Premier and the member for Tamworth to discuss her son's use of cannabis to relieve the side effects of chemotherapy, has a petition requesting the decriminalisation of medical cannabis for cancer sufferers. More than 195,000 people have signed the petition. This reflects the strong support for reform in my electorate and, I believe, the wider community. As long as the medical use of cannabis is banned in Australia, people will suffer, or risk prosecution and fail to have professional medical oversight of their treatment. The trial is a step towards relieving pain and suffering, and embracing a more progressive position in pharmaceutical advancement. I hope that the trial will lead to legislation soon. I call on all members of Parliament to support those who are terminally ill, and who experience chronic and severe pain by giving them the right to use lawfully a medicine that can alleviate their distress.