Medical marijuana: The question of legality

STOPPING the car to roll a joint halfway between Melbourne and Bendigo was not a scene Mick English ever imagined himself in. 

But then, he could also never have imagined that his brother Chris would contract AIDS and die at age 38, weighing just 34 kilograms.

Before 1994 when Chris passed way, Mr English made fortnightly trips to Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in Melbourne to pick up a package of marijuana provided by doctors for Chris to smoke.

"He was quite ill and to alleviate the pain, they used to give them marijuana," Mr English said.

It never occurred to him that his brother's use of the drug was illegal because it was provided by the hospital, which was funded by the government. 

"I knew it was a prohibited drug, but in the context of using it for pain management, I couldn't care less. 

"It was the only way he could overcome his pain."

When Chris' hands became too weak to make the "rollies" himself, Mr English did it for him.

And as his lungs became "like a sponge with holes in it", Mr English watched his brother fade away.

Having seen the "wonderful" relief his brother got from marijuana, Mr English sees no reason why the drug shouldn't be allowed for medicinal use.

A week ago when police raided Melbourne couple Rhett Wallace and Cassie Batten's home and took them into custody for giving their son cannabis oil for his severe seizures, Mr English was frustrated.

He wrote to Victorian Attorney General Robert Clarke: "They are not in any way being 'criminal in intent'. They love their son dearly and want to see him pain and seizure free, so please let them continue their method of medication as before. Get a doctor to prescribe the method if necessary. It was done for my brother, so it can be done."

Confusingly, there are many families using the same drug Mr Wallace and Ms Batten were giving their son who have never had trouble with police.

I knew it was a prohibited drug, but in the context of using it for pain management, I couldn't care less. It was the only way he could overcome his pain.

Mick English

The O'Connells in Mia Mia near Castlemaine have been using cannabis oil for almost two years without fear of police interference.

What's more, their children, Tara, 9, and Sean, 12, are being given the drug at school, day care and government-funded respite centres - people in the education and health systems are administering medicinal cannabis to the O'Connell children.

But since recent events, Mother Cheri O'Connell is concerned about what Mr Wallace and Ms Batten's experience could mean for her family and the other 150 families she says are using the drug. 

"What we want to know is, are we going to get a visit (from police)? If you're coming, come now and tell us. Don't leave us hanging months on end."

Despite her anxiety about a visit from police, Ms O'Connell said she wouldn't blame them.

"If I had police at the door, I would not for a second blame that officer, they are doing their job."

Indeed a Victoria Police spokeswoman said in relation to the issue: "The primary role of Victoria Police is to enforce the law and police work within the legislation set by the state government."

Ms O'Connell said the power to spur change rested with health minister David Davis.

She has been trying to get a meeting with state health minister David Davis but has been unsuccessful so far. "I think if he meets these kids he might change his mind and therefore he doesn't want to meet them."

"I know it's not going to happen overnight, we're not going to get everything in one legislative change, but we need the ones for urgent cases to happen now."

A spokesman for the minister said the government had no intention of legalising medicinal cannabis. "There must be a strong body of scientific research that proves it is more effective than other drugs currently used to manage similar conditions." 

The same sentiment was reflected on the other side of politics by member for Bendigo West Maree Edwards who said "not having the full information" was a barrier. 

She said Victorian Labor had no plans to change current laws. "If anything is going to change, it will need huge support from the medical fraternity," Ms Edwards said.

The Australian Medical Association Victoria confirmed more research was needed but did not dismiss the possibility of supporting medicinal cannabis.

"In Australia, extensive clinical trials must be undertaken for any new medicine - cannabis is no exception," AMA Victoria president Dr Tony Bartone said.

He said there was a growing body of evidence that cannabis was an "effective treatment for some types of chronic pain" and that AMA acknowledged its legal use in Canada, the USA, UK and Germany.

But Dr Bartone said evidence showed recreational use caused "higher rates of psychotic illness".

"If deemed safe and effective, medicinal cannabis should be made available to patients for whom existing medications are not as effective."

"Any promotion of medicinal cannabis will require extensive public education to highlight the harmful effects of its non-medical use, including its correlation with mental illness."

The stigma of cannabis as an illegal drug is also a hurdle standing in the way of the case for legalisation.

"For us it's important that people are recognising that we're not harming our kids," Ms O'Connell.

"We don't go into this lightly. We've gone into it because nothing else has worked."

Tara used to have up to 200 seizures a day and doctors thought she might not live past her seventh birthday. 

Since taking cannabis oil she is seizure-free.


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