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Chris CREWTHER (Mornington) (17:44): I rise today to speak on the Transport Legislation Amendment Bill 2023, an omnibus bill that includes several reforms to both the roads and road safety and public transport portfolios. Significantly, the bill sets up a legal process for a research trial of driving and medicinal cannabis, an initiative which the government has been under some pressure to implement for some time, with this issue also now directly impacting a family member of mine.
Cannabis is the only legally prescribed drug that is screened for in swabs or blood tests, and users can be charged and lose their licence if THC is found in their blood system. While impairment after taking medicinal cannabis usually would only affect the person for a matter of hours, THC can remain in a person’s bloodstream for up to a month. As such, a driver could be completely unimpaired for driving purposes yet test positive for THC and lose their licence. I mention this family member of mine in this context. Without naming them, this person has gone through PTSD and a number of mental health issues over several years. They finally, mainly over the last year, managed to get their life and mental health back in order, and only about a month ago purchased an item to start a new business of their own, which requires a drivers licence. This person takes prescription cannabis to help them sleep at night and was stopped by police for a random drink and drug driving test. Unfortunately the drug test came back positive, and this family member now faces loss of licence because the current law does not distinguish between driving under the influence and detection of drugs in the system with cannabis. There is no defence, as well, against detection of drugs. I am afraid that this will mean that this family member cannot now commence and operate their business, and after so many years it could lead to a downward spiral again. Adding to this, motorists who take prescribed drugs such as antidepressants, opiates, benzodiazepines and even antihistamines may be impaired for driving purposes, but these drugs are not tested for by police. Likewise, heroin, cocaine and a number of other illicit drugs are not tested for, so unless a driver is clearly and observably impaired, they can escape with no charge.
Since my election as the member for Mornington I have been in close contact as well with Mount Martha resident Andrew. Andrew is a small business owner, father of three and grandfather of one. Approximately 12 years ago Andrew was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in his lumbar spine. Tragically the disease, with which almost 2.2 million Australians suffer, has no cure. Over the past 12 years Andrew has managed the disease through a multifaceted management plan, including exercise, diet, supplementation, physical therapy and medication. Unfortunately the disease causes chronic pain for which there is no long-term relief. The only relief Andrew seems to receive from his unbearable pain is when he medicates with oxycodone or hybrid CBD and THC medicinal cannabis. For a long time Andrew has been advocating to many members of this place and the other place that specifically excluding prescribed medicinal cannabis THC medicines is clearly discriminatory and that we need a change. For so many years Andrew abstained from using a legally prescribed medicinal cannabis drug because it was not an option for him to cease driving, with his livelihood and health depending on that privilege. Instead Andrew was forced to opt for opioids, which are more problematic, given their side effects and potential for addiction. Sadly, Andrew is not alone. Victoria’s cannabis laws have caused countless numbers of chronically ill people to opt for more addictive prescription medications like valium, temazepam, opiates, antipsychotics and more – and please excuse my pronunciation, not being a medical doctor. Many patients have been choosing to stay on their more dangerous and more addictive medications because of Victoria’s stringent driving laws.
Now indeed it is illegal to drive with any amount of THC in your system in all Australian states except for Tasmania. In Tasmania, while it remains illegal to operate a vehicle with any amount of THC in your system, if you are a medicinal cannabis patient you can claim an exemption as long as your THC levels are minor, they are not impairing your ability to drive safely and the THC was obtained and administered in accordance with the Poisons Act. Despite all this, we do need to have road safety at the forefront of our minds when considering such changes and safeguard against the potential for any changes to be abused or misused by, say, recreational users of cannabis. It will be very interesting to see the outcomes of the off-road research trials and consider how we can make exemptions for medicinal cannabis users while ensuring safety for others in the community. I do look forward to further details from the government on where and how the trial will run.
Another point with respect to this bill is e-scooters. Of significance, this bill, in relation to e-scooters, sets out that e-scooter share scheme operators are now requiring, if this bill is passed, permission from local government authorities. Local governments will be able to set conditions on how such schemes operate. E-scooters have become so popular around the world, including in Victoria. They often serve as convenient, fun ways to get commuters where they need to go. They are also environmentally friendly and help ease congestion on our often traffic-laden inner-city roads in particular. Overall I think they are a great addition to the transport options in Victoria. That all being said, footpaths and roads can sometimes be cluttered with these scooters in various locations, and unfortunately that has become too common in certain areas, where it has become dangerous for pedestrians and others. This can pose a hazard to e-scooter operators, pedestrians and other road users. While there is little evidence in Australia, with no national database existing on e-scooter crashes and other injuries caused by e-scooter operations, international studies have suggested that there are about 115 serious injuries per million e-scooter trips, a rate that is comparable to motorcycles.
While the technology is of course here to stay and is welcomed, we need to continue to adapt this framework so that we can ensure everybody’s safety, particularly those people with disabilities, older residents and the most physically vulnerable in our communities. As I have touched upon, e-scooters present a variety of challenges for local governments. Given that these devices can be left in a large number of locations within their trial zones, there are often issues with e-scooters being left in hazardous places, blocking pedestrian access, posing tripping hazards or otherwise creating an impact on the use of public spaces. The bill provides no guidance on how operators and councils will be required to address these aforementioned concerns; however, the opposition has been advised that guidance and a model agreement are being developed by the Department of Transport and Planning to assist local councils. The department also claimed that this legislation has been sought by local government.
On a separate point, I would like to see more initiative in relation to protecting pedestrians from e-scooter hazards. If you ever walk along the footpaths of Melbourne’s CBD and some other places in particular, it is not uncommon for you to be somewhat startled occasionally by a huge gust of wind as an e-scooter zooms past you on the footpath, going quite fast. While footpath riding using an e-scooter is currently illegal – and I will leave enforcement matters in the capable hands of the police – it is certainly an issue of concern to e-scooter operators and pedestrians, although I do acknowledge that clause 48 extends the use of speed cameras and speed detectors to all vehicles, including scooters and bicycles. Such devices can be used to fine scooter and bike riders for breaking the speed limit or to penalise e-scooter riders travelling faster than the 20-kilometre-an-hour statewide limit. Clause 47 also bans e-scooter use on freeways.
Finally, the bill makes several other changes to various road rules and legislation. It touches on bus driver accreditation and also buses and rail more generally. On this point I note that the electorate of Mornington currently has no passenger rail services in the whole of the electorate, including in Mornington, which is one of the largest centres in Victoria with no passenger rail services, much as is the case with Mildura, as the member for Mildura mentioned. Mildura is actually the largest centre in the whole of Australia with no passenger rail services. But a number of years ago, as the member for Frankston knows well, I had worked to secure $225 million of budgeted funding towards the Frankston to Baxter rail service. This funding is currently still on the table. But unfortunately this project has never received the support from the state Labor government that is necessary, and it sits on the 90-day review by the Albanese federal government at the moment. Let us hope this funding is not scrapped and it is supported, because this will mean closer rail services for the whole of the Mornington Peninsula, and it would also, hopefully, open the way for the eventual return of Mornington passenger rail.
In addition I note that I had worked to secure over $38.5 million several years ago for the Kananook and Frankston train stations, as the member for Frankston would also know, and I do note his work in securing the state Labor government contributions towards these projects as well. The Frankston project I had an opportunity to go down to the other day to see. It has commenced. But I do note that these projects are also listed on the 90-day review in terms of the federal funding, so I hope that funding that I secured many years ago will not also be scrapped. These things need to be focused on in addition to this bill.