Second Reading: Access to Medical Cannabis Bill

Ms HENNESSY (Minister for Health) — I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Speech as follows incorporated into Hansard under sessional orders:

This bill is an Australian first.

The Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill allows for the lawful cultivation and manufacture of safe and reliable medicinal cannabis products to help Victorians in exceptional circumstances.

Many Victorians with terminal illnesses or life-threatening conditions want to use medicinal cannabis to relieve their pain and treat their conditions, but cannot do so legally. This isn’t fair and it isn’t right.

Many Victorians are aware of the case of one child, who was born healthy but contracted bacterial meningitis at four weeks old.

The condition left him with severe brain damage, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. His seizures would last up to an hour-and-a-half and doctors said there was nothing they could do. His parents were told to start planning his funeral.

Since then, the child has been taking medicinal cannabis oil three times a day and is seizure free and has a good quality of life.

This story is one of many. Too many parents are turning to the black market out of desperation to obtain medicinal cannabis to alleviate their pain and suffering.

The law needs to change, because families should not have to make the choice between obeying the law and treating their children.

The Andrews Labor government made a promise to enable access to medicinal cannabis to people in exceptional circumstances — a commitment fulfilled by this bill.

The current law is confusing and complex, and has not kept up with the views of the community, with surveys showing the overwhelming majority of Australians believe the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes should be legal.

The law currently compels Victoria Police and child protection officers to investigate parents and carers who are accessing black market cannabis. Parents, only trying to do the right thing by their child, have had police reluctantly knocking on their door. This isn’t fair for families — or police officers.

One mother was convicted of cultivating and possessing cannabis that she supplied to her sick cousin who was suffering from cancer. These investigations only add additional stress to the patient and their families.

This legislation will end this nightmare once and for all. The government will provide a framework to enable these Victorians to legitimately integrate medicinal cannabis into their health regime, under the supervision of a doctor.

In December last year, the Attorney-General referred the matter of medicinal cannabis to the Victorian Law Reform Commission and asked them to advise how the law in Victoria can be changed to legalise and regulate the use of medicinal cannabis for patients in exceptional circumstances.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission reviewed and made recommendations on who should be eligible to use medicinal cannabis, prescribing practices and the regulation of the manufacturing and distribution of medicinal cannabis products.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission was extremely thorough in its investigation — completing extensive public consultations which included public consultation forums, written submissions and private consultations.

The commission also drew on expertise from the medical profession. They heard many compelling stories from people in the community about why medicinal cannabis should be made legal.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission’s Medicinal Cannabis report was tabled in Parliament on 6 October 2015 with the government accepting all 42 recommendations, two accepted in principle.

The commission deserves thanks for the thorough and precise work that has gone into this report, which is now acting as a roadmap to legalising access to medicinal cannabis for Victorians in exceptional circumstances.

It is important we get the balance right between helping people access medicinal cannabis safely, and minimising medical risk. The views of the medical profession are essential to the successful implementation of a medicinal cannabis scheme in Victoria.

Consultations to date have been constructive with those involved from the medical profession, indicating a keen willingness to work with the government in the development and implementation of the framework.

Speaker, I now turn to the provisions of the bill.

To ensure Victorians are able to access medicinal cannabis in exceptional circumstances, the bill will:

enable the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to:

licence manufacturers;

authorise medical practitioners for the medicinal cannabis scheme;

authorise medical practitioners on a case-by-case basis for patients in exceptional circumstances, when those circumstances are outside of specified conditions and symptoms;

enable the Secretary of the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources to:

authorise the cultivation and extraction of high-quality cannabis for medicinal purposes by government and licenced commercial private entities;

as a priority, the bill provides that children with severe epilepsy will be eligible to access government-produced medicinal cannabis from a date to be proclaimed, most likely in early 2017. It empowers the Victorian government to prescribe other eligible patient groups to access commercially produced products on a later date to be proclaimed (most likely in 2018);

make consequential amendments to existing legislation including the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act (1981) to ensure an integrated framework.

It is intended that medicinal cannabis products will not be available in a form that can be smoked, in line with the election commitment and the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s report. This bill also does not lift the prohibition on cannabis used for non-medicinal purposes.

To support safe and secure supply of medicinal cannabis, this bill will enable the establishment of cultivation and manufacturing industries in Victoria. Establishing these industries may provide Victorians with new job opportunities as well as new revenue streams for growers and manufacturers.

This is a significant reform and it will take time to fully realise, with all of the checks and balances and clinical input in place to ensure that access is appropriate and safe. To allow for this, the bill enables a phased approach to implement the medicinal cannabis scheme safely and responsibly.

The role of the medical specialists, general practitioners, pharmacists and nurses is integral to successful implementation of the scheme. The bill establishes an independent medical advisory committee to provide ongoing advice about access to medicinal cannabis, regarding patient eligibility and the types of products that should be made available through the scheme.

Ongoing input from the medical profession will be sought to make sure that access is as safe as possible and the medical profession is well equipped to participate in the scheme.

Without commonwealth action, Victorians will not be able to access medicinal cannabis. That is why in developing the bill, Victoria has been working closely with the commonwealth.

The commonwealth’s intended amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 to enable cultivation of medicinal cannabis is a positive step — but Victoria needs to make sure this and other commonwealth actions will mean people can access medicinal cannabis.

Once again, Victoria has paved the way and we hope others can follow. Other jurisdictions are now considering enabling access to medicinal cannabis. It’s the right thing.

We will continue to work with the medical profession, industry and people in the community to ensure access to medicinal cannabis is done so safely, securely and reliably.

Speaker, parents should not be forced to choose between breaking the law and breaking their child’s heart. They deserve better.

The Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill will relieve people’s suffering and change lives across this state.

I commend the bill to the house.