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Cannabis trial won't lead to decriminalisation: Carr

In a surprise move, the New South Wales Government has initiated a four-year trial of medical marijuana, which would give thousands of chronically sick people access to the drug. Under the plan, marijuana would be distributed by a government body - the soon to be formed "Office of Medical Cannabis". Premier Bob Carr discussed the issue with Tony Jones.

May 20, 2003
Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Back now to our top story - the surprise move by the New South Wales Government to initiate a four-year trial of medical marijuana that would give thousands of chronically sick people access to the drug.

Under the plan, marijuana would be distributed by a government body, the soon to be formed 'Office of Medical Cannabis'.

Earlier this evening I spoke to New South Wales Premier Bob Carr.

Bob Carr, what's the evidence that medical marijuana actually works?

BOB CARR, NSW PREMIER: We got the evidence out of Canada and out of 10 US states where medically supervised cannabis is operating.

We've also got the evidence of our own working party, which we set up in 1999.

And we know from submissions received, including a very moving case of a man living with bowel cancer and the effects of radiotherapy that it stabilises the pain and gets rid of nausea.

It's very useful in wasting illnesses, cancer, HIV, where people can't eat because they're so nauseous.

TONY JONES: This is anecdotal evidence, though, not medical evidence?

BOB CARR: The medical evidence comes out of Canada, the UK, where this has been explored by a high level committee, but in Canada the scheme is in place.

As it is in 10 US states.

So it's not a leap in the dark.

You've got these schemes operating and the submissions we received really tipped the balance.

When you have people who are living with these conditions -- conservative people, people in their 80s in some cases -- but are fighting cancer and find this is the only thing that really beats the nausea that comes with the various therapies, you've got to take it seriously.

So we're committed to a four-year trial.

TONY JONES: But it's not a clinical trial that you're proposing and I wonder why not.

Because a clinical trial would prove one way or another, presumably, whether or not it's actually working.

BOB CARR: It's been proven in the other jurisdictions.

It would repeat their experience if we were to say timidly this is only going to be a trial conducted by doctors.

The evidence is in.

And, I mean, when we had the discussion in the Labor Party Caucus today, I proposed that we put the legislation on the table of the Parliament and keep it there until later in the year.

But someone said, "Listen, what do we say to a family that's living with a loved one who's being hit with heavy chemotherapy and who knows that marijuana is an option because it's worked in so many other cases?"

We're not saying every case, but we are saying there are enough cases for us compassionately to say this is an option for people and the law should no longer stand in the way.

TONY JONES: Is there a risk, though, here because there's also a proven scientific link between cannabis use, heavy cannabis use in this case, and schizophrenia?

BOB CARR: Absolutely.

Except in the cases that we're defining in our legislation, marijuana is a bad drug to use.

It dulls the brains, and there are links with mental illnesses -- schizophrenia for example.

This is not a step to decriminalisation.

I am opposed to decriminalisation of marijuana.

I think the case against it now is stronger than it formally was because of the sort of evidence you refer to.

TONY JONES: But there are risks in the steps you are taking.

BOB CARR: No, there are no risks because we will define in the legislation that someone must have one of the following conditions: wasting related to HIV or cancer, severe chronic pain, muscle spasticity in multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries or nausea from cancer or HIV-related chemotherapy.

They would then have to have a certificate from a doctor, a doctor they've had a continuing relationship with, not someone they've met at one meeting.

They would then be able through the official use of medicinal cannabis, to have access to the drug.

Now the next question we have to resolve is the supply of the material whether we're able to buy it --

TONY JONES: Before we move on to the supplier, let me go back.

Will you rule out access to this scheme for anyone with a history with psychotic illness or schizophrenia?

BOB CARR: We're compiling a list of the conditions that would deny people access to the scheme.

TONY JONES: Is that one of them?

BOB CARR: I haven't thought about that but we have included any record of conviction for elicit drug use, anyone who's on parole, anyone 18 years or age or under, anyone who's pregnant.

It could well be that proneness to a psychotic condition would be added to the list.

But, listen, people are only eligible for this scheme if they face a terminal or a next to terminal condition.

I mean, that's what we're talking about here.

This is really an approach -- this is really another option for palliative care with the qualification that there will be some people not terminal but in a really serious condition.

When you look at the --

TONY JONES: One of the other things is severe pain, chronic severe pain.

That could cover an enormous number of people, anyone with chronic severe pain who can prove to a doctor that they've had chronic severe pain could have access to medicinal marijuana.

BOB CARR: But all that's going to be defined.

This will not be, this will not be a loophole that can be abused.

I am opposed.

I'm actually opposed to decriminalisation of marijuana and this will not be a backdoor way of achieving on objective that I am opposed to.

As I said, the case against it is stronger now than it's been in the past.

This is a compassionate move that -- if I can put it this way -- I once visited a parliamentary colleague, 29-years-old at the time, with a rare form of cancer.

He had just had his first big bout of chemotherapy, he was wracked with pain.

I sat there in his bedroom, he couldn't lie on the bed, he couldn't sit on the bed, he couldn't walk around, the pain was so bad.

And that was my encounter with someone in the throws of very heavy chemotherapy and he knew he had to go back and get successive bouts.

TONY JONES: You're saying that marijuana -- you can almost guarantee would help that?

BOB CARR: We know from Canada, we know from the experience in 10 US states, we know from the bulky report about the experience in the UK, we know from one of our own doctors telling us that, yes, it does help the suppression of pain, more specifically it helps the stabilisation of nausea, that enables people to eat meals and avoid wasting away.

We've just got an obligation where we can make a difference to human suffering to give it a try.

TONY JONES: It sounds like the Canadian experience is something of a model for what we're doing here.

If so, the Canadians allow people who are sick, or their carers, to actually grow a certain number of marijuana plants for medicinal use.

Now, could that happen here?

That was something that was being being proposed several years ago when you first talked about a trial.

BOB CARR: We're coming on now to the question of supply and how you regulate the supply.

Let's bear in mind there are only likely to be a very small number of people on this scheme, with the condition --

TONY JONES: I gather it could be up to 16,000.

BOB CARR: Um, I would doubt that.

TONY JONES: That's according to the report.

There could be 16,000 people, virtually, who qualify under those list of criteria.

BOB CARR: I would doubt that.

I think when the conditions are established to satisfaction of my colleagues in the Parliament you will be looking at people with terminal or near-terminal conditions.

So we come now to the question of supply.

Yes, the Canadian does represent one model, and that is decriminalising the growing of a plant or the possession of personal use quantities for someone who has this certificate from a doctor and who has registered with the office.

That's one approach.

TONY JONES: Or a carer.

BOB CARR: Or a carer.

TONY JONES: Of a very sick person.

BOB CARR: Yes, that's right.

An alternative approach would be for the Government to regulate the supply and to see that the supply, through the office of medical cannabis, reach those people who had the certificate from a doctor and required it.

TONY JONES: So how would the Government do that?

The Government would give them cannabis to take away and smoke?

BOB CARR: Either buy it from one of the jurisdictions that supplies it -- from Canada or one of those US states -- or under very carefully supervised conditions to grow a patch of the stuff and to make it available.

TONY JONES: In New South Wales you mean?


Now the alternative approach will be opened up for us by a very interesting development occurring in the UK.

A pharmaceutical company, in cooperation with the British Government, is developing a cannabis substance that is sprayed on under the tongue.

So if this becomes available, as promised, early next year, we will be in a position where we could make application to the Commonwealth Government to have it quickly certified, if that's the legally correct verb --

TONY JONES: And if the Commonwealth Government opposes this, as they have in the past opposed initiatives for example for needle trials, for heroin injecting rooms?

BOB CARR: Our legal advice is that we would win this.

The Commonwealth wouldn't have a strong legal position to stand on.

And the moral argument I think would overwhelm any strictly legalist approach taken by the Commonwealth.

I mean, if question -- the people who've made submissions to our inquiry describing what it's like to live with prostate cancer, with bowel cancer and the attendant painful therapies, if those people said, "Listen, I'm occasionally getting access to marijuana, it helps me to beat a wasting condition, there's a UK drug now available please let it in," I think that would be an overwhelming case for the Commonwealth Government.

TONY JONES: A quick answer to this one, if you can.

What will you say to the argument that young people will hear the Premier of New South Wales saying that this drug has benefits, has medical benefits.

Surely there can be no problem with us using it.

BOB CARR: It's got medical benefits for people who have been rammed with chemotherapy or are struggling with multiple sclerosis and the muscle condition that causes.

It has got health disadvantages, health liabilities, health problems for anyone else who touches it.

We know it dulls the brain in heavy use.

And we know that even occasional use can trigger psychotic or schizophrenic episodes.

We know that.

And the figures in New South Wales showed a modest decline in marijuana use in the last drug survey and I think with the focus on healthy lifestyles that is part of our way of life today the figures would certainly have stabilised, certainly have stabilised.

I don't think it's difficult to say to the population this is a bad drug.

But it has a very limited beneficial effect.

It has a beneficial effect in a very limited set of circumstances.

People who have got nausea because they're getting chemotherapy for cancer as being the most common possible case.

TONY JONES: Bob Carr, if I can move on to one of the other most intriguing political issues of the day.

Now you're a keen reader of history.

No federal leader of the Labor Party in history has ever been thrown out without being given the chance to face an election.

No matter what the polls say, given that history, should Simon Crean get a chance to take his party to the next election?

BOB CARR: I'm not going to play all this out to generate another day's headlines about federal Labor leadership.

TONY JONES: But that's a pretty simple question.

BOB CARR: I get hit with this every day.

And if I respond it generates more headlines about this.

Now I was Leader of the Opposition in NSW for seven years and I came close on three occasions to giving up the leadership because of the cycle of bad polls, speculation about leadership and media negativity.

Now the only way out of it is for people to not respond to the mischievous opportunities extended by the media to keep the issue alive.

TONY JONES: But in keeping the issue alive in this case is simply saying Simon Crean should have the opportunity to take the party to the next election.

BOB CARR: Tony, I'm not going to talk -- I've declined for the past couple of days to add my comments to speculation about federal Labor leadership and I'm going to stick to that, in Simon Crean's interests, and because if you had six Labor premiers responding every week to this, there would be --

TONY JONES: They have responded, many of them, regularly to these issues --

BOB CARR: There would be no end of the cycle.

I was Opposition leader for seven years.

It was like as Neville Wran said recently, being Opposition Leader for seven years, even at the state level, is equivalent to 77 years on Alcatraz.

And this awful cycle of somewhat disappointing opinion polls -- every Opposition Leader faces disappointing opinion polls.

Speculation about leadership challenges -- I mean it's just too distracting.

TONY JONES: So would your advice, given what you --

BOB CARR: I'm not giving advice, I'm not giving anyone advice.

TONY JONES: Should he tough it out?

BOB CARR: I'm not giving anyone advice.

I've got enough challenges in New South Wales that I happily embrace.

TONY JONES: Bob Carr, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

BOB CARR: Thank you.

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