Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Bill 2017

1st June 2017

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 11:41 :13 ): This is a great opportunity to speak on this private member's bill, the Public Health ( Medicinal Cannabis) Bill 2017, which has been brought to the House by the Leader of the Opposition. I acknowledge that leadership. I say up front that I believe it is time for New South Wales to grow up and be mature, and to realise that not everything fits wholly and neatly within the traditional framework for treating illness, that is, the traditional medical model. As wonderful as modern medicine is, there are some things that just do not respond to accepted current treatments.

I recognise that the State Government is still undertaking trials on the use of medicinal cannabis but with all respect, and notwithstanding the considered views of the Minister, it does not appear that there is any real urgency about coming to an appropriate conclusion. We have been dragging our feet on this issue for way too long. In New South Wales alcohol is the legal drug of choice and, despite cannabis being legal in some countries; it has numerous connotations with recreational use in our communities. Concerns about liberalisation of use of cannabis generally would seem to be a factor in some people's opposition to the medicinal use of cannabis. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that cannabis oil has beneficial medicinal purposes and a growing body of clinical evidence of benefit for certain conditions.

I have always supported the use of cannabis in medically supervised situations where it can bring relief to people suffering from serious illness, such as late-stage cancer. I believe arguments against the use of cannabis in medical situations are influenced by its illicit use as a recreational drug and run counter to the historic accepted use of opiates, such as morphine and its derivatives, for pain management and other medical purposes which remain central to many treatments now. I do not support the recreational use of marijuana, and I am particularly concerned with its potential for negative psychological effect, including the development of psychosis—something that I have observed significantly over years in my time as a psychiatric nurse.

However, restricted use where medical practitioners agree that it will be beneficial, and where alternative conventional therapies may have failed or become ineffective, is, in my view, sensible, compassionate and reasonable. As we know, this view was shared by the cross-party New South Wales parliamentary committee which investigated and considered the uses of cannabis for medicinal purposes. It recommended in its report that provision should be made to allow the use of cannabis by patients who have been advised by their treating specialists that they have end-stage terminal illness. This view was supported by the likes of the Cancer Council—hardly a radical organisation. They acknowledged that cannabis may be of medical benefit to cancer patients where conventional treatments are unsuccessful. Yet here we are still talking about a way forward.

We are dealing with ill people who are at the end of the road in many instances. We are also dealing with people who have been drawn to the use of medicinal cannabis because other treatments have failed. They have had to do that illegally, acting outside the antiquated laws which prevent them from accessing something they believe delivers them obvious and tangible benefits. I would be surprised if the majority of members in this House did not know of, or have not met, some of those people with chronic illness who have turned to medicinal cannabis as a last resort, and who have achieved positive results or found relief from the relentless pain they suffer. I have met many, and I certainly know of several people who are actively using medicinal cannabis to treat their pain and suffering.

Why would we be so petulant as a society to deny those people the right to a treatment which we know, or they believe, brings them some relief, particularly when other treatments are not working? The former Premier himself said he was convinced that medicinal cannabis was appropriate in some circumstances and I applaud him for at least having the courage to go ahead with the clinical trials which are now under way at various locations throughout the State. Among those is a trial at the Calvary Mater Hospital in Newcastle, which of course serves the many people living in my electorate of Lake Macquarie. I eagerly await the results of that trial, but how long do we wait before we get on with what we know is right?

There is vast support for the use of medicinal cannabis in the community. With knowledge comes understanding, and we as a society are stripping back some of the old connotations associated with cannabis and seeing that there is a significant benefit from its use in certain circumstances. We must allow that to go ahead in a controlled, regulated and legal way. We are dealing with people who have no other options, and they have expectations that their government will support them; they have expectations that cannabis can help them and should be made available to them. I believe we must give these people and their families the peace of mind that they are craving and we must give them access to something that will take away many of the burdens they carry.

Medicinal cannabis is believed to have a beneficial effect with certain kinds of nausea, vomiting, epilepsy, pain and neurological disorders such as stiff person syndrome, which we have heard described by the member for Wollongong. I too wish to mention the courageous efforts of Ben Oakley, a young man suffering from this bizarre, frightening and life threatening illness, who only gets relief from medicinal cannabis. Yes, all those people can make use of the medical cannabis compassionate use scheme but is that good enough? A register that gives discretion to police not to charge users or carers in relation to use or procurement of this drug? Discretion? I do not believe this is good enough for people who feel the burden of risk of perhaps being charged by an officer who does not wish to apply that discretion. If there is to be such a scheme, it should provide unequivocally for immunity from prosecution.

It is time to act. It is time to grow up. It is time to stop treating some terminally and chronically ill people and those who wish to help them, as criminals. I recognise the Government for the work it has done so far and for initiating current trials, but I particularly wish to acknowledge the Leader of the Opposition for taking the initiative on this bill. The bill clearly will not pass this House, and that is a shame, but the exposure of the issue in this way has hopefully brought forward the day when people with desperate illness that is unresponsive to other treatments, can make use of medicinal cannabis in a regulated way, without the risk of criminal prosecution for themselves or for their carers. I commend the bill to the House.

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