6 Jan 2017: Scrabble to get things together after campaigners blow whistle on DoH double-dealing
As if wrestling with the stable door while the horse is half in the paddock, the Federal Department of Health is in the throes of hurriedly creating an ‘Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis’ after murmurings of discontent from patients and others finding themselves worse off than before laws were changed to ‘legalise’ medical pot.
The Government’s timing is as interesting as the announcement itself which came on 23rd December, hot on the heels of some unfortunate reports in the press. The first of these (behind paywall) appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 4th December and described how the industrial hemp firm Ecofibre had moved operations to the US amid claims Australian rules about growing the plant and manufacturing products from it were ‘unworkable’. The company includes millionaire philanthropist and high-profile medical cannabis campaigner Barry Lambert among its shareholders and provoked a clearly rattled Department of Health to issue a stern (though factually incorrect) rebuttal of the Lambert/Ecofibre allegations the following day.
But more unrest was to follow.
No sooner had the crossfire subsided than Lucy Haslam, founder of Australia’s biggest health charity/advocacy group United in Compassion, together with Dr Alex Wodak, a vastly experienced medic in drug and alcohol services and a veteran of drug law reform gave an (audio) interview to popular online magazine The Conversation.
In it, Mrs Haslam, who’d played a key role in pressurising the Government into legislating for medical cannabis after using the drug to treat the side-effects of her terminally ill son Dan’s chemotherapy, described, in essence, how she’d been hoodwinked by Federal lawmakers.
Discussing regulations the Government has wrapped around the drug’s use she claimed a ‘bureaucratic nightmare,’ had been created which was ‘not going to translate into easy, safe affordable access for patients.’ In fact, she went on, ‘it’s going to create an even bigger black market’.
She described the difficulties – some might call them insurmountable obstacles – faced by those wishing to access such medication and made it clear this wasn’t what she’d had in mind when liaising with policy-wonks prior to the legislation in February 2016.
Worse still, she told of how promises had been broken and her involvement – during an election year – in some formidably high political manoeuvrings.
‘At the time of Dan’s anniversary,‘ she said, referring to the tragic death of her son aged just 24 in February 2015, ‘it was looking like Labor were going to call for the matter to go to Committee. The Government’s Health Ministry rang me and said ‘look if you could get Labor to not require this to go to Committee we could get this legislation through’.
So that’s precisely what Mrs Haslam did, pleading with ALP top brass to forego what would have been an all too lengthy procedure. The Party agreed but on the proviso the Government appoint an Advisory Council to guide the writing of accompanying Regulations, something Mrs Haslam very much wanted as well.
‘So the Government agreed to appoint such a Council,’ she said, ‘but they never did.’
‘I continued to contact them to ask ‘where’s the Advisory Council?’ and I’d be told ‘oh, we’re a bit busy’ or ‘we’re getting to it’ or ‘now we’re in caretaker mode’. So here it is, a year later, we’ve got the Regulations written and they’re very prohibitive, very restrictive and patients have got to jump through hoops to access medical cannabis. So the Advisory Council was never initiated, the Regulations were orchestrated by one or two individuals who have no background in medical cannabis, who didn’t consult and now we’re paying the price. It’s very poorly written, it’s not written with any amount of compassion or desire to see patients get access – it actually reads as being the complete opposite. And that’s down to a couple of individuals who refuse to hear any criticism.’
Such harsh words however richly deserved, from someone considered an ally, must have come as a slap round the face to a Department already embroiled in a row.
The interview, together with the Australian Business Review story and a petition by an advocacy group in Queensland, furious at the Government for tweaking existing rules which, as we have mentioned, now make obtaining cannabis products even more difficult than before legislation was passed all seemed to have an effect.
Just over a fortnight later a spate of newspaper stories popped up declaring ‘Former Liberal to head up cannabis council’. A more detailed outline was provided by the Department of Health but the enterprise bears all the hallmarks of policy made on the fly. Although the DoH says the new Council will sit next month, thus far only a Chair has been appointed – and, for medical cannabis campaigners, its is probably not an inspiring choice.
In 2011 during an ABC radio interview about the use of hemp seed as food stuff – something proponents have long argued would provide an excellent industrial opportunity for Australia while bringing the country into line with the rest of the world – the newly installed head of the nascent ‘Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis’ was violently opposed.
‘It needs to be seen as part of a wider campaign to normalise the use of marijuana,’ he said at the time, making clear, in his view, ‘cannabis itself as a drug is not safe‘.
Dr Andrew Southcott, is, as his title suggests, a qualified medic. As former Liberal MP for Boothby in South Australia however – a seat cynics say was ‘inherited’ from his mother, esteemed Parliamentarian Heather Southcott – ‘career politician’ would be the more accurate label. He resigned at the last election possibly after a failed bid for the Speaker’s job in the House but was – and presumably remains – very much of the Party faithful as his voting record will attest. A brief stint as Shadow Employment Participation, Training and Sport under Malcolm Turnbull was fallowed by a fall from grace under Tony Abbot and he remained on the back benches thereafter. Although no mover and shaker, Southcott did hit the headlines in 2015 after it was revealed he spent $2,700 of public cash in 2013 flying first class with his wife to watch the Australian Open as a guest of health insurer Medibank. Southcott was the Opposition’s Parliamentary Secretary for Primary Healthcare at the time.
His medical experience – hardly extensive, given a working life spent in submission to the Liberal Whip – coupled with such undoubted loyalty makes him perhaps an unsurprising pick for a Federal Health Department known but not loved for its evident antipathy toward the re-introduction of weed to the clinicians armoury.
More appointments will surely follow but the Government – and Southcott himself – face problems. For years research into the possible benefits of cannabis has been met with obstruction with the bulk of funding spent exploring its harms. Australia itself has an impressive collection of naysayers, antagonists and sceptics ready and willing to immerse themselves in the development – or throttling – of the Commonwealth’s ‘medical cannabis initiative’. Some are already at work on a project called ‘Cannabis and cannabinoids for medicinal purposes: Reviewing the evidence‘ which will produce guidelines for healthcare practitioners at the end of 2017.
Finding experts in favour of the drug with research papers under their belt or those with experience in actually administering it is likely to be far more difficult though a few do exist in this country. But it is overseas to which the Government should really look if it is ever to get serious on cannabis. In the US and Israel in particular real progress has been made, and sound knowledge acquired. America even has its own societies of ‘cannabis clinicians’ while Israeli studies into the drug’s use in a variety of settings is held in the highest repute.
Patient representation is crucial for the new Council too – without it the Government will arguably be falling down on its own Medicines Policy and Quality Use of Medicines Strategy as well as sending a powerful signal that where individual health and well-being are concerned it really couldn’t care less.
So a lot of eyes will be on the Health Department over what it decides to do next. With State Elections on the horizon and activists getting more restive it may yet find itself forced to do what many would call the ‘right thing’. Which is to deliver on its promise and make medical cannabis genuinely available throughout Australia to those needing it rather than merely pay lip service to the idea.