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Time to get real on cannabis

18 May 2013 1,880 views No Comment

MEDICINAL use of cannabis should be permitted in Australia.

In 2013, we should not still be merely discussing this possibility. On Wednesday, a NSW parliamentary committee, chaired by Nationals upper house MP Sarah Mitchell, unanimously recommended that medicinal cannabis be permitted for some people with certain terminal conditions.

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At present, 18 states in the US allow medical marijuana and a further 10 are considering it. Apart from providing genuine alternatives to existing medicines, this approach has kick-started a plethora of scientific research on cannabis by an industry that has until recently been cowed from embarking on research projects.

There is strong community support for medicinal cannabis in Australia, but no state or territory permits it. So Tony Bowers, a community activist, has been openly challenging the law by providing cannabis tincture on compassionate grounds to people with distressing conditions. Following a recent current affairs TV show focusing on his work, police arrested Bowers. He is now serving a 12-month jail term. Bowers claims to have had very positive results from his cannabis tinctures, including curing a seven-year-old girl with Dravet syndrome who had been having severe epileptic fits since she was six weeks old.

It is important to separate the very different issues of medicinal and recreational use of cannabis. The recent Nimbin Mardigrass Festival saw a coming together of doctors, patients who had been using medical marijuana and political campaigners advocating drug-law reform. The experienced NSW-based drug-law reformer, Alex Wodak, put the issue in perspective when he addressed one of the seminars: “After all, in 2013, medicine legally uses morphine, cocaine and amphetamine, while the recreational use of these substances is strictly prohibited. We could use cannabis medically and still ban the recreational use of the drug if we wanted to.”

I can’t see how any politician could argue with this position. As the distinguished US biologist Stephen Jay Gould said: “It is beyond my comprehension that any humane person would withhold such a beneficial substance (cannabis) from people in great need simply because others use it for different purposes.”

When NSW premier Bob Carr commissioned a report from a high-level committee in 2000, it was supportive of the use of medicinal cannabis. Although the report was based heavily on reports from the British House of Lords (1997-98) and the US Institute of Medicine (1999), the matter did not progress. Since then, the evidence that cannabis is effective in a number of medical conditions has become stronger.

Australian Sex Party president Fiona Patten, who was on the same panel as Wodak, told the audience that adult shops, tobacconists and herbal shops reported that, over the past two years, they had been inundated by elderly people seeking legal synthetic marijuana preparations. These people were trying to alleviate distressing symptoms from a range of illnesses including Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia and insomnia.

Patten claimed that they were only buying the synthetic variety because they did not want to have to engage in an illegal transaction for plant cannabis and that politicians had fostered the growth of the synthetic trade by outlawing cannabis.

The same panel heard from Angela, a young and brave woman with inoperable brain cancer. Her life began a downward spiral where she lost her children and she was on such strong painkillers that she was virtually unconscious most of the day. After a year of treatment with cannabis medications, the cancer has retreated and she is now on the way to a full recovery.

Another member of the panel, a middle-aged man with long-term Crohn’s disease, reported being cured within a few months by cannabis tinctures manufactured by Bowers.

So the answer to the question of whether or not Australia should allow medicinal use of cannabis seems to me abundantly clear.

What is less clear is how this should be achieved. One option is to allow people who have been shown to have one of a range of serious medical conditions, and of sufficient severity, to be exempt from prosecution when purchasing and/or cultivating cannabis. The exemption from prosecution that some taxi drivers and pregnant women are granted for not wearing a seat belt might offer some sort of precedent.

However, many reformers don’t like this approach, mainly because they think people with a serious illness should not have to resort to these measures in order to receive a medication.

Another option might be to allow the use of pharmaceutically prepared products such as Sativex – a cannabis-based oral spray that helps with spasticity in multiple sclerosis sufferers. However, this will probably cost about $500 a month and most people who would want to use cannabis medicinally won’t have that sort of money. And some researchers believe Sativex is not as effective as leaf cannabis.

The third option, favoured by Wodak, is importing cannabis leaf that has been produced under meticulous conditions in The Netherlands, also purchased by Israel and Canada. This is likely to be much less expensive.

US state politicians have embarked on a path of cannabis law reform that is diametrically opposed to the path Australian politicians are taking. Last month in Queensland, the Newman government introduced draconian laws that say if you sell something with the “intention” of selling something “similar” to synthetic cannabis, you are guilty, even if it turns out to be lawn clippings. Patten sought the advice of a chemical expert on the laws and issued a media release claiming the government had inadvertently made a whole range of household substances illegal – including chocolate, echinacea, saffron and tryptophan. The Queensland government has not refuted her claims.

The history of cannabis prohibition is flawed with technical mistakes, ignorance and prejudice. Cannabis was initially banned worldwide (including in Australia) because an Egyptian delegation to a League of Nations meeting in 1925 said it was as dangerous as opium. Yet no research was provided to back the claim. Eighty-eight years on, thousands of people have been jailed and governments and police have spent many millions of dollars maintaining this prohibition. One of the costs of this prohibition has been that people with cancer, AIDS or MS still cannot benefit from the medical use of cannabis.

It’s well and truly time for this nonsense to stop.

Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is now available as an e-book.

‘The Weekend Australian’, May 18 -19 2013, Inquirer p 20.