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Off The Record: What You’re NOT Told About Medicinal Cannabis In Australia

April 19, 2019

This article appeared in the Northern Daily Leader under the title ‘Opinion: Medicinal cannabis campaigner Lucy Haslam has some pretty strong opinions about the road she has been on for the past five years’

Five years of medicinal cannabis (MC) advocacy takes you to murky places – where any respect you once had for politics, politicians, bureaucrats and even democracy itself eventually turns sour and then festers.

Over that half-decade I’ve seen, heard and been told things ‘off the record’ you honestly wouldn’t believe – and if this, the apparently ‘peripheral’ issue of patient access to what was once the most widely used medicine…if this represents a microcosm of how politics more generally gets done (and little persuades me it doesn’t) then it’s enough to make even the most cynical among us hold their heads in despair.

As I frequently say to my colleagues: where medicinal cannabis is concerned, you simply couldn’t make this stuff up.

Judge for yourself though. Come with me on a quick behind-closed-doors look at some of the ‘unofficial’ comments and unreported deeds you may wish to ponder. Significant, if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of Australian patients, carers and their families – all of them criminalised – currently relieving their suffering with medicines they can only obtain through the black market.

Firstly, the truth of the matter:

  • Over six Public Inquiries have endorsed the reintroduction of medicinal cannabis for a wide range of conditions.
  • Public support for MC is overwhelming – between 80-92%.
  • While cannabis use (including recreational) has sky-rocketed over recent years, the the rate of psychosis has remained steady at around 1% of the population.
  • Deaths from opiates and use of other prescription drugs are dropping where medicinal cannabis has been reintroduced suggesting it’s an exit drug NOT a ‘gateway’ as historically portrayed and continually restated by politicians and senior figures in medicine.
  • The US National Academy of Science, Engineering & Medicine Review of 2017 confirms there’s conclusive evidence the use of cannabis for pain and varying levels of evidence for many additional debilitating conditions. This despite decades of prohibition making any research (other than into the harms) virtually impossible.

Which all sounds very positive – until you consider the above within the current political landscape; then things start to get ugly….

In 2017 a former official told me ‘off the record’ why progress with MC had stalled in NSW. It turns out that behind the back of then-Premier Mike Baird, other Ministers hatched a plan to wreck things by negotiating with health officials to insist on evidence from unpalatable clinical trials. ‘We’ll be able to tie it all up for years’, one of them said. And I’ve seen this play out since 2014 – repeat research (of that carried out overseas) was commissioned, made ridiculously expensive by Government-funded deals with a pharmaceutical company to supply isolates (not actual cannabis) to patients involved in those trials. It’s occurred in a couple of States, excluding many of the sickest children with intractable epilepsy and potentially harming others who would have done better with alternative products. Some of these children have died. Many have stayed reliant on the illicit market; others still have returned to it.

This is against a backdrop of black market suppliers providing thousands of patients with illegally imported oils while licensed operators offer identical goods (same manufacturer, same brand, literally same everything) at six times the underground price to those who can get a prescription.

But there’s more….

Since ‘legalisation’ various ‘Expert’ Advisory bodies were convened at State and Federal levels – stacked with academics, clinicians and public health gurus renowned for their prohibitionist stances on cannabis and antagonistic toward its use as a medicine. Patient-centric inclusions were minuscule and complaints made – again ‘off the record’ – of bullying to the point of the suggestion a genuine advocate had no place on one Council and should resign.

An FOI demonstrates at Federal level those selected for such roles were the personal choice of a top bureaucrat – a fact camouflaged for the Minister ‘..we should be silent on this,’ ran one email. ‘We should also be totally neutral on the language re. the nomination using only the passive voice so as not to suggest it is a nomination from me….’

Meanwhile in NSW one such ‘expert’ runs the only Government-funded research centre for MC. Creating official, discouraging (and erroneous) prescribing advice to doctors was its first job, including directing medicos to insist that patients sign agreements not to drive whilst prescribed even non-intoxicating cannabis-derived products. This was whether impairment could have been caused or not. Criticism for punishing patients was met with outright denial.

With no sign of any competitive tender, $millions of State cash was somehow secured for such efforts even as that same individual quietly entered the cannabis industry with a family member while failing to declare any conflict of interest. Staggeringly, the company benefits directly or otherwise from Government funding while the anti-cannabis rhetoric serves to stall things as the family firm gets a foothold in an incredibly lucrative business.

And the falsehoods continue, including about the alleged ‘toxicity’ of cannabis and its many adverse effects. The truth however is the opposite; cannabis is largely non-toxic and incredibly safe – especially in comparison to the mountains of opiates, benzodiazepines, anti- epileptics, anti- psychotics and other drugs it can potentially replace. Yet doctors routinely dish these out freely while peak medical bodies use the opiate epidemic as further excuse not to prescribe. Seriously!

Then there’s the attitude of certain medics and some of their trade publications. These, I’m reliably informed – naturally ‘off the record’ – are so biased against cannabis and cannabis medicine there’s no interest even in the semblance of balanced reporting. One even tried sabotaging my own organisation – by ridiculing internationally recognised speakers at our annual Symposium. Colleagues have experienced similar when commissioned to write articles for journals which have later refused to publish them.

I’ve seen the head of a large medical organisation bullied for accrediting doctor training in MC. I’ve heard of journalists who can’t get the most basic of questions answered by peak bodies if those organisations think the answers might undermine their own narrative.

I could continue but I’ll finish with the worst; that doctors contact UIC to help patients find illicit suppliers, that police come to my door asking for similar help and that at least two Government Ministers (one a very senior Federal Minister)have family accessing cannabis on the black market because the system set up in Australia truly is an unmitigated disaster.

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