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Crimes Legislation Amendment (Psychoactive Substances and Other Measures) Bill 2014
Improving the safety of my community is of paramount concern to me and I welcome any steps taken to achieve this. That is why I am taking the opportunity to speak today on the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Psychoactive Substances and Other Measures) Bill 2014. The bill before us today is yet another example of how the coalition government is working hard to tighten our laws and stay ahead of the criminal gangs. The measures introduced in this bill complement a suite of new measures that the coalition has already implemented as part of our key priority of detecting and disrupting organised crime groups and criminal gangs within Australia. These gangs profit from other people’s misery, such as the misery that far too many communities are currently experiencing as a result of the scourge of ice—a problem which lamentably affects my own community of Deakin and which I have spoken about in this place before.
Today we are talking about a different drug problem, a problem that does not have as high a profile as other drug issues but which still causes very real harm to communities throughout the country including in my electorate of Deakin. The bill addresses, amongst other things, the growing problem of new psychoactive substances. New psychoactive substances, or synthetic drugs as they are commonly referred to, mimic the psychoactive effect of illicit drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD. The manufacturers of these drugs use new chemicals to replace those that are banned so that they can avoid the law—but these drugs are clearly far from safe. As the Australian Drug Foundation has made clear, there are huge misconceptions in our community about the safety of these drugs. In a policy paper published earlier this year—’New psychoactive drugs: No easy answer’—authors Geoff Munro, the National Policy Manager of the Australian Drug Foundation, and Dr Chris Wilkins, a senior researcher at New Zealand’s Massey University, explained:
Persons who use NPS, and those who may be attracted to them, need to understand the risks as NPS are often more powerful than the drug types they are purported to mimic and little is known of their effects.
It is terrifying to think that some people—often they are young people—are purchasing and taking these drugs in the misguided belief that they are getting a safe high. It may have been legal to purchase the synthetic drug but it is clear that these are far from safe to consume. The Australian Drug Foundation warns that the packaging of these drugs is often misleading and fails to list all of the ingredients or the correct amounts, making it very easy to overdose. Many of the drugs contain a range of fillers and numbing agents that can lead to health problems particularly if injected, and some contain caffeine in such high quantities that additional caffeine, such as having an ordinary coffee, could lead to an overdose. It is also very difficult for doctors to treat someone who has overdosed on a synthetic drug because of the large number of different drugs on the market and inevitably the lack of information about what particular drugs contain and the lack of research about their effects. Indeed, these synthetic drugs can pose as serious a risk to the community as traditional drugs, as we have seen through the tragic deaths of many young people throughout Australia. Last November in my home state of Victoria three people ended up in intensive care after smoking a synthetic drug mimicking cannabis. In the 14 months to January this year, five people died after taking synthetic drugs, including three school children.
We do not really know how prevalent the use of synthetic drugs are in Australia, which is another problem. The policy paper I referred to earlier pointed to European estimates that around five per cent of people aged between 15 and 24 have tried synthetic drugs. The report said:
An Australian representative of licit retailers who sold NPS estimated the value of the “legal market” at $600 million in 2012 (Patton, 2013).
That legal market does not account for the untraceable online sales, so, while we do not know the exact scale of the problem, we do know that it is significant and that it is growing both in Australia and overseas. Governments around Australia at a state level are doing their best to tackle the problem by progressively banning substances as evidence about their use becomes available. But it is far too easy for the manufacturers to evade these bans by simply altering the chemical composition of the substance and continuing to sell it, clearly to the great detriment of our community. Some states—Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia—have introduced blanket bans on possessing or selling any substances that have a psychoactive effect other than alcohol, tobacco and food.
In the bill before us today, the Commonwealth is playing its part to help the states and territories address this problem and close any loopholes in the existing legislation ultimately so that our community is better protected. The Commonwealth is banning the importation of all psychoactive substances, save for those with a legitimate use. There will be new offences introduced into the Criminal Code that also ban the importation of psychoactive substances based on their psychoactive effect and where they are presented as an alternative to illicit drugs—meaning that we do not have the issue of composition of drugs allowing these criminal gangs to skirt existing rules. No longer will people be able to simply make a slight change to the chemical structure and then continue to sell it. It is gratifying to see this loophole closed and I congratulate the Minister for Justice.
The bill also arms the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Australian Federal Police with the powers they will need to stop these drugs from entering the market and instead seize and destroy them. At the same time, people who import psychoactive substances for a legitimate use, such as foods, medicines, industry, agriculture or veterinary chemicals, will of course be able to continue to do so. These people will not be caught up in the new regime introduced in this bill, notwithstanding its wide-ranging purview. The bill is targeted at bringing an end to the abhorrent trade in NPS that is harming our community and it does so by turning the tables completely on those who profit from the trade.
In his second reading speech on this legislation the Minister for Justice said:
The large number of potential new psychoactive substances and their rate of appearance means that we cannot stay ahead of the market. This bill changes the dynamic. From now on, the government will be in front.
I commend the minister for recognising the serious danger posed to our community by synthetic drugs and making it a priority for this government to address. I know that people in my electorate of Deakin welcome the government’s efforts to make their communities safer. Parents of teenagers, in particular, will find these measures reassuring as they operate to better protect vulnerable young people in our community from the harmful effects of drugs. Together with the existing initiatives of the state and territory governments, this bill will make a real difference to addressing the growing problem posed by NPS. I therefore wholeheartedly support the measures.
The bill also deals with a range of other criminal issues which I will touch on briefly in the time remaining. Tough new penalties for gun related crime are introduced by this bill, in line with our commitment in the lead-up to last year’s election. Thankfully, Australia already benefits from restrictive firearm laws, which were overhauled back in the 1990s under the Howard government. However, we must continue to be vigilant when it comes to gun laws, particularly in light of the fact that some 25 per cent of homicides involve firearms. It is therefore vital that we do everything in our power to stop these weapons from being acquired and utilised by criminals. That is why we are delivering on our promise with a more comprehensive set of offences and penalties for the trafficking of firearms and firearm parts. We know that, currently, criminals could potentially evade firearms trafficking offences by breaking up firearms into parts. This is an absolutely perverse outcome. This legislation closes that loophole by introducing new offences for trafficking firearms parts. It also strengthens the penalties for firearms offences, introducing mandatory minimum sentences of five years for offenders charged with trafficking firearms or firearm parts. I welcome these tougher new penalties which reflect the seriousness of these crimes.
It is worth noting that these mandatory minimum sentences will not apply to minors and there will not be a specified non-parole period, giving the courts the discretion to set custodial periods in line with the particular circumstances of each case. I think it is fair to say that Australians take a very dim view of people who commit firearms offences. I believe this bill brings gun laws into step with community expectations—something Labor failed to do for many years.
The bill also makes some important amendments to our International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme, which came into operation some 20 years ago. That scheme is effective but it will benefit from measures to streamline existing processes. The bill also amends the Criminal Code to make it clear that slavery offences have universal jurisdiction and to ensure that Australian law enforcement agencies have the tools they need to deal with this abhorrent crime. And the bill introduces a range of other minor but important measures to boost our criminal laws in Australia.
The coalition has an unwavering commitment to reduce crime in this country and do everything in our power to protect our communities from harm. I thank Minister Keenan for the outstanding work he has done in supporting communities like mine in Deakin to not only feel safer but actually be safer. The bill before us today is another step in that direction. I therefore support the bill, which I believe is a very important step in delivering on our election commitment.