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Legislative Council

29 November 2023
Second reading
Nick McGowan  (LIB)


Nick McGOWAN (North-Eastern Metropolitan) (15:11): I want to thank both members of the Legalise Cannabis Party for their contributions and their effort. I am sure you know where I am going to come from on this particular matter, nonetheless I admire the fact that you are trying to come up with a solution and that you have put something forward. I congratulate you both on that and the work you will continue to do regardless of what I say, and that sometimes may be a good thing.

In November this year, in fact on 1 November, although I think it was some three weeks ago, I became the first ever Victorian MP to be tested at my workplace here at Parliament. On the steps of Parliament I took a test. I gave a urine test on the steps of Parliament – done properly, done legally, lawfully.

Jaclyn Symes: Don’t elaborate; that’s enough. That’ll do for now.

Nick McGOWAN: I learned more than I needed to know about – but I will stop there. I will take the minister’s advice on this occasion. I gave a hair sample, which was a little concerning, because I did naively think they would sort of pluck a hair, and when they got the scissors out and they took it close to the crown and took a sizeable chunk of hair it was more than I was anticipating they might take.

Jaclyn Symes: You’ve got a bit, though.

Nick McGOWAN: Yes, I am lucky I am blessed with hair – what I did not get in looks I got in hair – so that was sensational. And then I also gave some saliva. I had to give saliva. I gave all that evidence and handed it over to the drug detection agency. They are a private provider and they reached out to me after my motion in this place some months ago now, and I thank them for their magnificent work but also their generous and constructive approach. They do testing in the workplace in Victoria. I have no association with them, for the public record, but nonetheless they reached out to me and I accepted their offer. Although the journalist that covered this at the time was somewhat excited at the prospect that maybe because the testing went back some time he might receive a positive test from me on any particular substance. Sad to say for him, it was not quite the story he had wished for. It was negative on all fronts, and I am happy to make those records public to anyone who wishes to see them.

A member interjected.

Nick McGOWAN: You can help me with that. I have made clear previously my concerns particularly about illicit and unprescribed drug taking – and I make that very distinct distinction – and in my view it has no place in the workplace, much less in our local communities. Perhaps where we do agree is that our current cannabis policies have failed us, and they continue to fail us. They are not stopping Victorians from using cannabis for recreational purposes, and that worries me immensely. But it does not necessarily follow hence that we should legalise cannabis for such. The only metric we should use to decide whether we should legalise cannabis or not is whether it is harmful to users and whether legalising it will increase or decrease its usage. To me that is pretty much it in a nutshell.

Let us talk about the harm it causes. The Australian Medical Association, the peak professional body for doctors in Australia, is categorical in its rejection of this bill. The submission by the AMA to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Legalising Cannabis Bill 2023 inquiry lists out the potential immediate and long-term impacts of cannabis use.

Let us look at the potential immediate impacts. Here are some of the things that a cannabis user can or may experience: reduced brain function, anxiety or panic attacks, paranoia, memory loss. Now, these things are not frivolous. As the AMA submission also presents, in 2021 cannabis was present – and we need to be very careful in how we present the information – in 4.5 per cent of drug-induced deaths. Present – that does not mean it causes. I do not want anyone to think otherwise, but nonetheless the fact that it was present says something.

There were 29.2 cannabidiol-related hospitalisations per 100,000 Australians in 2021, with two in three requiring overnight hospitalisation. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2021–22 weed was the third most common drug of concern that people received treatment for. A 2023 systematic review found an increase in acute cannabis poisoning post-legislation in the US, Canada and Thailand. I have been to Thailand. I have spent quite some time with people there. One of the things that concerns me most, to take up Mr Limbrick’s speech on this matter, particularly in Thailand is that one of the experiences they found was that when they legalised it – although ironically they have not, but that is a quirk, so let us say for general purposes they have – overnight they turned all those people who were operating illegally, the underworld figures – perhaps I will stick to that characterisation – into legitimate businesses. It was a multimillion, multibillion dollar business overnight. So if ever we went down this path, one of the biggest challenges aside from the health challenge is: how do you prevent some of the most criminal, perhaps less desirable, characters in our communities from profiting from that immediately? It is a huge challenge, and I am not quite sure what the answer to that is.

I referred earlier to a systematic review. It is important to note that that is not a single finding; it is based on 30 studies, and they were subject across three different countries. They looked at the cannabis use and found that poisoning increased after legislation that gave them those changes took effect. The long-term effects were quite pronounced. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare they include physical dependence; upper respiratory tract cancers; chronic bronchitis; cardiovascular system damage; mental health conditions, including depression; and poor adolescent psychosocial development. Moreover, as per the prominent work cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on their website – they cite a study which says – somewhere near 10 per cent of people are likely to become addicted when they use cannabis. That is a concern. Now, they are a reputable organisation, as I know you know, but even if it is half that, even if it is 5 per cent – let us halve it; they say it is 10 – in this country the last survey they did showed use is going up, clearly. We heard a third before, but even if it is in the order of 2 million or 2.5 million Australians, that is still a lot of Australians who then become addicted, and so that concerns me greatly.

The submission to the Senate inquiry from the Drug Advisory Council Australia cites the most recent extensive study on this – that is the systematic study I have referred to – and its 65 other findings and studies it relies upon. We are told that in order to fix a problem with our vulnerable people, our vulnerable young people in particular, legalising cannabis is a pathway to correct that situation, but what we know is that is consistently not the case.

I want to take up a further point here in respect to diversion programs, because the question we have to ask ourselves is: why are these young people not being diverted? Why are they instead being criminalised? On that I have some sympathy. The Australian Institute of Criminology in 2021 reported that there are not nearly enough drug education and treatment services to divert people to. That is quite alarming. These findings were confirmed by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in 2019. In fact they found there was a declining trend across Australia because of the lack of services to refer people to.

No-one is helping young people or Indigenous Australians by legalising cannabis use and possession, something that will no doubt lead to a further decline in their physical and mental health and lead to an addiction problem. If we really want to help young people and Indigenous Australians, we should try talking about its harms, we should try investing in diversion programs and we should ensure that anyone who needs assistance and help can safely and easily access it without stigma.

I am doing my bit; I have undertaken my drug tests. I do not do that glibly either, because there is a serious point here, and it is not about outing people. It is actually about raising awareness, as you have done today, and actually then also providing support and assistance to those who might need it. You know, some people are just fine, but some are not. So it is them that we ought to look to assist.

I thank you for your efforts, but nonetheless at least for me I clearly do not approve of illicit drug taking. I clearly will not be supporting the bill, but nonetheless I thank you for the work you continue to do to look for a constructive solution to some of the problems, including detaining people, because that is clearly not going to work necessarily for them either.