MP stirs pot over medical cannabis

By Danielle Ford.

Talking, chewing and walking. Daily actions most people learn by the age of three. However, until two years ago, 11-year-old Jai Whitelaw was unable to do any of these. Debilitated by up to 500 seizures a day, the Eatons Hill youngster was on 35 different medications, which were rotting away his teeth and destroying his stomach lining. After 50 hospital admissions, five broken bones and several dental reconstructions over five years, Jai’s mother, Michelle Whitelaw, felt he was living on borrowed time.

Desperate and with no other pharmaceutical options left, Whitelaw turned in 2014 to a product she told ABC News she never thought she would use. “I’d never touched cannabis or seen it in my whole life and I thought it was disgusting, dirty, horrible and criminal,” she said. After sourcing the medicalised version of the illicit drug on the black market Whitelaw said she should have turned to it earlier. “I wish I’d done it five years ago because of all the damage done by the pharmaceutical drugs,” she told the ABC. On July 3 last year, Jai reached the milestone of being seizure-free for one year. Whitelaw told The Courier-Mail his health has improved so much he is now able to do things he never could before. “He can brush his teeth, he can toilet, he can tell me when he needs the toilet and he can at times tell me when he’s hungry and thirsty, he couldn’t do that before,” she said.

The Whitelaw’s story is not a lone case, with multiple similar stories shared on the Medical Cannabis Users Association of Australia Facebook page. State Member for Buderim, Steve Dickson, said it was the many stories he has been told, like the Whitelaw’s, that have made him such a strong advocate for legalisation of the product. “A lot of people that have bought their children or relatives to see me, who have been affected by many, many illnesses, but epilepsy in particular,” he said. “Brain tumours, tremors, you name it, a variety of different symptoms that have been treated by a product that is illegal.” Dickson has spent a lot of time with the Whitelaws over the past few years and said the transformation he has personally seen in Jai is mind-blowing. “You know you’ve got to get your head around the seizures, from electric shock to fully on the ground, arching out, can’t breathe, losing all bodily functions, every day of his life,” he said. “When I see these changes with my own eyes and when I meet these families that are driven to use black market products to keep their kids alive, to give them some sort of normality in their lives, who wouldn’t fight for it.”

Dickson had been a fearless advocate of medical cannabis over the last few years, going as far as to deflect from the Liberal National Party to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party over this issue. “When I went to my colleagues in parliament, in the party room, I was laughed at about this topic, they thought it was funny,” he said. “I don’t think it’s funny when we’re dealing with people’s lives, I don’t think it’s funny at all, I think it’s pretty bloody serious. I went to Senator Pauline Hanson, she bought this matter up at federal government level and asked questions within the parliament. She was the only one who gave me support and I thought that was pretty bloody good.”

Legislation to make the manufacturing of cannabis for medical and research purposes was passed by the Federal Government in February last year. The changes made in the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 then came into effect in October. Part of the amendment Bill outlines a strict and detailed licencing scheme, where the Federal Government awards cultivation licences to approved companies. A Sunshine Coast-based company, Medifarm, was awarded one of the licences given out by the Federal Government. Medifarm founder and director Benjamin Adam said not only were they awarded the first licence in Queensland, but they were also the first private entity, outside of government, to get a licence. Adam commends the Federal Government for being involved in the legalisation process. “It’s a very clever way to do it, because not all countries have a federal blessing,” he said. “If you look at America for example, it’s very big, but it’s state by state…and federally, where medicine is really governed, it’s really important, and Australia took that initiative and federally approved it.”

“I don’t think it’s funny when we’re dealing with people’s lives, I don’t think it’s funny at all, I think it’s pretty bloody serious.” Buderim MP Steve Dickson

While the Federal Government has taken control of the cultivation laws, there are still multiple hoops to jump through to access the drug, with differing and confusing state-based laws. During the final reading of the Bill in the upper house Senator Lisa Singh foreshadowed the possibility of issues arising at the state levels. She said the most important step to making it available to those who need it was at the state level. “So I rise to speak on this today in the hope that, in the coming months, states and territories in Australia will work together to ensure that medicinal cannabis is legal, safe and available to those in need,” she told the Senate. “In passing this bill we are doing our part at the federal level but we also need the states to do theirs to make medicinal cannabis available to those families who need it most.”

In Queensland the Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Bill 2016 was approved last October, and the new regulations were put in place at the start of March. The regulations allow authorised doctors to decide whether to treat a patient with medical cannabis on a case-by-case basis, regardless of the condition or age. While supporters of medical cannabis argue it greatly improves quality of life, President of the Australia Medical Association Queensland (AMAQ), Doctor Chris Zappala, told the ABC he believes many GPs will refuse to prescribe the drug. Despite it now being legal, the lack of clinical evidence on the long-term effects may put some doctors off administering the drug. “We don’t know what long term effects it might be having on the developing child,” he said. “So you might turn round and say ‘thank goodness we got rid of their seizures’ but then run into other problems down the track.” Dr Zappala will support any doctor who refuses to prescribe the drug, even if a patient requests it. “If you’re not familiar with something, if you’re not convinced within yourself that it works and you’re doing the right thing, then you don’t use it,” he said. He also highlights the fact there are no guidelines surrounding exactly what conditions they would be allowed to prescribe it for, the form it would come in or the dosage levels.

A Sunshine Coast company has been awarded the first medical cannabis licence in Queensland. Photo by Rusty Blazenhoff, Flickr

Drug prevention organisation, Drug Free Australia, object to the legalisation of medical cannabis in an official position statement, citing “its origins have not come from the medical profession, but rather special interest groups and marijuana companies, that can be likened to ‘big tobacco’, where profit is the main motive”. In their statement they quoted Dr Kevin Sabet from the University of Florida who said, “Marijuana companies, like their predecessors in the tobacco industry, are determined to keep lining their pockets”. Buderim MP Dickson agrees there is money to be made from the medical cannabis industry, but objects that is the main motivation behind legalisation. “Will people make money out of this in the long term? Probably,” he said. “To me, the first issue is it will help a whole lot of people, that is the first and foremost thing. Second issue is then that it will create a lot of jobs. Finally, they’ll probably make money out of it. Do I care? Not at all. I want to see this product made available to all Australians as soon as possible, if not people throughout the world, to help these horrible illnesses and bring some good to the lives of sufferers.”

Medifarm’s director, Adam, has owned a different medical business before, and said for him it was about that good feeling you get when you see people leaving better. “Businesses are interested in making a lot of money, medical businesses are not different,” he said. “For me the mark of distinction is being able to make money, while helping people get better and live their lives more comfortably.” Managing director of Auscann, another Australian medical cannabis company, Elaine Darby, told The Daily Telegraph she was initially quite sceptical about the drug but after looking into research thought it was a “game-changer” and had the potential to be a big business. “There are thousands of Australians that suffer from those ailments so this really is going to be a big industry, worth millions,” she said. “The approval process for locally grown crops is extremely cumbersome to try and prevent the drug getting into the wrong hands and unscrupulous operators taking advantage of sick patients.” She does not deny there will be some “bad eggs” pop up once the industry really takes off, but said these types of people exist in the current pharmaceutical industry.

Dickson compares the potential of the medical cannabis industry to the existing opium industry. “Australia exports 53 per cent of the world’s opium supply for medical purpose out of Tasmania,” he said. “Think about what opium makes, it doesn’t just make pharmaceuticals, it makes dangerous drugs that kill people. Medical cannabis, what’s the difference? I’ve never heard of anyone dying from pot, but I’m hearing about it saving a whole lot of people’s lives.” Regardless of the sceptics Dickson will continue to fight for the rights of people like Jai Whitelaw, who struggle everyday with debilitating illnesses, seeking relief from a product he believes works.

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