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Legislative Council

29 November 2023
Second reading
Ingrid Stitt  (ALP)


Ingrid STITT (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Mental Health, Minister for Ageing, Minister for Multicultural Affairs) (14:26): I rise to make a contribution on this bill on this important topic, the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Regulation of Personal Adult Use of Cannabis) Bill 2023 in Ms Payne’s name. From the outset, can I thank Ms Payne and Mr Ettershank for the significant thought and effort that has gone into preparing this private members bill. I am sure the house would agree this is a complex issue that comes with potential benefits but also significant potential risks, which this government does not take lightly.

However, I do want to acknowledge some of the very important motivations that these members have in bringing forward this bill with regard to harm minimisation, equity and illicit market disruption. There is much work to do on the issue to better understand the impacts of cannabis reform on individuals and communities – important work that the government is now undertaking. While the Victorian government does not have current plans to decriminalise the personal possession and use of cannabis in our state, the Victorian government shares the members’ views about innovative drug policy that supports harm minimisation.

As I have said, issues of alcohol and drug use and harm can be complicated, with policy responses often hotly contested. However, we are a government that looks past the division and sensationalist rhetoric of some people, and we want to take an approach to implement thoughtful and effective policies that improve the health of and social outcomes for Victorians. We have certainly put our money where our mouth is in respect of investment in this space, as the budget papers clearly outline. In the ninth budget this government has handed down since being elected in 2014 we have invested well over $2 billion in alcohol and other drug treatment supports and harm minimisation initiatives. That is before we consider the important legislative reform steps we have taken, from becoming the first jurisdiction in Australia to legalise the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes to our recent decriminalisation of public drunkenness.

We do not just talk the talk when it comes to drug and alcohol reform and support. Our $370 million investment in the most recent budget is more than double that which those opposite delivered in their last budget the last time they were in government. This year the investment in drug and alcohol support means that more than 40,000 Victorians each year are able to access help from government-funded alcohol and drug treatment and support services. This investment has also supported a range of innovative policy initiatives and dedicated services to reduce drug harm in our community, whether that is the well-publicised establishment of Victoria’s first life-saving safe injecting service or the sometimes lesser-known programs, such as our DanceWize program.

I will just take a moment to reflect on DanceWize. It is an important program. It is funded by this government and run by Harm Reduction Victoria, and it is an original. It is Australian, and it is a peer-based alcohol and other drug harm reduction program that delivers peer care and support services for music events and festivals across Victoria. The project involves the attendance of key peer educators who host a chill-out space, discuss safer drug use and distribute health resources. Starting as a grassroots Victorian group known as RaveSafe, DanceWize has been supporting the minimisation of drug harm since 1999. The program’s success saw its model adopted in New South Wales in 2017, and it is part of a national network which is able to support the emergence of similar programs in other parts of our country.

Of course DanceWize is just one part of a broader suite of harm reduction initiatives funded by the government, including the drug overdose prevention and education program, which delivers peer-based training through structured workshops on overdose prevention and response and other drug education; Drug Facts, run by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, which provides accessible and comprehensive online information for all Victorians about alcohol and other drugs with an emphasis on harm reduction and primary prevention; the Good Sports program, which is a fantastic program which partners with local sporting clubs to change attitudes towards drinking, tobacco and drug use and improve mental health and nutrition among sporting participants in the wider community; and the Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth program, PARTY, which is a harm minimisation outreach program that demonstrates the impact of alcohol and drug abuse to young people. It is delivered through the Alfred and Royal Melbourne hospitals to students across Victoria. Participants learn about the trauma, injury and health consequences of risky behaviour by reviewing real-life clinical scenarios. Whilst confronting, it gives them firsthand clinical scenarios – seeing an emergency room, a burns and trauma unit, an intensive care unit and a family bereavement room. Young people also meet trauma survivors, who discuss the impact of risky behaviour and options to minimise risk.

You are probably wondering why I am going down this road, but the reason I am focusing on the Allan Labor government’s record of investment in these sorts of initiatives that aim to reduce alcohol and other drug related harm is precisely because harm reduction has to be at the very centre of drug policy and drug reform. And while Ms Payne and Mr Ettershank clearly have articulated and outlined the benefits of the decriminalisation of the personal use of cannabis, as a government and particularly for me as the Minister for Mental Health, we must also properly consider the potential risks of changing the legal framework of cannabis use in Victoria. We really need to tread carefully around these issues and ensure that any alteration to the approach does not undermine either our harm reduction endeavours or indeed our vision to make Victorians the most mentally healthy in the country.

I have to say, in considering this issue we also need to make sure that we are not unintentionally sending the wrong message to the public, in particular to young Victorians, that cannabis use is not harmful. Cannabis use can have a range of negative health impacts, and any increase in use could also lead to ill health for more Australians and impact our health system.

I think it is well understood, the health burden of alcohol and other drug use. It is not inconsiderable in our country, and the effects of cannabis, like all drugs, by their very nature are going to vary from one person to another, depending on the amount consumed, how it is administered or taken and the user’s previous experience and individual circumstances, mood and body. The active drug in cannabis makes its way into the bloodstream. We all know that it enters the bloodstream more quickly when it is smoked compared to when it is orally ingested. Obviously this fact can influence many people’s choices about the preferred method of ingestion, but of course I do not need to spell out to the house the health impacts of smoking, whether that is tobacco or cannabis. We know that the ongoing and regular use of cannabis is associated with a number of negative long-term effects, an issue I know obviously is true of many drugs, including, it must be said, many legal drugs. But regular users of cannabis can become dependent, and commonly reported symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, sleep difficulties, appetite disturbance and depression.

But before we consider any changes to current law we must acknowledge that there are already many Australians suffering poor health outcomes caused by recreational cannabis use. Cannabis use can lead to physical ill health and conditions such as bronchitis or smoking-related disease, including cancer, cardiovascular system damage and impaired reaction time and brain function. Of particular concern and focus for me is the potential for poor mental health outcomes from cannabis use, including anxiety, paranoia, memory loss and an increased incidence of schizophrenia, and there are also impacts to the broader health system that must be taken into consideration.

I do not highlight these points with any intention to be alarmist but simply to illustrate I guess the inherent complexity of this issue. Any and all drug reform must have the best interests of the Victorian community in mind. In that sense, we must take a balanced and considered approach to both the benefits and the risks, and there are still many of those questions that need to be answered. However, as Ms Payne and Mr Ettershank are very well aware, the Victorian government has a strong record of taking the issue of personal cannabis use very seriously. As I have already mentioned, we led the nation when it came to the legalisation of the use of medicinal cannabis. I understand that this is an issue of fundamental importance to the Legalise Cannabis Victoria Party, and I want to acknowledge their genuine engagement with the community, with the Parliament and of course with the government on their reform agenda.

This bill, which proposes to legalise the adult personal use of cannabis beyond that required for medicinal reasons, we are unable to support in its current form at this time. However, the government is amenable to ongoing discussions with the Legalise Cannabis Victoria Party on this topic and a process that would take the advice of experts and engage with the community. I am looking forward to continuing those important discussions with you both and of course to your constructive and thoughtful engagement in relation to these matters.