14th Feb 2017: Botched policy, misleading the public, police raids, broken promises, deaths...and they wonder why people are getting fed up
As predicted by this site just before Christmas, furious patients, carers and advocacy groups across Australia are gearing themselves up for a SECOND huge struggle with the Federal Government over access to medical pot.
Already, just six weeks into the year, at least three major initiatives have launched amidst claims Ministers and bureaucrats have duped both the public at large and sick Australians who require the drug to stay healthy or, in some cases, even alive.
One of them – by Queensland’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Group (MCAG) – already seems to have achieved at least a victory of sorts by persuading the Greens to force a further debate in the Senate. This was only yesterday (13th Feb) and is discussed in some detail below.
Far from having made cannabis legal for medical use – as as the Government has let people think – campaigners say it’s now even harder to get than before legislation was changed almost exactly 12 months ago.
So activists throughout Australia are now fighting back and have hit the ground running in 2017, alleging the C. Department of Health has deliberately geared its medical cannabis ‘system’ and regulations to favour giant corporations at the expense of those with immediate need. Such companies, they argue, are being encouraged to develop and market prescription pharmaceuticals derived from the herb’s single chemicals – which could take decades to accomplish and then fail to provide benefits derived from the ‘full spectrum’ plant.
Meanwhile up to 100,000 patients – some of them desperately ill – remain criminalised as they find themselves forced back to the black market to obtain what for many is critical treatment in cases where all else has failed.
But just as campaigners were preparing for a series of new year offensives things took a more urgent turn following a police raid on the South Australian home of ‘compassionate supplier’ Jenny Hallam four days into January.
The seizing of her equipment and produce put dozens of young lives at risk after sufferers throughout the country were robbed of their critical medicines, including Ben Oakley a young man with the life-threatening stiff person sydrome who’s previously met with Mike Baird, the former NSW Premier. Last week Ben appeared on the ABC Triple J Hack radio show which broadcast a 30 minute-long phone-in programme about the explosive affair, describing how badly he and many others had been hit. Ms Hallam, herself interviewed, suggested some of her ‘customers’ were now terrified of running out of their medication and at least one had died – arguably because of the raid.
Public and media outrage over the police action was instant: newspapers, radio stations and TV channels nationwide covered the story for weeks, adding impetus to what’s shaping up as an intense and lengthy crusade. Further examples of what journalists made of all this can be found here, here and here plus a pithy write-up just in by 9 News which should have the Authorities blushing. Not to forget the #wesupportjennyhallam Facebook page as well.
AMCSignpost has already outlined in some detail shenanigans over the matter of medicinal weed by lawmakers and their policy wonks together with hired anti-pot gurus with uncomfortable ties to Big Pharma. At best this indicates staggering incompetence on the part of an unfeeling cabal determined to scupper the chance of a medical cannabis programme centred around patient need; at worst it’s a group in the thrall of big business exuding the whiff of malfeasance. We have also sketched – albeit superficially – dirty tricks played by large drug outfits for whom no ploy is too base, no lie too great to keep non-pharmaceutical cannabis as far beyond the legal market as they can – bottom lines felt (correctly) to be at considerable risk. For more background you can check out this story, this one, this one and this.
None of it though is news to those on the front-line of what can only be seen as a new war with Government as they find themselves compelled – yet again – to assert what is, at base, the human right to a life-saving medicine. Granting this right could, in one swoop, save the taxpayer millions and bring otherwise completely respectable citizens from behind shadows, some as they draw their last breath.
Currently Ministers seem reluctant to listen, as evidenced in January when Malcolm Turnbull dismissed a proposed ‘amnesty’ for users and producers of medical canabis as ‘irresponsible’. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister appears also to have laid responsibility for the (legal) drug’s pitiful take-up at the feet of medics whose professional bodies are opposed to its use, citing a lack of clinical evidence as their reason for such a stance.
It is no surprise then that on Monday 6th February, returning MPs were met outside Parliament by over 200 protestors from the ‘CannaWarrior Coalition‘, an alliance between the Medical Cannabis Users Association of Australia pressure group and the Australian HEMP Party, which campaigns for an end to pot prohibition.
The rally – one of several more in February, including today (14th) in Brisbane and with its catch-cry ‘Enough is Enough’ – drew support from Pauline Hanson and another One Nation Senator following Hanson’s much-talked-of jump on the cannabis bandwagon. ‘I know you may not agree with some of the things I say, but I support Medical Cannabis, and will do what I can to make it legal,’ Hanson was heard to say. Reports organisers had been ‘distancing themselves‘ from her circus and that of Senator David Leyonjhelm – a sponsor of the failed Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill of 2014 – who also appeared on the scene, had popped up the previous week.
The Bill mentioned above was, if you don’t know, the legislation that may well have created a workable system for weed – had the Government taken it up. Though recommendations by the Senate Committee which spent a year exploring the issue were in favour, it was instead consigned to the bin, replaced by the disastrous legal and regulatory arrangements causing all the fuss now. Naysayers think a specialist, stand-alone Regulator, as the original Bill had proposed, would interfere with Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on Drugs, which groups cannabis with narcotics like cocaine and heroin.
This in turn, they believe, would jeopardise this country’s opium poppy trade which supplies more than half the world’s raw materials used to make opioid medicines. But the Treaty specifically allows drugs to be produced for research or for medicinal use and only recently another country – Germany – announced the creation of an agency to oversee the plant’s cultivation and use for conditions like pain and chemo-induced nausea, joining others like Israel, Canada and The Netherlands all of which have such schemes in place.
‘Pro-cannabis campaign flies high in Canberra‘ said the Northern Star a day later (with a different newspaper’s take here) after a delegation to meet newly appointed Health Minister Greg Hunt had apparently been agreed. Whether this comes to pass, and if it does what might result, are of course for conjecture. What is certain though is that the CannaWarrior Coalition, MCUA, HEMP Party and others are not going to just disappear.
This is especially true following the yesterday’s political win by the Medical Cannabis Advisory Group of Queensland touched upon at the beginning.
The Group – a highly vocal participant in both the Federal Public Inquiry into the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill, and the Queensland Government’s own Public Inquiry into that State’s Public Health (Medicinal Cannabis) Bill of 2016 – has, since November, been keeping itself pretty busy.
From that time, MCAG set out – and has taken a step in succeeding – to overturn a further Ministerial sleight-of-hand that took place the same day new regulations on cannabis cultivation and manufacture were effected and the drug was down-scheduled in SUSMP – the Commonwealth’s Poisons Standard. The new scheduling saw the plant itself and its psychoactive ingredient THC reclassified from a Schedule 9 (‘Prohibited Substance’) in the Standard to Schedule 8 (a ‘Controlled’ one). Cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive chemical found to work well in seizures, remained as a Schedule 4 (Prescription) medicine along with Nabiximols (or Sativex), a pharmaceutical product made using extracts of the plant. This rescheduling, and its timing, are important because of what happened next.
As unbelievable as it sounds, in secret and using powers provided by Parliament, then Health Minister Sussan Ley changed ‘access pathways’ to cannabis and cannabis products and snatched fast-track availability away from the dying and those who are critically ill.
Yes, you did read that right.
Last year, the very politician who’d assured MPs, sick Australians and the public at large ‘historic legislation‘ would ‘simplify arrangements‘ for the legal possession of the drug for medicinal use and ‘reduce any barriers to access’, tweaked regulations to stop those on their deathbed from getting it. These alterations were made with Prime Ministerial and Cabinet approval on, as we have said, the same day rescheduling took place. But the moment it did, cannabis and THC- now counted among Schedule 8 medicines – and cannabidiol and Sativex within Schedule 4, were singled out and immediately made unavailable to the terminally ill. Beforehand, it should be noted, access had been allowed – and the rules don’t apply to other drugs.
This breathtaking feat of compassion and down-to earth rationality was accomplished by Legislative Instrument – which lets Ministers play with a variety of Regulations without MPs approval. Using one of these, Ley snuck in amendments to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Special Access Scheme (SAS) – an already clunky system giving patients and doctors the means to obtain medicines that aren’t registered and approved in Australia – which cannabis obviously isn’t. It is the TGA of course which is responsible for regulating medicinal use of the plant – using a model experts have repeatedly described as ill-suited.
Nevertheless, its Scheme provides for two ‘Categories’ of patient, known as ‘A’ and ‘B’ – ‘Category A’ representing those who are ‘seriously ill with a condition from which death is reasonably likely to occur within a matter of months, or from which premature death is reasonably likely to occur in the absence of early treatment.’ Because of their obvious urgency, Category A applications are quick – a doctor can apply for then supply drugs in days – or weeks if they need importing. But it is this group to which, with the stroke of a pen, Ley saw fit to deny access – by specifically removing cannabis, and cannabis alone, from eligibility within the ‘A’ Category. And this, as we’ve said, while all other Schedule 4 and Schedule 8 items are permitted.
What that meant in practice was that anyone needing the medicine could only obtain it as a ‘Category B’ patient – entailing an application process so sluggish and complex it can often take months to complete. It also meant those who want the drug quickly – while receiving palliative or end of life care for example – would probably be dead before they could ever secure it because of such a drawn-out procedure.
Treating cannabis – or indeed any drug – in this way flies in the face of what politicians had in mind when the SAS generally, and in particular its ‘Category A’, were created. While considering the needs of these, the most urgent of patients, Parliament was told in December 1991: ‘When people are confronting the certainty of death and have a terminal or life-threatening illness, special provisions clearly ought to be made to help them psychologically face that prospect by giving them assurance that virtually whatever they wish, by way of administration of a drug of which they have learnt, can be undertaken.’
Unless that drug happens to be cannabis and unless those now in charge of its oversight are able to stop it from happening, especially among those with just days or weeks left to live.
And until yesterday it looked it looked as though they had.
But Statutory Instruments, such as the one used by Ley to mutilate the SAS Regulations, though not requiring a vote from MPs, are, for fifteen Parliamentary sitting days, ‘disallowable’ which means House or Senate members can table a Motion to stop them. And this is exactly what Greens Leader Richard di Natale did – the last possible day he could have done so before the changes were cemented into law.
His actions come as a result of MCAG’s lobbying and after reading the Group’s 50 page-long Submission to both Houses which explore this and other matters in painstaking detail, as well as its petition to the Australian Prime Minister on Change.org – almost 4,000 strong.
The Government now has to wait until 23rd March, when Senators must vote on the issue and either support or oppose Sen. di Natale’s Motion – in effect a public declaration of whether or not they feel terminally patients should be allowed to make use of medicinal pot. If it should fail, the changes become fixed. It’s a stark choice for politicians – and one to which constituents could turn out to be very sensitive. On that score alone the Queensland Group has done well. If the next step proves equally fortuitous it might be described as a coup.
And to help things along, only today Queensland MP Steve Dickson, whose loud defection to One Nation purportedly because of that Party’s position on cannabis, introduced his first Bill (of the private members variety) as a One Nation representative into the State Parliament. It sets out to ‘fast track’ access to the botanical herb and undo some of what legislation last year managed to achieve – which was to duplicate the TGA process discussed above, something MCAG had known all along.
As if all that wasn’t enough, January also saw a further activist organisation established, this one focusing attention on the plight of patients brought about by the Government’s botched policy and how it subsequently misled the public.
Known as ‘greenlight.support’, the effort is a collaboration between United in Compassion, Australia’s biggest and best known medical cannabis advocacy group, Epilepsy Action Australia and Barry Lambert, the millionaire philanthropist who last year donated $34 million to Sydney University for a centre to study cannabinoid therapeutics.
Launching its new website on 21st January with a feature on ABC news, the campaign followed up with an interview on Channel 7’s Sunrise in which Mr Lambert took hemp oil live on TV. A full page advertisement in the Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper was published next day in the form of a letter from Katelyn, Mr Lambert’s 5 year old grand-daughter.
Katelyn suffers from Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy which cannabis has been used to treat. The ad was re-published a week later, this time in Sydney’s Herald Sun – and the group warns there’s more to expect.
The letter, addressed to the Australian Prime Minister and State Premiers, said the Government had not told the truth about its actions relating to medical cannabis adding the country’s ‘most well-known opponents’ of the drug had been hired to write guidelines for doctors who might want to recommend it. And it also unveiled plans for ‘a very large media event’ at which Katelyn would be joined by others like herself giving politicians the chance to meet with families and see first hand how critical their medicine is. All Premiers and Health Ministers have been invited and we understand the day has been scheduled for mid-March.
Meanwhile, the Industry Moves website reports Mr Lambert last week retired as Chairman of his software company Class Limited ‘with immediate effect’ so he could ‘concentrate on campaign work for greenlight.support’.
In a six week period which has seen the fall from grace of former Health Minister Sussan Ley and a replacement chosen, some guidelines about medical pot for doctors produced by the State of Queensland (strangely specifying ‘no THC for the under 25s’) and a less-than-inspiring interview on Australian Doctor with one of the staff from the above-mentioned Lambert Initiative – as well as the Triple J Hack phone-in and a plethora of other goodies, it’s been difficult catching one’s breath.
Some of these we’ll cover in further dispatches.
And it will be interesting to see what the Government does if those on the campaign trail are able to sustain this momentum.