13th June 2017: Huge blow to Health Minister & TGA after Greens Senate Motion re-introduced and then carried
Campaigners and advocacy groups were celebrating today after the Government suffered a major defeat in its efforts to stop terminally ill patients from accessing medical pot.
A Motion to Disallow changes made to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Special Access Scheme Category A – a pathway designed to enable critically sick individuals to quickly obtain medicines normally unavailable in Australia – was carried after Senator Jacqui Lambie apologised to the Upper House for her absence on 11th May when the matter was first debated. Cannabis – and only cannabis – was specifically excluded from the Category in a sneaky regulatory tweak made by former Health Minister Sussan Ley using Statutory Instrument in November 2016.
An attempt to disallow the changes was brought by Richard Di Natale of the Greens a month ago but was thwarted after Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team voted with the Government in a nail-biting Division which was tied when Labor voted with Di Natale. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie was absent from the vote, which would have succeeded with her support. So concerned was the Government at the time, the TGA’s Head of the Health Products Regulation Group John Skerrit was dispatched to pressure cross-benchers, including One Nation to side with the LNP. A letter from Health Minister Greg Hunt (addressed to Nick Xenophon but believed to be the same as those sent to all other small parties) is here. Full of half-truths and obfuscations it shows an inept politician caught on the back foot, prepared to go to any lengths to prevent – at whatever cost – cannabis actually reaching the hands of those needing it most, regardless of their suffering, regardless of public will.
Until just days ago most people thought the matter had ended there until Di Natale and Lambie decided to invoke a clause in the Senate rules that enabled the vote to be taken again – and – after three Divisions of the Chamber – this time the Motion was carried. It happened though only after Government first tried to block the move by quoting Lambie from an article in BuzzFeed after the 11th May Vote. It suggested she had not been absent by ‘misadventure’ but had done so in order to abstain. The Chamber divided and leave was then granted for the Motion to proceed when Labor and One Nation said they accepted Sen. Lambie’s apology. By then it was apparent the game was up – Lambie and One Nation working with Labor to ensure a Government drubbing. Any flies on the wall in Greg Hunt’s office are now guaranteed a rare, if expletive-filled treat.
After the 11th May vote Hanson had posted on her Facebook page she had originally toed the Government line because she believed Motion would somehow open the floodgates to ‘suitcases full’ of ‘dangerous’ and ‘unregulated marijuana’ entering the country – the story Hunt and his panjandrums were telling.
Reaction from the medical cannabis campaign and advocacy community was swift and harsh, indicating she had lost a voting block she had been solicitously courting for months. Her about turn on the matter – without which the Disallowance Motion would not have been debated again – may go some way in redeeming her in the eyes of those she had previously betrayed.
Today’s vote is a huge win for those fighting for access to a potentially life-saving drug and others whose final days could be eased were it available. Doctors are now in a position to prescribe such medication without undue interference and delay by the TGA using its other route known as Category B. Only 66 patients have thus far been given cannabis products using this pathway in a process many have long argued is nearly impossible for doctors to use.
Not only is it a win for patients however, it is a huge kick where it hurts for Ministers and their officials who will now doubtless retreat to lick their wounds while they try to figure out how to respond.
With their close ties with conservative elements in the medical profession – notably the AMA and many of the Royal Colleges – one shouldn’t be surprised to find yet more pressure being put on GPs and others to steer well clear of weed, despite this sudden – and unexpected – slight relaxation of hitherto appalling and inhumane rules.