Controlled Substances (Nitrous Oxide) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

I rise to speak on the private member's bill, Controlled Substances (Nitrous Oxide) Amendment Bill 2019. I thank the member for considering this matter and acting on the concerns that have been raised in the community. It is not a new issue; it has been very much around for the last couple of years. I think there have been various attempts to look at whatever is a new drug or a new drug of choice, especially amongst our young people, but that does not mean, regrettably, that the private member's bill will actually capture the most expedient and efficient way of managing this issue. Let me explain why, in the circumstances, the government will not be supporting the bill.

The Controlled Substances Act itself already contains a number of controls on the sale and supply of volatile solvents, of which nitrous oxide is one. For example, the act allows for an age limit for sales of a volatile solvent to be prescribed by regulation. It is already an offence to sell or supply a volatile solvent to another person if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the person may inhale the solvent or on-sell it to another person who intends to inhale it.

The government acknowledges that there has been concern expressed about the misuse of nitrous oxide, particularly related to its sale by convenience stores within the CBD entertainment precincts. Already we have heard through contributions made today the concern regarding empty capsules being observed in Hindley Street. Therefore, the government intends to introduce a number of measures via regulation to address the misuse of nitrous oxide, while keeping in mind that this is a legal product with legitimate uses.

The private member's bill contains a provision stating that the prescribed age is 18 years. On this side of the house, we do not have an issue with that continuing to be a circumstance and an important measure. However, it is a measure that can be undertaken by regulation, which the government intends to do and I have already made public statements in that regard.

However, the government disagrees with the proposal contained in the bill that would compel sales of nitrous oxide to be recorded by the sellers. The sales of nitrous oxide would have to be recorded for every purchase outside sales for medical purposes. The seller must record all the contact details of the purchaser, including recording their identification, the quantities sold and the directions given for the safe use of nitrous oxide, plus the records must be kept for at least two years. I think it would be quite evident to members the enormous task that would impose on sellers.

There are a number of issues with the proposed record of sales. Firstly, this type of requirement places an extensive and unnecessary administrative burden on retailers selling—it must be remembered—a legal product. The requirements of the bill are more onerous than the requirements placed on professional pharmacists recording purchases of pseudoephedrine, a product that has been demonstrated to be used for illicit drug manufacturing. The impost far outweighs the risk the product presents.

The requirement would be difficult to enforce. Already, we have consulted with the police in relation to this matter, particularly in relation to the online space where I am advised a large number of sales occur. The police would need to physically check the registers, which would be a resource-intensive exercise. Frankly, it is of dubious value when it comes to preventing the misuse of nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is not the same as, say, a controlled precursor, where tracking suspicious sales may help law enforcement to identify illicit drug manufacturing. It is not an offence to possess nitrous oxide, as it is a legal product. Therefore, recording the details of purchases is unlikely to assist law enforcement to identify offenders.

Lastly, it risks not only criminalising a section of the public buying a product for legal use but also over-regulating nitrous oxide to such an extent that it would push young people onto riskier substances. This last point is supported by Encounter Youth, who have vast experience in dealing with young people who may use legal and illegal substances. They are concerned about young people moving on to illicit drugs or substances with a much higher risk profile than nitrous oxide.

By contrast, the government intends, as we have already publicly stated, with the guidance of the Controlled Substances Advisory Council—which the mover of the motion may not have yet identified or considered as necessary, but they are there for good reason—to enact a series of practice measures swiftly via regulation aimed at preventing sales to persons under the age of 18 years, prohibiting late-night sales by retail premises and regulating the display of nitrous oxide in retail premises.

I understand that the council is meeting today to consider recommendations that we have put regarding the management of this issue by regulation. Following that proper comprehensive process, clearly, we will consider the council's advice on the matters that we have raised and listen with interest to any other recommendations it wishes to recommend to us as a government. Certainly, before further decisions are made on this matter, the parliament has the right to manage regulations in any event and to disallow them if they are considered to be inconsistent with what is necessary.

Whilst I acknowledge the interest that has been shown by the member moving this bill, in the circumstances, it will not be supported by the government. We are acting to deal with this issue within the envelope of the Controlled Substances Act and the prohibitions and offences that already exist.