Second reading debate – Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill

medical-marijuanaI am pleased to speak on the Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill 2015. I want to place on the record that I will not be opposing the bill. This bill is being introduced to legalise medicinal cannabis through establishing a state-based medicinal cannabis scheme. It covers the issues surrounding the supply, manufacturing and distribution of cannabis.

Children with severe epilepsy will be the first to access Victorian-grown medicinal cannabis from 2017. As a nurse I have seen the impacts of epilepsy firsthand, and I can sympathise with the individuals, families and carers of patients with severe epilepsy. These sufferers often have complex needs. The challenge of severe epilepsy adds to the difficulties they face and the capacity of individuals, families and carers to manage. The knowledge for some that current available therapeutic treatments cannot assist their condition means they cannot have confidence to face the day without fear of being subjected to an unsightly, uncomfortable and debilitating seizure. Their self-esteem I imagine would be undermined by the concern that at any time they could have a seizure, which is often a confronting sight for those around them. It is extremely difficult for young sufferers when their friends at school witness them having an epileptic seizure. The individuals would be aware that their friends would see them in a compromised position.

I have nursed clients with epilepsy, and it is extremely debilitating when therapeutic levels are unable to be achieved. On one occasion I specialled a patient in the back of an ambulance for 2 hours travelling from a smaller hospital to a larger hospital that had the capacity to stabilise the patient. The patient was experiencing status epilepticus. This is when a seizure is continuous. This patient had grand mal seizure after grand mal seizure while I was with him. All I could do was administer diazepam continuously, but to no real effect. So I know firsthand the feeling of hopelessness that a carer experiences when a person in their care is unable to be assisted.

As a mother I can also sympathise with the families. It is no doubt frustrating to feel that there might be an opportunity to assist knowing that that opportunity is not available to them, that it cannot be accessed legally. I can understand the desire and longing to do whatever it takes when faced with the desperate situation that these families find themselves in. To have a child compromised and not able to thrive or achieve their potential at school due to the impacts of epilepsy would be a critically challenging situation faced by any parent.

We do not, however, want families resorting to desperate acts to help their children. We do not want to see families accessing cannabis illegally, such as buying the products on the street in an unsavoury environment where they cannot be guaranteed the quality of what they are purchasing. The drug produced for sale on the street illegally is extremely variable. I have worked with clients who have been on the journey of drug addiction rehabilitation. They have shared with me that the cannabis they have purchased is often cut with other addictive substances such as Rohypnol to ensure the purchaser returns and the supplier has his market secured by ensuring his customer is properly hooked.

I have experienced clients who have smoked marijuana for many years and who have had no other drug use having frightening psychotic episodes. Colleagues who have worked in drug rehabilitation for many years have told me that they have noticed an increase in the effects of the products produced from the cannabis plant, particularly since the start of hydroponic growing of marijuana. The theory behind this observation is that the tetrahydrocannabinol levels are enhanced through improved selective breeding and management techniques such as the use of fertilisers; techniques that all farmers use to increase production and productivity. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is found in the cannabis plant, is the chemical responsible for the psychological effects from cannabis. Cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in the brain and are associated with thinking, memory, pleasure and coordination. It is thought to be this chemical that may be what is producing the benefit reported by severe epilepsy sufferers. However, that is the point of the current research and trials — to investigate the plant properties and extract the oils and be confident of the properties and efficacy and what dosages would be of most benefit to different individuals.

The point I am making is that cannabis purchased illegally on the street is highly variable. But the families of epilepsy sufferers, who are desperate and feel cannabis is worth a try, should not buy cannabis illegally on the street as it is currently not regulated or medically supervised. Medicinal cannabis supplied through a regulated scheme would not have the variability I referred to earlier. It would reduce the risk to the children receiving the therapy.

As proposed in the bill, cultivating the plant in a controlled situation is critical. In my electorate, in the town of Port Fairy, the company Sun Pharma, previously GlaxoSmithKline, would be able to offer expertise in areas such as quality control, which is critical to ensure these products are well produced. Sun Pharma has been the largest manufacturer in Australia of morphine produced from poppies grown until recent years in Tasmania and now in Victoria as well. We can thank the Napthine and Baillieu governments, which opened up this opportunity for Victorian farmers to grow poppies, which was previously unavailable to them. The role that Sun Pharma has played in the production of morphine will be of assistance in ensuring processes are in place for a smooth and robust transition into providing safe medicinal cannabis to epilepsy sufferers.

It is worth mentioning the important role the Victorian government has in supporting Victorian farmers through research and development funding so these opportunities can be optimised by the important custodians of the landscape — our farmers. It is our farmers who not only produce quality products but who also care for the environment on everyone’s behalf for the benefit of future generations of Victorians. So we must continue to invest in researching best management practices to ensure that farmers continue to balance production and sustainability, remain profitable and competitive and have opportunities like this to supply new markets. Government investment must continue, not just for growing marijuana for medicinal purposes but also for all agricultural pursuits such as crops and animal management.

Clearly as I have outlined we do not want families only having access to illegally obtained cannabis — that is, cannabis that is variable. This is particularly so if they are going to administer it to children. However, I do suggest we tread with caution. We have in this country established systems we can be very proud of and that do a good job of regulation of drug administration. I would not like to see these systems being affected detrimentally or circumvented by the passing of this bill.

As it is children who will be the first individuals to have access to medicinal cannabis, a high degree of certainty needs to be obtained before we administer any drugs to anyone, particularly children. The frameworks that I would normally expect to see for any drug research and clinical trial should be in place. This would involve studies that have scientific rigour, are robust and are peer reviewed before we proceed. As a society we have been beneficiaries of remarkable steps forward in science, which have resulted in the development of pharmacological substances that have brought significant advances in saving lives and improving the quality of life for many people. Antibiotics are an example of this. Many people are alive today because of antibiotics.

However, I ask that we remember the drug Thalidomide that was revolutionary in managing severe nausea in pregnant women in the first trimester of their pregnancy. As we know, it left significant long-term effects, with babies being born without limbs. So while I understand the driver behind the bill, I do hope the government will proceed with caution. Our children deserve a high degree of certainty that they cannot get if their parents access the drug on the street. But we also need to ensure that we are not compromising our children’s futures by circumventing the frameworks that are already established that protect the users of therapies for disease management.