Fiona Patten is a divisive figure – a former sex worker and fashion designer who went from adult industry lobbyist to Australian MP for the Reason Party. Whether you agree with her values or not, it’s impossible to deny that she’s made a big splash. Having been elected to the Parliament of Victoria in November 2018 for a second term, her work on censorship, marriage equality and drug law reform has captured the imagination of the Australian electorate. We met up with Fiona and her Chief-of-Staff Jorian Gardner for lunch and a chat on Valentine’s Day 2019 at Federici’s opposite Parliament House.
Born in Canberra to a naval officer father and public servant mother, Fiona formed the notorious Australian Sex Party in 2009 and was first elected to Parliament in 2014. Having honed her skills from 1992 until 2014 as CEO of Eros Association (Australia’s peak body for the adult entertainment industry), she earned a reputation for not just taking hard fights but winning them. Having reformed the Australian Sex Party as the Reason Party in 2017, Fiona was elected to Parliament once again under the banner of Drug Law Reform.
In her initial term as an elected official of Australian public office, she made headlines as the prime mover behind the first ever Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Victoria, which has had a dramatic impact on reducing crime, deaths and overall harm from drug use in the area. She won the battle to create Safe Access Zones, consisting of 150m protest-free zones around women’s reproductive health clinics, securing these essential services against aggressive protestors who wish to prevent women’s access to reproductive education. She initiated a Parliamentary Inquiry that eventually resulted in the Dying With Dignity reform, allowing people with terminal illness to explore options for voluntary euthanasia.
Now she’s legalising cannabis.
In December 2018 you introduced a bill towards full cannabis legalisation within two years. How’s it looking?
“It's still early and it's not something that I want to rush. The debate is changing quickly and just this week we've seen shock jocks like Neil Mitchell (Australian radio presenter) spending a lot of time on cannabis. The response from the community was not absolute opposition and prohibition, there was about a 50/50 support base for it. So introducing the bill enabled us to start a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the politicians but also the public. We do need two years to do that. I think we're over the hump and we're going to see an exponential increase in support.
This is a bill to keep cannabis out of the hands of children and criminals. You pose it like that, as Canada did, and then you work down from there. We know that ‘just say no’ doesn't actually keep it out of the hands of children and criminals, it hands it over to them.”
Your work around censorship, reproductive rights and voluntary euthanasia resulted in opposition from the Church time and time again. So who’s the biggest opposition to Drug Law Reform?
“The police and conservative elements of the medical profession. I think those are the conversations that, once we start having them, it’ll start changing. It’s just stigma. I also think because you do see the ‘Snoop Dogg’ style teenage boy approach overseas in the highly commercialised cannabis marketplace, people are concerned about that. They think “we don't want to go down the path of alcohol, we don't want to go down the path of tobacco” because they see this strong commercial push. Firstly, let's put aside the fact that cannabis is not either of those two drugs, nor is it anywhere near as dangerous. We need a much more controlled market than we've seen in the USA. I think the Canadian model is going to give us some interesting avenues. It's quite conservative, which I think is going to be required.
I don't know whether you’re aware of the synthetic cannabinoid market? A lot of that market actually started in New Zealand. There were a couple of companies over there, and the New Zealand government did this really smart thing where they created a new drug category. So they opened up the market initially, and for a year, you had to register your product, you had to list everything that was in it, and therefore if there were any admissions into hospitals then the doctor knew exactly what was in it. There was responsible service training done and there were specific premises that could sell it, so it went from 1500 unregulated outlets to 50 regulated ones. They restricted it, they controlled it, they educated people, the packaging had a lot more helpful information on it.
It was largely successful until the tabloids got the Minister on the wrong day and that was it. Canada could actually use that model for cannabis. Tomorrow they could introduce that.
Unfortunately, not surprisingly, prohibition just made synthetic cannabinoids more dangerous. The first iteration was JWH018, made by Bayer, who were trying to patent cannabis. They were looking for a synthetic that would mimic the effects of cannabis, that would affect the endocannabinoid system and receptors in the same way, but it didn’t have the desired effect, so instead they started looking at how to get the pain relief without the psychoactive effects. Some others were developed which were closer to cannabis, most of which were prohibited. Then the next generation came out, and the next generation, and all of a sudden they weren't even looking at cannabinoid receptors, they were looking at how to create an effect using the respiratory system and the nervous system, so it ended up with all of these backyard chemists creating this stuff and putting it on the market. It was so dodgy. They’d spray it with inert green material, there was no uniformity and no regulation. So the obvious answer was to legalise cannabis, and that’s what they’re doing in New Zealand.”
So if Australia was to go ahead and legalise it, what would the cornerstones of ‘ethical drug dealing’ actually look like?
“Information will be the cornerstone of it, plus a well-made product that is what it says it is. This is an adult product, so we need to ensure that it is seen as an adult product and is marketed only to adults, and marketed carefully. I want people to know how it's grown and what it's grown in, and the medicinal market is guiding us in that regard. When I purchase it, I want to have an educated person that will be able to tell me about the variety, about an indica versus a sativa, the THC content versus the CBD content, the terpene content etc. I want to make an informed decision. You look at the guidelines for tobacco and alcohol and they're about the only food products that are sold in Australia where you're not required to list the ingredients. Two of the most dangerous drugs – it’s nuts. They've been excluded from the TGA and from the food controls.
Cannabis is a good product, and we’ve had thousands and thousands of years of it. We know so much about it, and so to sell it ethically I think is actually an easy sell. It is in itself an ethical product, look at the impact on climate from how we grow it, using less water, using less electricity, we can even use biomass from the parts of the plants that we don’t use.”
What are the most common misperceptions around the plant you come across?
“It causes schizophrenia, it’s addictive and it’s a gateway. Those are the three major ones. There’s a real concern around mental health, even though all of the research shows that even the most tenuous connection is that people self-medicate. Some people with certain mental illnesses tend to be drawn to it and find some relief with it, but that may also exacerbate their condition.”
…and the solution to that is supervised use and education, similar to the Portuguese model, right?
“I think it’s education, education, education amongst the politicians. I was at a magic mushroom event last night, the launch of a new organisation called Mind Medicine and it's got a lot of philanthropic backers. They've just got a study approved that will start in April, using psilocybin on terminally ill patients who are very anxious about their end-of-life experience. It's being run through the psychiatry unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a full clinical trial with 30+ patients. There have already been many many many studies but this is the first in Australia. When you start seeing these sorts of things, that means the conversations are happening and it’s only a matter of time. There was a very broad and diverse representation, a whole range of people that were interested in what else we could be doing. Psilocybin and MDMA, even though they’re both very different things, both of them have the ability to change your brain’s story line after one or two sessions, and for up to three months afterwards. That’s why the big pharmaceutical companies are less interested in it – because you’re signing someone up for one or two sessions and they’re changed. That's not what the pharmaceutical industry wants to hear.
What all this means is that the debate is changing. I hope we don't have to wait 10, 20 years of running with medicinal cannabis before we move to Adult Use cannabis. I don't think there should be a connection. It's two different conversations and it's two very different arguments. We’re seeing some draconian legislation being introduced over the next couple of weeks that will be another attempt at stopping criminal organisations from growing cannabis. 20 years jail hasn't stopped them, so why do you think 25 is going to?”
A memorable story your book detailed how the World Council of Churches international conference in Canberra in the early ‘90s was the busiest weekend that local brothel owners could ever recall. Are similar things are going on in relation to cannabis?
“I don’t think so. The hypocrisy around cannabis is not quite ‘do as I say, not as I do’, I think the hypocrisy around it is that they endorse one drug over another. They’ll say there’s nothing wrong with having a few bottles of Prosecco – I'm thinking of one particular politician here who doesn’t mind having a drink to excess – but cannabis users should be locked up. He believes in bringing back capital punishment for drug sellers. He also doesn't believe in climate change, because despite what the weather people are saying, ‘it’s not that hot’.”
It was 50 degrees in some states this month! A lot of the Christian far right, they’re pretty happy about climate change and the general global turmoil, as that means ‘The Rapture’ is coming.
“Exactly! And that's a terrible thing. They're all excited about climate change, it’s just more signs that God is coming. Which excuses them from any form of environmental protection because it doesn't matter. I mean we've got an evangelical Prime Minister who questions climate change, who believes that the end of the earth and God is nigh. We don't often put those two together but we should, more often.
There’s also the police in this. The police are really interesting and I think they're a multifaceted beast. We know that the age of people using drugs is most frequently between the age of 18 and 30, which is also the largest population of the police force. There is no evidence that the police force, those young officers, are not behaving in the same way as everybody else in the community. So there is recognition in the police force that the police use drugs. They've done their own internal surveying and focus groups, and the majority of police when asked ‘you've got a million dollars to deal with drug use in your community, what do you do?’, it's not ‘I would build a huge police station with more cells’, it’s ‘I would spend that on treatment, I would spend that on education’. Because they’re just like the rest of us – they see that simply arresting people is not helping. However, it would take a leap of faith from them.”
So to finish up then, what do you think the public can do to fan the flames of the debate around legalisation?
“Stay vocal and engaged. We need to keep the conversation going. It's about responding to anything you see in the media – just be active. There may be a good argument around saying that maybe people need to come out a bit more? Saying that they work every day, that they have a family who they love, that they have a very full life and that also includes the occasional joint or whatever it might be. Changing the face of the public perception of what a cannabis user looks like.”
Thank you Fiona – keep up the good work!
If you would like to learn more about Fiona Patten and her Reason Party,click here. We highly recommend her autobiography, 'Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll: My Unlikely Journey from Sex Worker to Member of Parliament'.