Mrs Haslam, of Australia’s biggest health charity, advocacy group, United in Compassion, together with Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, veteran of drug law reform with vast experience in drug and alcohol services, gave an interview in 2016. Mrs Haslam, who’d played a key role in pressuring the Federal Government into legislating for medical cannabis, described how she’d been hood-winked, with promises broken. “At the time of Dan’s anniversary … The Government’s Health Ministry said, ‘look if you could get Labor to not require this to go to Committee we could get this legislation through’”. Precisely what Mrs Haslam did. The Labor Party agreed on the proviso the Government appointed an Advisory Council to guide Regulation writing, something Mrs Haslam really wanted. “So the Government agreed ... a year later, we’ve got Regulations … very prohibitive, very restrictive … orchestrated by one or two individuals who have no background in medical cannabis, who didn’t consult … It’s very poorly written … not with any amount of compassion or desire to see patients get access … the complete opposite. And that’s down to a couple of individuals who refuse to hear any criticism”.
The Federal Government regulations are a bureaucratic nightmare which are “not going to translate into easy, safe, affordable access for patients”. In fact, “it’s going to create an even bigger black market”. Mrs Haslam described the somewhat insurmountable obstacles faced by those wishing to access medication and made it clear it wasn’t what she’d had in mind. A Queensland patient advocacy group petitioning Canberra, furious at Government claims the ‘drug’ had been legalised for medical use were “false and misleading”, called the idea patients could go to their doctor and be prescribed cannabis, “political spin and propaganda”. The consensus was the Government had tweaked the existing rules and made obtaining cannabis products even more difficult than before legislation was passed!
“The lack of humanity is shameful, if you let an animal suffer
like this you’d be dragged over hot coals”,
Amending existing drugs legislation to allow for the plant’s cultivation, the Federal Government rescheduled cannabis, within the national Poisons Standard, changing it from a Schedule 9 (Prohibited) substance to a Schedule 8 (Controlled) one. At the same time the Office of Drug Control (ODC) was established to take responsibility for the licensing end of things and middle-ranking officials with no expertise in the subject quickly got to work creating the regulations that have caused so much affront. Patient access would be dependent on ‘Special Schemes’ already in use at the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) through which, under certain circumstances, doctors can prescribe and patients may obtain (at their own expense) products unapproved in Australia.
But these too were tweaked to make cannabis more difficult to obtain than any other supposedly lawful drug. The Government meanwhile continues to claim “the benefits and risks of medicinal cannabis have not been adequately characterised”, a position at odds with current scientific and medical evidence which led to the law changes in the first place. And it contrasts markedly with the former Health Minister’s pledge to make the TGA Schemes work effectively: “The steps we take in health must always be with the patients in mind and this is very much a measure for the patients … their advice, their input, their passion and their advocacy has brought this to our attention”, she told Parliament the day the law was amended.
On 5 December 2016 the industrial hemp firm Ecofibre announced in the Australian Financial Review that it was leaving Australia. “We have an Australian company, Australian seeds, Australian shareholders, but we have to go to America because of the legislation”. The shift of operations to the US was amid claims Australian rules about growing cannabis and manufacturing products from it were unworkable. Millionaire philanthropist and high-profile medical cannabis campaigner Barry Lambert, who made headlines when he gifted over AU$33 million to Sydney University for research into medicinal cannabis, said a federal law that was supposed to legalise medicinal cannabis had far too many restrictions.
Regulations laid down by the Government’s ODC, to licence, regulate and monitor cannabis cultivation and product manufacture, stipulate that growers must have a licensed manufacturer lined up to buy their crop, while manufacturers have to demonstrate a market, with customers. Meanwhile, governance only allows for existing compounds to be prescribed. A manufacturer can’t make something unless there’s a demonstrable market and the market cannot be demonstrated unless the manufacturer has a commodity to be prescribed! “It’s ridiculous”, Mr Lambert said. “And the government is saying, ‘We know better’? They have no bloody idea”.
The Government took the unusual step of publishing a rebuttal of the Lambert/Ecofibre allegations, which was factually incorrect. The statement claimed the ODC was already in the process of assessing medical cannabis licence applications and insisted an increasing number of requests for cannabis derived products had been received and approved, something patient organisations flatly refute. Mr Lambert commented that the Federal Government legislation/regulations were outdated, uninformed and uncaring, noting further that the fight for access by the sick in Australia was just warming up. Campaigners and industry insiders claim the rules, which came into force on the first of November 2016, have, if anything, made the plant harder to grow and medicine no easier to obtain.
Mr Lambert and his wife, Joy, made their donation after seeing the difference cannabis-based medicinal oil made to their grand-daughter, Katelyn, who can suffer up to 1,400 seizures a day because of her rare form of epilepsy, Dravet syndrome. “Her attendance in hospital has dropped 89%”, Mr Lambert said. Mr Lambert’s son, Katelyn’s father Michael, was last year charged with cultivating cannabis and will face court in February and March, 2017. The Lambert donation, hailed as a benefit to international research, was announced with fanfare by the University of Sydney and then NSW Premier Mike Baird. “This is something that is going to reverberate around the world. We are now leading this country and, in many respects, the world”. Mr Lambert said he hadn’t seen the Premier since. “He doesn’t appear to have done anything worthwhile at this point in time” (the now former Premier resigned in January 2017 citing family reasons after 10 years in politics he qualified for a public-service pension, so time to quit). He said he had not seen much progress from the University, either. “They still haven’t done any trials, they are still playing with the mice and other things, I assume”.
The inaction means the Lambert funds will go overseas, with AU$4 million going to Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, US). “They’ve got the right approach to it”, Mr Lambert said. “They’re going to be out there doing stuff immediately because some of them won’t be around in 20 years. They shouldn’t have to break a law”. A spokeswoman for the NSW Minister for Medical Research would not comment on Mr Lambert’s remarks but said the Government had committed AU$3.5 million to explore the use of cannabis products (pharmaceuticals) for children. She also said 40 doses of Epidiolex, a pharmaceutical cannabis-based product still undergoing clinical trials which provides 39% seizure cessation (whole plant cannabis provides up to 100% seizure cessation), had been granted under its Compassionate Access Scheme.
Ecofibre said the hemp they successfully grew for a decade and a half in the Hunter Valley (NSW) was perfect. Authorities however, said the crop was fine for industrial purposes, containing only small traces of THC, but it could not be used to make medicine as open field growing conditions did not meet the strict ODC cultivation criteria. What might occur next is a matter for speculation; in the words of one Ecofibre executive, “The draconian measures being put in place do not in any way support patients’ rights to access this medication and equally make it unviable for producers and manufacturers”. Barry Lambert said, “The chance for Australia to be smart and innovative has once again been thwarted by our government”.
No state government has fully legalised use of medicinal cannabis, although the NSW government’s clinical trials could open the way for certain approved pharmaceuticals. However, because of Australia’s tight laws the cannabis used in the NSW trials on humans has to be imported from Canada and the Netherlands. Legislation surrounding cannabis is the opposite of what many campaigners had wanted, with state and territory laws bringing an additional tier of bureaucracy. Patients wanting access to cannabis or doctors who wish to prescribe it must first obtain permission from the Federal Government’s national Regulator the TGA and then from their state or territory health department with varying rules between jurisdictions. One, the Northern Territory, doesn’t grant any permission at all.
The former Federal Health Minister unveiled the Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis on 23 December, 2016, saying she wanted to make sure ‘medicinal cannabis’ went through the same testing process as any other drug. “It’s appropriate to do it as quickly as possible but there’s always the Special Access Scheme for terminally ill patients with no hope for treatment”, she said. A more detailed outline was provided on the Department of Health (DoH) website. Campaigners and industry insiders claim the rules, which came into force on the first of November 2016, made the plant harder to grow and medicine no easier to obtain. Throughout the entire saga no medical cannabis users were consulted and the result has been chaos and a barely concealed antipathy toward not only the Turnbull Government but the bureaucrats in its employ.
Australia’s move to legalise medicinal cannabis is a huge failure, critics of the scheme say, and the country’s Federal Government is on a collision course with would-be commercial producers and patient groups less than two months after the legislative and regulatory changes took effect that were intended to permit the plant’s cultivation and use for therapeutic purposes. Dogged by a litany of woes since its inception in early 2016 including, lest it be overlooked, the fact that no allowances have been made for those found driving with cannabis (lawfully) in their system. Impairment is not necessary for an offence to have taken place and cannabis, notoriously, can take days to exit the body while drug-driving is heavily punished. Passage of the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act last February should, in the words of the former Health Minister, have provided the “missing link” that would enable states and territories to “cultivate and supply cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes”. The “missing link” she said then was “from farm to pharmacy”, an effective enough soundbite though bearing little resemblance to fact. It was nevertheless seen as a promise by campaigners who are now feeling extremely short-changed.As a footnote, the former Health Minister who fronted the cannabis debacle thus far, resigned in January 2017. It was really not a great time to be busted in the entitlements ‘cookie jar’, amidst stories of single parents, students, pensioners and people with disabilities being pursued for debts that, in many cases, they did not even owe. Nothing could better illustrate how woefully out-of-touch the Federal Government has become than a minister popping out to buy an “unplanned, unanticipated” (which turned out to be a lie as she’d contacted a real estate agent about the property, owned by a donor to and member of the Liberal Party, months beforehand) AU$795,000 luxury flat while travelling on the taxpayers’ dime, at the same time as Centrelink was referring distraught victims of its robo-debt recovery debacle to the suicide hotline, Lifeline.