Patients risk prosecution as medicinal cannabis faces long road to legalisation

Tom Kies has been using cannibis oil and chewing gum in a bid to treat his cancer. Photo: Justin McManus

Tom Kies has been using cannibis oil and chewing gum in a bid to treat his cancer. Photo: Justin McManus

AFTER a week of political announcements, Victorians who believe in the healing powers of marijuana feel no closer to sourcing the drug legally and say they will continue to risk prosecution for buying questionable products on the black market. 

In response to growing calls for cannabis to be legalised for people with some medical conditions, Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews last week made an election promise to seek advice from the Victorian Law Reform Commission on how people "in exceptional circumstances" could access the drug.

The commission would be asked to report back on how the prescription, manufacture and distribution of medical cannabis could be regulated by August next year.

While the plan opens up the possibility of approved people growing their own cannabis or being protected from criminal charges for possessing it, Health Minister David Davis said he would only allow more clinical trials of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.

This is how Sativex – a cannabis-derived mouth spray that has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for people with multiple sclerosis – became available in Australia.

This path generally relies on pharmaceutical companies identifying a market for a product and believing the investment in lengthy clinical trials and regulatory approval processes is worthwhile.

Many doctors say there is considerable evidence that cannabinoid molecules – there are more than 120 and only one, THC, gets people "stoned" – can relieve pain, stimulate appetite, control nausea and alleviate muscle spasticity, and there is growing proof they can treat seizures. Some say they may even lead to new cancer and obesity treatments. 

This has prompted the Netherlands, Israel, Canada and Spain to decriminalise cannabis for medical purposes. It is also available for prescription in more than 20 US states. 

Melbourne mother Cassie Batten, who has been buying cannabis oil on the black market to treat her son Cooper's intractable epileptic seizures, said while both the Labor and Coalition plans sounded progressive, they would not allow her to legally buy her son's medication any time soon. Last month, police seized vials of Cooper's oil, but no charges have been laid.

Ms Batten said it was ridiculous that she had to rely on various illegal channels to get the drug, without any reassurance of its quality.

She said one Melbourne hospital had even allowed it to be used and put it on Cooper's drug charts.

"Nothing is going to happen urgently with either party and Cooper doesn't have time to wait," she said. "We need action now."  

Tom Kies, a 32-year-old trained lawyer with terminal cancer, has also found himself risking prosecution for importing cannabidiol (CBD) – a compound that does not cause a "high" – to see if it will slow or stop the growth of his tumours.

Since being told there were no more medical treatments for him, Mr Kies said he started researching experimental options, including CBD. 

While he remains sceptical about the low-level evidence in animals that suggests it can treat cancer, he says a willingness to try anything that might prolong his life led him to order oil and CBD-based chewing gum over the internet.

Both arrived in the mail, but a second $2500 order of cannabis oil has since been held up in customs. 

Mr Kies said he was disappointed he may not get the oil and said governments should be doing more to maturely assess the medical potential of cannabis in "a rational and less emotional" way. He said they also had a responsibility to protect people from the harm of questionable black market drugs. 

"People are going to drug dealers and getting a product that isn't what they are paying for, or isn't of the quality that will help them," he said. "That's a huge problem and that's where the dangers come into play, especially if people are giving it to their children."

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