High time for change

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01 Jun 2015

In 2014, a 59-year-old South Australian man with leukaemia was sentenced to two years’ jail for growing cannabis. He’d received the sentence as he had ‘previous form’, having been caught growing the plant sometime before to help his wife endure the side effects of chemotherapy for her lymphoma. That a man in such an obviously desperate situation can be made a criminal exposes the ludicrousness of the law.

And the law — across all Australian jurisdictions — says it is illegal to possess, grow, sell and use cannabis (penalties vary from state to state). But are things about to change? NSW, Victoria and Queensland are moving towards clinical trials for the medical use of cannabis. A move in the right direction you’d think. But advocates remain unimpressed, saying trials are a waste of time — the science is already in, with medical watchdogs in Europe and the US backing the evidence.

And the evidence shows that marijuana is effective in treating people with a variety of medical conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis, migraine, glaucoma, anorexia, arthritis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. Cannabis has medicinal uses for treating muscle spasms, chronic pain, sleep disorders, and nausea; it also acts as an appetite stimulant in patients with weight loss due to cancer or HIV. For people living with HIV, cannabis is particularly helpful in alleviating peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage). Marijuana is regarded as acceptably safe to take with generally — not unpleasant — mild side-effects.

Australia is way behind on this. Marijuana is legally available for medical use in about 20 countries, including Portugal, Spain, Israel, Holland, Finland, Germany, Canada and the Czech Republic. In the US, it is legal in 23 states. Patients simply fill out an application form, provide a signed statement from a GP, pay a fee and collect their cannabis from a dispenser (there are even marijuana vending machines in operation).

It seems particularly ridiculous that medicinal marijuana remains illegal in Australia when other drugs taken recreationally — such as ketamine, cocaine and amphetamine — are often used to assist people in a medical setting. But perceptions are changing and support is growing. A new survey by Palliative Care Australia finds 67 percent of respondents back the use of medical cannabis. In December last year, the NSW government introduced regulations allowing terminally ill people who sign up to a register to carry 15 grams of marijuana without fear of prosecution. In Victoria, premier Daniel Andrews has said he is keen for medical marijuana to be made available to “a limited and select group of patients”.

Federally, the Greens have introduced the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill 2014 to the Senate. If passed, it would make medical marijuana available to people who need it. An independent regulator would be responsible for licensing the growing, manufacturing and distribution of medicinal cannabis. Greens leader, Dr Richard Di Natale, said marijuana’s efficacy is well established and it should be approved for medical use immediately. “Medical cannabis should be made available for those conditions where it has been proven to be effective now, without delay, without trial,” he said.

For cannabis to be approved for medical use in Australia, an application needs to be put to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGAwith supporting evidence of its quality, safety and efficacy. Di Natale is pressuring the TGA to create a special category for marijuana so that the drug can be accessed with a doctor’s prescription (the TGA currently lists cannabis as a prohibited substance).

It’s not just the progressives calling for reform. The Greens’ bill — due to be debated soon — has broad support. Even Tony Abbott is in favour of marijuana for medical purposes. "I have no problem with the medical use of cannabis, just as I have no problem with the medical use of opiates," he said.

The Australian Medical Association backs the use of marijuana for medical reasons in principle, but has warned against the legalisation of the raw dope plant and has urged that only fully-tested cannabis-based medicines be considered for use. Troy Lang, director of AusCann — whose company has become the first in Australia to be granted a licence to grow and export medical marijuana — thinks legalisation is inevitable. “Things are moving so quickly,” he said. "Once people find out [marijuana] provides relief for loved ones, they are going to stop at nothing to get it.” Desperate Australians are already stopping at nothing and, until there is a change in the law, they’re risking jail in the process.

BY CHRISTOPHER KELLY