Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 22, 2023


Legalisation of Cannabis

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. T.A. Franks:

1. That, in the opinion of this council, a joint committee be appointed to inquire into and report on—

(a) the potential impact of legalisation of cannabis in South Australia for adult use with reference to legal frameworks and approaches in other jurisdictions including implications for justice, health and the economy; and

(b) any other related matter.

2. That, in the event of a joint committee being appointed, the Legislative Council be represented thereon by three members, of whom two shall form a quorum of council members necessary to be present at all sittings of the committee.

3. That members of the committee may participate in the proceedings by way of telephone or videoconference or other electronic means and shall be deemed to be present and counted for purposes of a quorum, subject to such means of participation remaining effective and not disadvantaging any member.

4. That this council permits the joint committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it thinks fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being reported to the council.

5. That a message be sent to the House of Assembly transmitting the foregoing resolution and requesting its concurrence thereto.

(Continued from 19 October 2022.)

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (20:13): I rise in support of this motion from the Hon. Ms Franks. The Narcotic Drugs Legislation Amendment Act 2016 was introduced to the House of Representatives on 10 February 2016 by the then federal Minister for Health, Ms Sussan Ley. The amendment paved the way for the federal legislation on medicinal cannabis and was supported by the Coalition.

The former Liberal government committed to ensuring South Australian consumers had access to various treatments and services to promote the best health outcomes. The Marshall Liberal government launched a trial of access to CBD (cannabidiol) for paediatric patients with certain severe forms of epilepsy that have not responded to established treatments.

Throughout our term in government, and even recently, the Liberal team has supported multiple motions in support of medicinal cannabis. The South Australian Liberal team is open to understanding the facts and creating pathways for better legislation surrounding medicinal cannabis in South Australia. A joint committee dedicated to cannabis legislation will serve as an opportunity to better understand medicinal cannabis usage and allow the parliament to make well-informed, evidence-based decisions regarding medicinal cannabis moving forward.

Changes to cannabis legislation in recent years, especially regarding decriminalisation and medical usage, have revealed the review of cannabis legislation is both necessary and beneficial, and has positive outcomes for South Australians, so we look forward to taking part in the committee, and thank the Hon. Ms Franks for moving the motion.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (20:15): I wish to move an amendment to the proposal from the Hon. Ms Franks. I move to amend paragraph 1(a) as follows:

Leave out 'The potential impact of legalisation of cannabis in South Australia for adult use' and insert 'The legalisation of medicinal cannabis in South Australia'

The Hon. C. BONAROS (20:16): I rise to speak in support of the motion in its amended form, I believe.

The Hon. R.A. Simms: I don't know. I didn't even speak to my amendment.

The Hon. C. BONAROS: Are you speaking to it, Mr Simms?

Members interjecting:

The Hon. C. BONAROS: I will just keep going. I rise to speak in support of the motion, regardless of whether it is in an amended form or not. I can speak to it in an unamended form if you like, because I have that speech in front of me, but I can speak to it also in an amended form. But, if we are speaking generally about cannabis then quite seriously I do believe that there are grounds for an inquiry in this jurisdiction.

It is of course a divisive and ongoing issue, and therefore I think there is merit in assessing what a regulatory framework could look like in the broadscale legislation of cannabis. Certainly, we have not had the discussion in this place about any potential positive impacts that this could have (a) on the reduction of criminal activity associated with unlawful sale of cannabis, but (b) in relation to issues of harm minimisation, treating cannabis—the Greens would be shocked to hear this come from my mouth—as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal issue.

The Hon. R.A. Simms: Hear, hear!

The Hon. C. BONAROS: Hear, hear! These are all, I think, very valid things that ought to be considered appropriately by this parliament. They are valid because they are always the subject of very divisive discussions amongst members of this place regardless of what position you ultimately take, so I think the broad scale of the committee remit would serve us well in fact, even if it were not amended.

I actually hope that even in an amended form there is scope still to look at that question of cannabis decriminalisation and legislation models from a variety of jurisdictions to assess and to inform ourselves of their merits or otherwise when it comes to harm minimisation or otherwise. These are what we do when we have open minds.

There are jurisdictional examples, I think, around the world, which provide regulatory insights into societal impacts the legalisation of cannabis has in various areas such as criminal justice, and health and wellbeing in particular. I will allude to the state of Colorado in the US, which is a notable example given the successes they say they have had as the first state in the US to implement a regulatory framework around the decriminalisation of cannabis.

There has been a significant financial benefit—obviously that is to be expected—which has collected, I think, to date an estimated $1.6 billion in cannabis tax and fee revenues over the past six years, of which a significant portion is distributed to the state's education funding for construction and maintenance.

I understand 90 per cent of the cannabis market in that jurisdiction is supplied under strict regulation, which has led to the lowest level of cannabis seizures by border control and significant reduction in the value of illegally imported cannabis by millions. The legislation of cannabis in Colorado and indeed other jurisdictions around the world places control of the commercial cannabis market in the hands of the government. I do not know if that makes me feel any more confident, quite frankly, but perhaps more confident than in the hands of criminal organisations and organised crime.

I have spoken many times in this place about our position when it comes to dangerous drugs. They continue to be an issue that divides our community, and certainly the issue of legislation or decriminalisation around cannabis is a topic which divides public opinion as well. I think it is worth mentioning that in the past I have spoken at length about the need to have a coexistence between medicinal cannabis and illicit use and recognise that there is a very valid place, in my view—and in fact that is our position—for medicinal cannabis use, including cannabis oil and THC. This proposed committee will obviously be exploring those.

I have made it abundantly clear that it is our strong position and view that we cannot continue to allow terminally ill patients to suffer unnecessarily by restricting access to medicinal cannabis and medicinal cannabis-based treatment options, especially in circumstances where there is evidence-based medical research supporting these treatments.

We have made it clear when the Hon. Tammy Franks introduced her medicinal cannabis bill —and I note that just earlier today there was a subsequent medicinal cannabis bill introduced and I am not sure if they are based on the same model—that when we introduced our tough drug-driving laws in this place, it was our intention certainly from where SA-Best sits that those laws would coexist with subsequent medicinal cannabis legislation which would provide exemptions for individuals who have a prescription for medicinal cannabis.

That would be treated in precisely the same way that any other prescription drug is treated, because we know that each and every day individuals do operate vehicles and they do so with prescription medication in their systems. Regardless of whether it is medicinal cannabis or some other prescription, if your driving is impacted by whatever prescription it is that you are in possession of and have taken, then the police obviously still have the powers to charge individuals for offences committed as a result of dangerous driving under the influence of those sorts of medications.

That should not be a deterrent from including medicinal cannabis on the list of prescriptions that should not be subject to what are now very tough drug-driving laws. The benefits to the medicinal use of cannabis, as I have said, are vast. We know the THC in cannabis has pain-relieving properties that can prevent epileptic seizures and slow the progress of debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's and we know that there are a growing number of patients seeking to have access to those.

I do note that just today in a news story the Australian Lawyers Alliance has put out a plea during—I did not know this but it was Australian Medicinal Cannabis Awareness Week—

An honourable member interjecting:

The Hon. C. BONAROS: Yes, there we go—the inaugural Australian Medicinal Cannabis Awareness Week. They have said that our laws simply have not kept pace with the increasing use of legal medicinal cannabis in Australia and law reform is urgently needed:

There are several laws and regulations in place that make it difficult for people to use medicinal cannabis to treat their pain.

That is a quote by Mr Greg Barns SC, spokesperson for the ALA, and he continues:

Some of the most concerning are the drug driving laws in place in most Australian states and territories.

The current laws are simply unfair because they make it illegal to have any trace of cannabis in your system even if you have taken cannabis legally with a prescription and your driving is not impaired. Tasmania is currently the only state in which the use of legally prescribed cannabis can be used as a defence against a drug driving charge.

I want to point out again for the record that that is something we proposed from this side of the benches. It was always our intention. I think I made that clear at the time, and going forward, that this is an area that we have been looking forward to seeing amended so that we do not have the same rules apply to medicinal cannabis as to other illegal or illicit drugs that are consumed by people who are on our roads.

Lastly, I want to note that, as of August 2021, the TGA has approved access to more than 150,000 medicinal cannabis products through the Special Access Scheme. That is a growing number, which is great, so clearly the momentum is building in this space. It has been tricky. I worked in the Senate when these things were first debated, and we had a lot of very divisive and heated discussions around that scheme. Individuals have contacted me over the years and said how difficult it is to even find a doctor who would prescribe those, so there is a very clear need to educate our medical professionals, I suppose, and normalise that.

Among international jurisdictions, the committee will, I expect, reference a domestic look at the ACT for an active example of legislation of cannabis reform in the House of Assembly passing laws legalising the possession, use and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis. While albeit still a prohibited substance under the commonwealth law, when it comes to the decriminalisation of cannabis more generally, there is, as I have said, a fine line that must be walked.

I also note for the record that just the other day, I think it was yesterday or today, New South Wales passed legislation that is effectively based on a three-strike rule. If you are caught once with small quantities—and indeed it goes beyond cannabis—then that is strike 1. If you are caught twice, that is obviously strike 2; and then there is obviously the last strike, which is strike 3. If you are caught three times in possession of a drug, then it is only on the third occasion now that you will actually be charged with possession of that drug.

That is a very new development, courtesy of The Morning Show that I watched this morning before work. I think that is something that probably the committee would want to also explore in terms of what is happening in New South Wales. With those words, I indicate our support for the committee.

The PRESIDENT: Just before I call the Hon. Mr Hanson, standing order 175 states that a member who has spoken may be again heard. The Hon. Mr Simms, would you like to explain your amendment? We sort of got cut off at the pass there.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (20:28): Yes, thank you, Mr President. I would welcome the opportunity to explain the rationale for the amendment that I have moved on behalf of the Greens. The Greens are seeking to move this amendment to change the focus of this inquiry to medicinal cannabis. While medicinal cannabis has been legalised in South Australia since 2016, the Greens recognise that there are still some significant challenges faced by both constituents and prescribing doctors when it comes to the accessibility of this medication under legislation.

The recent announcement by the Malinauskas government regarding the loss of licence for drivers who test positive for prescribed drugs, which the Hon. Connie Bonaros has alluded to, provides further impetus for such an inquiry. It is the view of the Greens that this would be a worthy use of the parliament's time in terms of examining the potential implications, and it is for that reason that we have chosen to narrow the inquiry proposed by the Hon. Tammy Franks.

The Hon. J.E. HANSON (20:29): I rise on behalf of the government to indicate our support for the motion with the amendments foreshadowed by the Hon. Tammy Franks and the Hon. Robert Simms. Medicinal cannabis is already legal Australia, including in the state of South Australia, as a result of amendments made to federal legislation in November 2016. Medicinal cannabis is now regulated under the Narcotic Drugs Act of the commonwealth, overseen by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Office of Drug Control. However, there are also state-level regulations under the Controlled Substances Act 1984.

We therefore expect that this committee will examine a wide range of issues across both state and commonwealth levels. We look forward to examination of the work of other Australian jurisdictions on this issue. The government supports an inquiry into this important issue, and we thank the Hon. Tammy Franks for her advocacy on this matter. We look forward to taking part in the joint committee.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (20:30): I would like to thank the Hon. Nicola Centofanti, the Hon. Justin Hanson, the Hon. Connie Bonaros and the Hon. Robert Simms for their contributions and, indeed, support. I will touch on the fact that we have amended the motion to focus on medicinal cannabis. And this is the inaugural Medicinal Cannabis Awareness Week for Australia; in fact, you can read all about it in TheSenior magazine.

I shall refer to that, noting that in that magazine they have a profile piece on Lucy Haslam, who now heads an organisation called United in Compassion. She came to this issue and came to prominence because her son Dan was in significant pain, dealing with his cancer. His father, Lucy's husband, a former drug cop, sourced illegal cannabis in the town of Tamworth to assist him. The town of Tamworth, through their support of that family, educated and informed themselves and created a movement that actually then got Premier Mike Baird on board and in fact turned things around in the country.

So often that law that people have referred to where we legalised medicinal cannabis in this country back in 2016 is called Dan's Law. However, I will note that the hashtag #FixDansLaw continues to be as relevant today as it was back in 2017. There are still issues with the way we went about legalising medicinal cannabis.

Last year, the number of those prescribed medicinal cannabis doubled in a year, and we expect it to be some 670,000 patients in Australia by the year 2030, which is not that far away. One in 10 doctors prescribe; however, 80 per cent of patients think that all doctors should be able to prescribe. We know there is lacking education, not just in the community but within the medical profession as well. It is no surprise that they were not necessarily trained in this, given it was an illicit substance.

We also know that the majority of those patients with those legal prescriptions are sourcing black market medication, so we continue to see patients criminalised through the lack of availability and lack of affordability, and, of course, with the recent drug-driving announcements and the ongoing drug-driving laws, the lack of adaptation of our laws to reflect the legality of a medicine continues to criminalise patients.

There is much to learn. This is an issue. I note that, when I moved the original motion, a motion was moved in the other place that very same week by the member for Mount Gambier, who has a long history and passion for this cause, and there was unanimous support in the other place in support of recognising that we have far more to do on medicinal cannabis but also the important role it has played in these last six years.

I look forward to a constructive, productive and collegial joint committee. I think I will never get over that particular pun, but we have serious work ahead—

The Hon. R.P. Wortley: It's played an important role.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: It has played an important role, indeed. But it is a really important issue to so many thousands of people in our nation. We have a fiction of a law that we have told them will now serve them that does not serve them. It is a broken law. We need to fix Dan's Law, and I hope that this committee will go a long way to doing that as well as addressing the myriad other issues that face us with access and affordability and availability and information and destigmatisation of medicinal cannabis, but also the opportunity for our state to perhaps support an industry that is helping people to live better lives. With that, I commend the motion.

Amendment carried; motion as amended carried.