21 March 2017: Things ain't looking good....
UPDATE 22nd MARCH: The 23rd March Senate vote on the Greens’ Motion to Disallow changes to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Special Access Scheme ‘Category A’ which mean terminally ill patients cannot access cannabis or cannabis products using that ‘pathway’ has been POSTPONED (see part way down below article). We understand the new date will be 11th May or (possibly) June. More details on the Queensland Medical Cannabis Advisory Group’s Facebook page.
A key Ministerial advisor on medical cannabis – one of the world’s most prominent anti-weed thought leaders – has said the public are likely to be ‘disappointed’ at the ‘limited indications’ for which the drug can be used and should ‘have more realistic expectations about what it might deliver.’
In an interview given to ABC Radio’s Health Report programme on 13th March, Professor Wayne Hall of Queensland University said he feels Federal and State Governments were ‘very sensibly’ seeking to approve nothing but ‘medicinal preparations – either drugs like THC or CBD, or standardised cannabis extracts‘ (i.e. pharmaceutical products) but only ‘if they prove to be effective in clinical trials’.
Such remarks are the diametric opposite of what patients, advocacy groups and the general public believe and have said they want – and what the Government implied they would get. If such a ‘vision’ represents the end point in Australia’s medical cannabis journey it’s the death of a dream for its legalisation for such a purpose.
Professor Hall’s name is beginning to appear on this website with monotonous regularity. In January we discussed how the Government’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration which – along with its subsidiary, the Office of Drug Control – now dominates all aspects of medical pot, commissioned a group of academics to ‘review evidence‘ on its medical use and write official clinical guidelines based on their findings.
The trouble was, the cohort, which included Hall himself as well as other notable cannabis critics such as Dr Jan Copeland and Professor Louisa Degenhardt have spent their professional careers demonising the drug and were so antithetical any possibility of a ‘fair trial’ seemed out of the question. ‘Government Puts Foxes In Charge Of Medical Cannabis Henhouse‘ we remarked at the time.
Next, we awarded Hall a six out of five for his consummate unsuitability for a position on the Government’s powerful ‘Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis‘ which once again includes some of the country’s most prominent opponents of pot rather than those who would wish to see it re-introduced as a medicine. ‘Cannabis Council Con: Gov Seeks Inexpert Advice,’ we noted on that occasion.
To add insult to injury, Hall, in his radio interview all but lied outright to listeners when providing a rationale for his views.
‘….there is a very recent review published by the National Academy of Science in the US which I think looked at some 20-odd indications that cannabis has been prescribed for, particularly in the US, allegedly for medicinal purposes. And they found a very small list of indications for which there was some evidence of effectiveness. In the majority of cases their conclusion was that it was modestly effective for some of these indications,’ claimed Hall, sounding very much as though maintaining a straight face.
But here’s what the ACTUAL report itself said:
‘There is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective:
:: For the treatment of chronic pain in adults (cannabis)
:: As anti-emetics in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (oral cannabinoids)
:: For improving patient-reported multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms (oral cannabinoids)
There is moderate evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for:
:: Improving short-term sleep outcomes in individuals with sleep disturbance associated with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis (cannabinoids, primarily nabiximols)’.
This was merely one of many examples where the Professor – for reasons best known to himself – deliberately obfuscates or misleads on what is for many a critical issue and a life-saving medication – something he’s done successfully throughout his career. This is probably largely because of his long association with the now defunct National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, whose staff were redeployed to the ‘evidence review’ project mentioned earlier.
In April 2014, in a letter to the British Medical Journal the President of the UK’s CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform correctly said:
‘The NCPIC is a government funded propaganda organisation concerned with supporting political policies. It has no relationship with science except that it funds, publishes and promotes scientists who provide evidence supporting its aims,’ adding that, when writing an article in the same journal (‘Should Doctors Prescribe Cannabinoids?’ – answer of course, ‘Definitely Not!’) Hall failed ‘to pass the necessary tests of objectivity and impartiality which should be the first requirements for publication in a journal of the reputation of the BMJ.‘
CLEAR’s letter went on to insist: ‘From its first sentence (Hall’s article) demonstrates a determination to overlook great swathes of empirical evidence.’
Two days after the interview was broadcast a politician did something strange. He stood up and told the truth. It was a State representative – Adam Searle, Opposition Leader of the NSW Legislative Assembly – speaking at a gathering of medical cannabis campaigners at Sydney’s Ethics Centre, there (on 15th March) to share stories about successes – some of them little short of miraculous – using medicinal weed (PowerPoint slides are here).
What he said – in the course of discussing new, more compassionate local legislation proposed by his party currently meandering its way through the NSW Parliament – what Mr Searle said was the Federal Government’s ‘system’ for medicinal cannabis was ‘irredeemably flawed’.
The solution, he claimed, would be provided at State level (in, of course, NSW and, it goes without saying, by Labor) but… irredeemably flawed?
While the comment was refreshingly honest it was, nonetheless, a huge under-statement.
Since passage of the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act of 2014 – allegedly to permit cultivation of cannabis for medical use in Australia and pave the way for doctors to be able prescribe and patients to be able to use it – the Government has:
:: put untrained, ill-informed bureaucrats – one of them, notably, some sort of vet (of the animal, not military variety) in charge of writing the rulebook on how such things might occur;
:: in doing so ensured almost nothing of what the legislation was supposedly for has translated into anything like a reality;
:: as discussed earlier, appointed a group of the most virulently anti-cannabis thought leaders and academics to review out of date evidence and create clinical guidelines for the drug’s use on the back of it;
:: convenened an important ‘Advisory Council’ to offer ‘expert advice’ to Ministers but comprising a similarly ridiculous selection of individuals equally anti- the plant;
:: removed the possibility of its use by the terminally ill by changing the rules about access, specifically singling out cannabis (and only cannabis) in such cases;
:: issued widely reported (and normally unquestioned) press releases (for example this one and this) about moves which in reality make matters worse or no better while pretending to take positive steps.
From all of this, it should be clear, Ministers and those working for them (and one would think for the Australian public) have no intention of seriously introducing anything like a workable programme for medical cannabis use. A little-discussed ‘Implementation Statement‘ by the Office of Drug Control last December about ‘cost recovery for regulatory activities’ makes the real intent crystal clear: ‘The pharmaceutical industry is an identified key stakeholder for the medicinal cannabis activity,’ it says, having all but ensured only that industry can possibly navigate the labyrinthine and costly Regulations that have deliberately been spun around it.
Meanwhile all manner of quite separate developments – good, bad and bizarre (with a few all at once) – are taking place with the above their apparently fixed-in-place backdrop.
A couple of weeks ago for example what could be an enormously important report was published by Epilepsy Action Australia indicating nine out of ten people who use cannabis to treat seizures found it more successful than other medications. Nearly a thousand of its clients were surveyed and though the organisation was at pains to admit the exercise wasn’t scientific, it was a large enough sample to be extremely significant. And it indicates upward of 12% of epilepsy sufferers might benefit from using pot. Unfortunately though, as the Huffington Post pointed out, the vast majority are forced to rely on the black market to access such critical medicine – and the Government couldn’t care less.
Then there’s Michael, one of the attendees at the Sydney event mentioned earlier. Appearing with other patients featured on the Greenlight campaign website (the day itself was the culmination of the group’s offensive to raise public awareness of the medical cannabis situation) Michael is little short of a marvel. He spoke about how, probably hours away from death, he began using cannabis to treat the tumour that had led to a gaping hole in his neck. You can download ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs here [WARNING – graphic imagery]. Michael is now cancer-free.
What we cannot say is that cannabis definitely cured him. What we can say is that a cure was effected, to the astonishment of doctors, after he began using such medicine as part of a wider lifestyle regime. But sadly, we cannot say either that he was supported in his decision to do so – far from it. With a prognosis of six months to live Michael needed to access his superannuation to buy what he called ‘natural products’ – but his oncologists refused to co-operate and his cancer grew steadily worse. Full of morphine and hospitalised – and with much help from his GP – a doctor of palliative medicine eventually stepped in, and so began Michael’s recovery. Many involved in his ‘care’ have subsequently gone strangely quiet.
With a determination by patients like this that it’s better to stay ‘illegally alive than legally dead’, such is the state of play in Australia at the present, despite others standing up with Michael last Wednesday and sharing how the drug, obtained and used only by breaking the law, has completely transformed their lives.
Such stories caused Buzzfeed to report ‘The Poster Children For Medical Cannabis Can’t Access Medical Cannabis‘. And they were the stuff of what prompted two of the country’s most highly respected scientific and medical experts, Emeritus Professor Laurie Mather and Dr Alex Wodak, to author a powerful article for online journal The Conversation – ‘Why is it still so hard for patients in need to get medicinal cannabis?‘. In it they argued ‘allocating (it) to the TGA has meant the system is now skewed to an inappropriate, rigid and narrow approach that is also slow moving,’ and that ‘patients and consumers are not equal partners in the policy discussions about medicinal cannabis. They’re merely occasional members of the audience‘.
An engaging online discussion was to follow including a further explanation to one sceptic by Professor Mather of how and why the TGA was unsuited to dealing with something like weed.
‘In being useful, cannabis is neither ‘magical’ nor ‘special’ but it is, at the state of present knowledge, different, or rather different enough, that it does not fit the current standard TGA model,’ Prof. Mather said.
And Dr Wodak appeared on TV last Saturday to re-iterate some of the points they had made.
‘Other countries are moving ahead compassionately, Australia is not,’ he said. ‘We look at cannabis through the lens of law enforecment when it needs to be seen through the lens of health and compassion. …Why should a father, trying to help his child, go to court over something like this?‘
The father he was referring to could easily have been Michael Lambert, in court last Thursday for providing his five year old daughter Katelyn with cannabis that’s been proven to help with her rare form of epilepsy.
‘The prosecution argued there were alternative and legal treatments available to Mr Lambert, while the magistrate also questioned whether home-produced cannabis oil had the same effectiveness as oil produced under clinical conditions,’ an ABC report said.
The case was adjourned until 29th May has all the indications of a turning into a landmark ruling.
Greenlight’s motto for the day was from Cicero: ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto‘ which means ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’. It is no small irony such a laudable aspiration was the maxim used by the South Australian police from 1936 to September 2003, when they replaced it with ‘Creating a Safer Community.’
That would be the same police force that raided compassionate cannabis supplier Jenny Hallam back in January, the woman providing Ben Oakley – one of Buzfeed’s ‘poster children’ – with his much needed medicine, the only drug that’s been found to work. Ben, who suffers from the life-threatening and agonising Stiff Person Syndrome, is no stranger to the spotlight, having met with, among others, former NSW Premier Mike Baird to discuss the problem. His mother Carolyn was there too – and raised the subject of police raids with the Hon. Mr Searle mentioned earlier.
‘The police were just doing their job,’ he replied. ‘Cannabis remains an illegal drug‘.
The same day, in Canberra, members of the Queensland Medical Cannabis Advisory Group had been meeting with TGA mandarins and representatives of the Labor Party about a forthcoming Senate vote discussed by this site before.
Changes by the former Health Minister Sussan Ley to the Administration’s Special Access Scheme meant that cannabis and cannabis products – and only those items – can no longer be obtained under the Scheme’s Category A, designed specifically for the terminally ill. They were snuck in by Statutory Instrument – meaning Parliament was not consulted. Greens Leader Richard Di Natale has a Motion to Disallow them with a vote on 23rd March [UPDATE: now postponed until 11th May]. But the initiative is likely to fail, since Labor refuse to support it, having been advised by the TGA not to do so. It is still possible though to bulk email Labor Senators (list of their emails – with commas – is here) if you’d like to make your views known.
A few days before, cancer victim Lynda Lawrie passed away from the illness she’d battled for years. Mrs Lawrie had been in the news too, after her doctor tried to obtain cannabis by prescription to help with her nausea and vomiting and using (in error) the aforementioned Category A. At first it appeared to be working – the TGA received the application and ratified it accidentally, so the cannabis was shipped and had reached Australia. But as soon as the ‘mistake’ was spotted Mrs Lawrie was prevented from getting her prescribed medication – and died without ever receiving it.
Not long before her death she told Lucy Haslam, founder of pressure group United in Compassion, ‘at my time of need I have basically been dumped at the last minute by my Government‘. Mrs Lawrie had worked for NSW Police for over 25 years.
Farcically – while all this is going on, the Stock Market, purportedly a barometer of any particular sector – is, in both senses of the word, conspicuously high. Investors, in a state of evident oblivion, have poured millions into so-called ‘Pot Stocks’ sending share prices through the roof – which seems to happen whenever the Health Minister opens his mouth and gives the impression of progress.
‘MGC Pharma raises $10 million to fast-track medical cannabis development,‘ said Business News Western Australia. ‘Here’s how much $5,000 invested on Monday in marijuana stock Stemcell Utd Ltd would be worth today‘ yelped The Motley Fool (the answer was $142,300 or nearly $400,000 if you’d sold at the top of the trade). And mining company Queensland Bauxite saw shares skyrocket after striking a deal with Nimbin-based Medical Cannabis Limited/VitaHemp.
Had none of them seen the figures the Federal Government sent to the International Narcotics Control Board to meet Treaty obligations? For the entire year of 2017 the estimate provided for legally cultivated cannabis in Australia is 50,000 GRAMS – with a street value of not much more than $2 million (based on United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s World Drug Report). And firms are being valued sums of up to $100 million.
In the case of Stem Cell Research, the craziness happened after the outfit issued a press release saying they’d appointed ‘Cannabis King’, the colouful Dutch-Australian Nevil Schoenmakers as an advisor. With absolutely no disrespect to Mr Schoenmakers, a long-time fugitive from Australian ‘justice’, did no-one wonder how such a character would fare with the Government’s stringent ‘Fit & Proper Persons’ test which all involved with cultivation need to pass? Just today (21st March) the Sydney Morning Herald reported he was to be rewarded with substantial shares.
Only the Motley Fool’s Scott Phillips writing in (again) the Sydney Morning Herald suggested a bubble that was likely to burst – ‘it’s fun to play, and you might win for a little while – but the odds are well and truly stacked against you,’ he said – but even then didn’t touch upon the INCB estimate or TGA ‘Fit & Proper Persons’ criteria.
With all of this it’s difficult to imagine that unless something is done – and done quickly – Australia’s entire cannabis adventure won’t implode under the weight of its own nonsense leaving a black hole where patients and doctors should have been orbiting access to a valuable medicine.
Such an outcome would be tragic for most of the country but put a smile on the faces of those like Professor Wayne Hall.