31st May 2017: Media, Government & medical profession come down hard on those fighting for access to medicinal pot
The well-known health practitioner, maverick cannabis champion and disqualified medic Andrew Katelaris – dubbed ‘Dr Pot‘ by the media – was arrested yesterday afternoon (30th May) following an explosive TV programme last Sunday in which he was shown illegally manufacturing and administering products made from the plant.
The arrest, reported in today’s Telegraph, makes him the latest casualty in, essentially, an all out war between the Authorities along with some in the medical profession and patients and advocacy groups fighting to obtain what for many is a life-saving drug. It’s a policy issue on which Ministers refuse to bend: despite giving the impression cannabis is now legal for medical purposes in Australia, it is in fact now more difficult to secure than before laws were adjusted at the beginning of 2016.
Indeed, so cack-handed has been the Government’s handling of the question, so outrageous the blunders, it would be difficult to invent a more scandalous catalogue of errors than those which have beleaguered this country’s foray into the increasingly urgent matter of access to a critical medication – and one the powers-that-be seem determined patients should never have.
For upwards of six months, we at this website along with many others, have highlighted, time and again, the ill-advised, willful and catastrophic strategies and actions that have driven activists and advocates to the streets in protest and thousands of patients underground to source products which should be – but simply are not – available by legal means. ‘Australia has never seen a campaign like this,’ remarked Adelaide’s TV show Today Tonight recently, which also said ‘powerful forces have long conspired to keep the marijuana plant in the shadows.’
But little could have hurled the issue back into the spotlight more forcefully – or more unfortunately – than last week’s edition of Channel 7’s Sunday Night programme. It concerned Chase Walker-Steven, a little boy with quadriplegic cerebral palsy caught in a tug-of-war between overbearing medics and case-workers who say they know what’s best for the child and his parents who insist they do not. The latter had sought help from the Church of Ubuntu a ‘wellness clinic’ near Sydney where Katelaris, as well as other church members, had been treating Chase with a wholefood diet and (illegal) cannabis oil to combat his intractable seizures.
The case is terrible and tragic, with a lengthy and complex back-story involving a variety of facets – the cannabis element being just one. In fact, throughout the preceding week the matter had been a major preoccupation of many in the medical cannabis advocacy movement incensed at the family’s predicament and how it would play out at the hands of a media that seemed bent on sensation.
Such worries, it transpired, weren’t unwarranted, culminating in a show likely to provide ample fodder for a Government eager to justify its perverse and obstructive position and conservatives in the medical profession seeking any excuse to revile the plant and those who argue its benefits. The entire, unpleasant little exercise had clearly been in production for some time. With its snide editing, mum and dad’s emotions running, quite understandably, at fever-pitch and the Ubuntu members unashamedly ‘alternative’ stance, the overall picture was deliberately concocted to be one of misguided hysterics abetted by a band of well-meaning but nutty fanatics. Even the neurologist that was roped in – the sort of ‘rent-a-quack’ TV producers hire to back up a pre-written, uninformed narrative – turned out to have quite an interesting past of his own. Completely unfamiliar with the case in question, the reader may decide whether this is the type of individual best relied upon for objective and equitable comment.
Possibly because of reporting restrictions but just as likely a result of the programme-makers’ tabloid-type predispositions, almost nothing of the family’s full story was discussed, Sunday Night preferring instead to focus largely on the colourful characters involved and – horror! – the dosing with THC of young children: the suggestion Chase’s carers had deliberately been getting him high.
Such an image of medical cannabis and those using it is of course completely misleading though a brush patients and advocates might easily now find themselves tarred with – and it plays straight into the hands of those who, for whatever reason, wish to prevent the drug ever from returning to the physician’s armoury.
Chase’s saga – in its entirety – unquestionably deserves to be told in full, with no stone left un-turned; a Public Inquiry might even be warranted if just a fraction of the parents’ accusations about the Authorities are true – and from what we have seen it certainly appears that they might be.
Unfortunately though, while this little boy and his family need – and seem to be receiving – all the support they can get, many more in Australia also have children with devastating, medication-resistant epilepsy, as well as adults who themselves have lived for many years with unrelenting seizures, chronic pain or other illnesses that have destroyed their quality of life.
In these often dire circumstances parents, carers and sufferers have been willing to try almost anything to help reduce the severity and frequency of such episodes, their own disorders or those of the people they care for; given the often catastrophic and debilitating nature of some of the conditions involved it’s not difficult to understand their desperation. And a vast number of them report immense improvement in their health and well-being and that of their kids after cannabis has been administered – but the Government seems to think they are lying.
In the case of Chase Walker-Steven, a quick glance at Facebook – itself a highly sinister actor within the whole drama, cheerfully pulling down posts or blocking at will elements of the discussion as it developed – a look there will tell you how bad things have now become; a disaster not waiting to happen, but one that is happening now. And as we have said, it’s not just the one who’s affected, it’s thousands.
In Chase’s instance a variety of hugely important questions and points have been raised – which, it is to be hoped, will be addressed if enough pressure continues to be brought to bear. Among them though is the blindingly obvious one that he and his family should never have found themselves forced to enlist the help of a black market operation to start with. Not if the Government had gotten things right.
Instead – as this website has repeatedly pointed out – and as a direct result of policy created at the highest of levels, a huge underground market has blossomed, catering to a massive increase in demand by people who are realising what cannabis can do. So passionately do some of those involved feel, many – perhaps like Andrew Katelaris – are prepared to be martyred, while others prefer simply to keep their heads down and quietly conduct their business while they wait for Authorities to wake up.
An entire ‘alternative healthcare system’ has thus arisen – unregulated, un-taxed and obviously unreliable because of its ‘criminal’ nature. Though many of those involved with it do their utmost to ensure the best quality, with no means of product testing available, guaranteeing standardised medicines is all but impossible. Yet they remain, quite appallingly, not the last resort, but the only one to which people can turn, irrespective of the rhetoric that pours out of Canberra. And it has come about for one simple reason – the abject insistence, by Ministers and particularly their bureaucrats, to keep patients – users of medical cannabis – at the periphery of policy-making rather than bringing them to the table. That is the tragedy, that is the real disaster and that is what needs to change. If it does not, establishments such as Ubuntu – which yesterday announced it would have no further presence on the Internet, implying it couldn’t keep up with demand – will flourish because they are urgently needed – and the Government is to thank for their growth.
Strangely silent in all this too are those involved in Australia’s nascent licit cannabis industry – the growers and would-be manufacturers, who, armed with their licences and ASX listings are already gleefully making mega-buck deals, not a word said in defence of the healthcare recipient, not a murmur of criticism toward Government. Their eyes, it would seem, are on the lucrative export market, as this leaked and by now much-circulated letter from Health Minister Greg Hunt implies. It was written to Nick Xenophon and other cross-benchers when Hunt and his mandarins got jittery about the Greens Motion to Disallow changes to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Special Access Scheme preventing the terminally or seriously ill from accessing the drug under the Scheme’s Category A. Full of excuses and half-truths, it was first discussed by BuzzFeed two weeks ago and shows a Ministry that knows exactly what it’s doing, placing the needs and requirements of business at the centre while patients are left, for all it cares, to die. Yes it’s as awful as that.
Amidst the furore in the last week or so over the Chase Walker-Steven issue, a number of other developments took place which would otherwise have occupied main stage, each significant and each due its own commentary – some of which we’ll return to in future.
They included, just yesterday, a report from the ABC about a Senate committee hearing which was told ‘Medicinal cannabis products ‘sitting in warehouses’.
‘Fewer than 150 people in Australia have ever been given approved access to medicinal cannabis products and there are only 25 authorised prescribers of the drugs, according to evidence at a Senate estimates committee,‘ the story ran, continuing:
‘Officials from the Health Department told the hearing that figure had only increased by two since February, and most of those doctors were in New South Wales.’
Not a surprise – and completely predicted by advocates, partly because of the cost and partly because few doctors are prepared to prescribe.
The day before, Australian Doctor magazine told of how ‘An entire state’s doctors have shunned medical cannabis’ discussing Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan who was convening a round table to establish why doctors were not recommending it. The answer was easy, provided by the AMA. Its State President Andrew Miller said his members ‘don’t just prescribe something that is trendy or popular with the public,’ and believes businesses had been ‘over-stating the benefits’.
‘It is not anything better or cheaper nor does it have fewer side effects than the drugs that we have available to treat things like chronic pain,’ Miller went on to add, saying he ‘would only support medical cannabis being used for chronic pain if it was part of a clinical trial‘.
And talking of trials – this from last week – extremely promising results were announced in relation to the ‘GW Pharmaceutical supported’ epilepsy research in Victoria using the refined CBD product Epidiolex. It mentioned some side effects and left advocates wondering how much better results might have been had whole plant medicines (including with THC) been used instead. A few days later RACGP President Bastian Seidel was heard telling Australian Doctor (again) of his concerns about cannabis which were ‘that we are driven by the positive effects, but we are neglecting looking at the side effects and consequences of short-, medium- and long-term use. Realistically, there are few long-term studies there.‘ And this despite decades and probably billions of dollars-worth of investigations into exactly that. What planet, it is tempting to ask, do individuals such as he live on?
The same one it would seem as those in the Government of NSW Parliament who are opposing a promising Bill that would have offered legal protection to users of medical weed not too long after the State published details of a ‘revised’ Compassionate Access Scheme – and which fell well short of what advocates wanted. Tasmania too announced its own access scheme – a ‘controlled’ one this time, initially for cases of epilepsy and before that Pauline Hanson tried to rescue the cannabis vote after betraying patients by siding with the Government over the Motion on SAS Category A mentioned earlier. As if in the way of a placatory gesture, the TGA launched a ‘hotline’ for doctors wishing to to find out more about how to get hold of such medicine…and thus things drag on and on.
Ironically, given the shenanigans of last Sunday night, the same weekend saw the much-vaunted Hemp Health and Innovation Expo take place in Sydney.
By all accounts it was an excellent, educative and enjoyable affair but one, needless to say, that occasioned some of the more vocal and notable critics of Government to share what they think has gone wrong.
One of them, Ben Oakley – who suffers from the agonising and life-threatening Stiff Person Syndrome – has been so let down by the system a great deal of his life is now spent campaigning for access to a drug which for him has transformed his life. Speaking at the event, he rhetorically asked if cannabis provided a cure.
‘No,’ he said, ‘but it is the most effective treatment we’ve come across. And it’s giving me the opportunity to live a life again.’
And so he, and hundreds like him, are as he says ‘taking a stand.’ That Ben and parents like Chase Walker-Steven’s are made outlaws because the medicine they need is illegal is disgusting enough. That it remains the case well over a year after the laws were supposedly amended is worse still. The lies being told to the public about it though – these are nothing but unforgivable.