1 March 2017: 'Minister for Magic' and the art of mis-directing attention
ARTICLE UPDATED 2 MARCH 2017 – INCLUDES LATEST NAT. FIGURES FOR CANNABIS PRESCRIPTION AUTHORISATIONS
UPDATE: Shortly after the below appeared, Queensland Health – which is discussed within the piece – published two significant notifications on its website. These are explored in an addendum at the end of the article.
Anyone turning on the TV or reading a paper last Wednesday (22nd Feb) could easily be forgiven for believing real progress was being made with Australia’s medical cannabis ‘journey’.
Greg Hunt, the new-(ish) Commonwealth Minister for Health had told the media – and therefore the public – of plans to import pot ‘in a matter of weeks’, with the aim of speeding up patient access – a problem advocacy groups have been complaining about furiously since the New Year – to the blushes of some in the Capital.
By general consensus and employing any rational yardstick, the Government has completely messed up – its programme to reintroduce the herb to the physician’s impedimenta a failure – despite having told patients and the public at large it would do so.
In February last year, after an 18-month battle, the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act was raced through Parliament permitting the plant’s cultivation for research and medicinal purposes here for the first time in decades.
People were promised the ‘missing link’ which would connect ‘farm to pharmacy’ and ‘simplify arrangements’ for legal possession by those who’d been prescribed it. Amid huge fanfare, the move was described as ‘historic’.
Since then though things have gone terribly, horribly wrong – if anything about it could be described as such, it’s that it’s been an historic, monumental disaster.
Once legislation was changed, regulations were created which make growing the plant all but impossible with equally impractical rules applied to the manufacture of products made from it. Access to cannabis medicines – and for some it’s a life and death matter – has been completely inadequate too. The former Heath Minister even went so far as to attempt to remove the drug – and, specifically, only that drug – from a ‘pathway’ that would have made it available to the terminally ill. This in particular enraged one patient group enough to persuade Greens Leader Richard di Natale to seek to disallow such a rule through a Motion requiring a vote in the Senate. This will take place on March 23rd.
If all that wasn’t bad enough the Government also hand picked some of the country’s leading anti-cannabis theorists and propagandists to ‘review evidence‘ on the plant’s medical benefits and then create official clinical guidelines to use it – based on out-of-date information.
The Department of Health in fact has been responsible for so many obstacles and blunders this website has had difficulty keeping track – both of them and the response by campaigners.
The upshot though, in any case, is that a year on from when the law was changed, just a handful of people have managed to get a legal supply and not many more than twenty doctors have become ‘Authorised Prescribers’, all of them childhood epilepsy specialists. Farcically, those who did manage to obtain that status aren’t allowed to identify themselves to the public while on the cultivation front, only a single licence to grow the plant has so far been issued – to a company wanting it for research.
To appreciate fully how much of a policy debacle the whole thing has been, it’s necessary to understand there are an estimated 100,000 Australians currently using cannabis as a medicine (the number shoots up to several million if you include recreational use). Many of them depend on it for their lives, all other drugs having failed. They source their products from perhaps several hundred suppliers throughout the country some of whom provide it for free. All are open to arrest and prosecution and every time the police raid such individuals – as happened recently in in the case of Adelaide’s Jenny Hallam – patients are cut off without critical medication. In the instance referred to, one of Ms Hallam’s ‘customers’ died.
This then, roughly speaking, is the backdrop to last Wednesday’s Ministerial pronouncement – and for untrammelled brilliance in the art of mis-direction the Heath Minister is up there among the greats – think David Copperfield perhaps or PT Barnum, when he quipped ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’. Either way, Hunt’s antics more befit the theatrical magician or showman than wanna-be younger Statesman – at least on the cannabis front.
The headlines were full of his yarn.
‘New laws to make access to medicinal cannabis easier for sick Australians,’ gushed 9News, ‘Medicinal cannabis supply given boost after Greg Hunt fast-tracks importation,’ enthused the Guardian while the Huffington Post panted ‘Medical Cannabis Available For Sale In Australia In Just Weeks.’
There were dozens more like these as well – hundreds in fact counting Australia’s local and regional press; with few exceptions, the media had swallowed it whole.
The trouble was though the whole thing was largely a nonsense – the latest salvo in a war of words between a Government feeling the pressure and patient groups sick of being fobbed off.
And while the ‘news’ looked great in the papers – for all the world as if the Government had chosen to act – on the ground things appeared rather different.
For a start no real changes at all took place with regard to access – the implication that they had a mere fiction. Hunt’s press release on the matter said: ‘The Turnbull Government will facilitate faster access by qualified doctors to medicinal cannabis for patients with the necessary approvals,’ (our italics) but the ‘necessary approvals’ were by and large over-looked.
What he was saying, in the real world, was that those involved would still need to use the appalling ‘Category B’ application system under the Government’s unwieldy Special Access Scheme – the same one Ministers tinkered with to disqualify dying (Category A) patients from obtaining cannabis medicines.
Did it ease the situation of those currently using unregulated products – i.e. the vast majority?
Was there any possibility they could obtain ‘full spectrum’ plant material that could be compounded to make sure they had products equivalent to those they were already (but illegally) using?
If the intention was to move users from the illicit to the licit market, would such individuals and their families be supported in transitioning from their current (illegal) medicines to those offered by companies awarded import licences? And if no legal – and bio-equivalent – alternative were available would those actually wanting a legal supply but unable to get one remain at risk of the law?
These are crucial questions because many – carers of children with intractable epilepsy for example – have found and use medicines which actually work, often with incredible results. Asking them to give up something so effective with no real alternative being offered could spell the death of a child.
But on these the Government was silent, because the answer is a resounding and several-times ‘No!’ as it continues to stonewall, obsessing about surface rather than substance, hype as opposed to honesty and politics above patient well-being.
It’s true several outlets did pick up on some of this, including Gizmodo which described problems with the Special Access Scheme adding ‘experts were divided’ on the idea of importation while the ABC interviewed a number of patients and carers most of whom were scathing about goings on.
Most didn’t though, and all missed the real story – which was that the Government had again misled the public – and misled it badly – over its plans about medical pot, as it has done compulsively since the word go.
Even the normally composed and restrained Lucy Haslam, founder of the advocacy group United in Compassion which campaigns around patient access was moved to denounce the Government for ‘coming close to an outright lie’ in an article recently for The Telegraph.
And the AMA – an organisation whose stance on medicinal weed must surely at times veer toward the criminally negligent – even that body saw through the Hunt ruse, telling Australian Doctor ‘all that’s happened here is that (the proposed move) has increased the availability of sourcing should we have a patient that falls within the narrow clinical guidelines that warrant therapeutic intervention.’
That, as much as anything hit the nail on the head.
It was reminiscent of the week previous, when the ‘Copperfield of Canberra’ tried to pull off the egregious assertion he was busy ensuring a ‘safe and responsible supply’ of medicinal cannabis by creating a new ‘Advisory Council’ to provide ‘expert’ help.
‘We recognise that access to medicinal cannabis is of vital importance to many Australians,’ smarmed the treacly press notice. ‘But we must ensure this is done in a way that is safe and responsible‘.
‘To help achieve this, we have established and appointed members to the Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis – which will provide expert advice to government‘.
No mention of course the Council had been promised a year earlier and was supposed to have taken responsibility for the Regulations now in place, in the end authored by ham-fisted bureaucrats (one with a background in veterinary medicine) who’ve managed to make such a mess. And no mention of the fact that, among the Council members, not one was an expert in cannabis and many were rabidly opposed both to it and its medical use.
With all this and more the aroma of rat is beginning to get overwhelming.
And in case anyone is in any doubt of just how bad the situation in reality is, they should look no further than something that took place last Friday (24th Feb) outside Queensland Parliament.
Though not directly related to what the Federal Health Minister had up his sleeve two days earlier (‘pick a card, any card!’ one can almost hear him purr) it is nonetheless an excellent portrait of what many in the patient community are daily obliged to endure.
It comes in the shape of a press conference held by Steve Dickson, the Queensland MP who defected to One Nation supposedly because of cannabis – though on this occasion party politics aren’t the point.
Appearing with him was Carol Ireland of Epilepsy Action together with Michelle Whitelaw and Steve Peek both parents of children with intractable epilepsy.
The story almost beggars belief.
The cannabis Mr Peek used to keep his daughter Suli alive and in reasonable heath had been sourced illegally, so in what looked like a major step forward, he and Ms Ireland were thrilled after meeting with the Queensland Premier and Chief Health Officer last month.
There, in what seemed like a breakthrough, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told them Queensland Health would analyse Suri’s then current cannabis-based medicine and seek a bio-equivalent product from an international supplier to replace the one she was using.
And she said her Government would also:
:: Cover the expenses of importing that product on compassionate grounds;
:: Assist Suli’s doctors and a nominated dispensing pharmacist in completing and submitting required applications;
:: Extend the same offer to all Queensland families currently using illegal cannabis based products.
For families who couldn’t cover the costs involved the Premier also promised to provide assistance in meeting them, again on compassionate grounds.
None of it though came to pass – the entire exercise it turned out had consisted of empty promises.
Mr Peek takes up the story from here:
‘After the meeting I contacted the hospital because we needed a ‘treating specialist’ to prescribe a legal product for my daughter –but none of the specialists would do a prescription; they refused to.
‘But my daughter’s GP will do a prescription. So I rang up the (Queensland) Chief Medical Officer and told her. And she said ‘well you need a treating specialist. I’ll give your GP the name of two specialists and the GP will pick one and that person will be your daughter’s treating specialist. They will guide the GP through the process of applying for a legal product.
‘Since then, Queensland Health has denied this – I’ve been told ‘no, we never said that. You have to get your daughter’s treating specialist – we will not provide one.’ I’ve also been told the Government will not fund the application – we have to apply to the supplier and ask them to fund it on a compassionate basis. The Government will not fund it. We’ve also been told – after my daughter’s GP asked about testing the product and sourcing a similar one – we were then told that, no, the Government will not test the product, we have to get it done ourselves.’
All this, said Mr Peek, was making it impossible. ‘We cannot get a legal product. We would love to but we can’t.‘
It’s a situation that is untenable – and a battle the Government, eventually, must lose because the genie is now half out of the bottle; people think cannabis is available for medical purposes when the fact is it clearly is not.
Despite the publicity last week, and despite what the public has been led to believe, such tactics, in the end, are bound to fail.
If Ministers don’t want a legalised medical cannabis programme in Australia – and precious little suggests that they do – they should say so and come clean with all concerned.
Pretending otherwise by reciting one thing while in practice doing the exact opposite is hardly a recipe for political popularity.
Queensland Health, most lately under fire because of the above, yesterday published an item on its website, making clear it would not be considering the possibility of any kind of amnesty for medical cannabis users or suppliers.
It also published a second article ‘Medicinal cannabis: what is it and is it different to marijuana?’
Both were akin to some of the tricks played by the Federal Government (also discussed above) indicating Queensland politicians are just as up for a ‘propaganda war’ (now looking more like an onslaught) as are their Commonwealth colleagues. Even the usually very proper Lawyers Weekly described such shenanigans as ‘another example of the spin doctors at their best’ – leaving activists, somehow, forever battling to straighten the record.
We’ll go into what Queensland have said in more detail at a future point but in essence the story remains one known but not loved by patients. It is that illicitly sourced medications are untested and dangerous and (somehow) their equivalents are available legally.
But the Governments’ latest offerings – including those of the State itself – should be read in the context of some recently received and very interesting facts. They were gathered by Medical Cannabis Research Australia who made an FOIA request to the Federal Health Ministry. No indication is given of what product(s) are being referred to and how many might be for the same patient (i.e. those in any given state could all relate – possibly – to one individual). Nonetheless, to show just how ‘successful’ the current system for accessing cannabis products has been, here are the figures, State by State, of the number of Special Access Scheme approvals there have been between the dates 01/06/16 to 17/2/17. Note, specifically, Queensland, one of which is, in any case, well known.
- VIC – 26 approvals
- QLD – 3 approvals
- NSW – 4 approvals
- SA – 1 approval
TOTAL 34 approvals
Hardly impressive and hardly suggestive of an administration genuinely wishing to put medicinal cannabis into the hands of those needing it.