Why I Support Cannabis Law Reform
It shocks a lot of people, given my previous employment as a NSW Police Superintendent, to learn that I support law reform in relation to Cannabis. There’s an assumption that all police oppose drug law reform. This is incorrect. Police see first hand the consequences of ‘the war on drugs’ and the futility of an enforcement based approach. Many wonder if we shouldn’t have the same kind of shift that happened many years ago with alcohol. Remember when ‘drunks’ used to get locked up for the night? Now excess alcohol consumption is considered a health issue.
In July last year I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It’s more aggressive that other forms of breast cancer and has a worse prognosis.
As a consequence of my diagnosis I’ve been researching medical cannabis. I’ve discovered that breast cancer, particularly triple negative breast cancer, might respond to treatment with cannabis.
I’ve spent many hours watching YouTube videos of people claiming their cancer was completely cured using cannabis oil (also called ‘Rick Simpson Oil’) and I’ve waded through several dozen research papers. I think those claiming that cannabis kills cancer need to modify their claim to ‘cannabis kills some cancers’ and I do wish they didn’t feel the need to completely denigrate all forms of mainstream treatment, but it’s very clear that there’s a growing body of evidence to support their claims.
If you’d like a short film on the subject then google ‘Run From the Cure’ or ‘Cannabis and Cancer’. If you’d like a quick summary from a reputable source, including plenty of research citations, then have a look at this: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page4
I support any reforms to our legislation that will make cannabis available for medical use.
You will appreciate that given my background and my long history of opposing illegal drug use, I have not come easily to this decision. The evidence is compelling. Cannabis, in some circumstances, kills some cancers. It also helps people cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and provides better palliative pain relief for some people than the alternatives.
I’ve been following, with interest, the work of the parliamentary committee into medical cannabis use. The Police Force, via The Commander of the NSW Police Drug Squad, Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, expressed concerns that making cannabis medically available would increase illegal drug use. Their concerned that it will ‘leak’ into the community.
In spite of police force opposition, the committee unanimously recommended that cannabis should be made legally available to terminally ill people. Unfortunately, the State Government rejected the committee’s recommendations. There’s a bucket of words they used to defend their decision but it’s just pollie-speak so I won’t insult your intelligence or waste your time quoting it. After appointing a committee to wade through the mountains of evidence and listen to patients, doctors, advocates and detractors the committee did what they were supposed to do and made evidence-based recommendations. For political reasons their recommendations were rejected.
I know that these changes would only have been of benefit to me if (when) I am close to death but having seen my father’s reaction to morphine (paranoia, anorexia and feeling like he had insects crawling under his skin) prior to his death from cancer, I know that would be a big improvement on what’s currently available in palliative care.
Here’s my best argument in support of legal medical use:
I do not dispute that cannabis is abused but the evidence is clear that it provides some people a better and safer form of pain relief than commercially available drugs. It has less side effects and is better tolerated.
Medically available pain killers are also the subject of wide spread abuse, but we do not make them illegal on that basis. These drugs are stronger and more dangerous that cannabis, and overdose can be fatal.
It seems unreasonable to deny terminally ill patients a safe form of medication because of the abuse by some people, when drugs that are far more dangerous are legally available in spite of abuse. It also demonstrates a chronic lack of compassion.
Prohibition does not prevent drug abuse (or we wouldn’t need a drug squad). Legalisation for a specific section of the community does not undermine enforcement. As an example, consider steroids. They are widely abused by body builders but their benefits to sick people mean that we can still get them on prescription. They are not banned just because some people misuse them.
I would argue that the same ‘greater good’ standard should apply with regard to medical cannabis. The benefits of cannabis to critically ill people outweigh the risks associated with illegal use.
I would add that cannabis abuse, unlike pharmaceutical abuse, is never fatal.
Here is my best argument in response to Commander Nick Bingham’s concerns expressed to the committee: That there is a danger of ‘leakage’ into the community and an increase in cannabis use:
The current legislation is not preventing sick people from using cannabis. Spend some time in the waiting room of any oncologist and it isn’t long before people are telling you about how they purchased their vaporiser or where they get their cannabis. In my case, these people are middle-aged women with breast cancer and no previous history of drug abuse. Some of them talk about how they almost gave up chemotherapy and then found cannabis relieved their chronic nausea.
Go online and it’s not too difficult to locate people in other jurisdictions that are happy to offer you cannabis products, and happy to send them into this jurisdiction. There are several sites promoting ‘Rick Simpson’s Oil’ and several more extolling the virtues of cannabis for curing everything from multiple sclerosis to epilepsy. There is information on making your own cannabis oil and advice on how to locate suppliers.
For those unencumbered by a twenty year police history and the accompanying respect for the rule of law, cannabis and cannabis products are easily obtained. Many of the people involved in the production and distribution of cannabis products do so out of compassion. Some of them don’t even ask for payment. There’s a cluster of different communities out there, all sharing names, advice and precautions. If you wanted to obtain cannabis oil to treat cancer you could probably do so within a week, just by roaming Facebook and asking politely. Assuming you couldn’t get it locally.
In spite of my background, I’ve had three different friends offer to supply me with cannabis (much to my surprise). It turns out that it is widely used as a recreation drug by people not usually associated with drug abuse. You wouldn’t pick any of these people as ‘dope smokers’. I was fortunate. I did not have nausea with my chemotherapy. If I had been so ill that I couldn’t eat and cannabis relieved this, would I have used it? Absolutely.
Cannabis seed is also easy to find and easy to import. The internet has all of the information you need to successfully grow your own, or to find someone to supply you. There’s even ‘medical seeds’ available, with lower THC (the stuff that gets you high) and higher CBD. Contrary to some people’s views, those using medical cannabis generally want to avoid the recreational effects.
Ask any high school teacher about the availability of cannabis for recreational use. Do you know what they’ll tell you? Kids have no trouble getting it if they want it.
So my strongest argument against Nick’s claim is this: the legislation is unlikely to cause ‘leakage’ into the community because cannabis is already so widely available that the change in legislation will have little impact upon supply. What it will change is the criminalisation of patients and their carers.
I appreciate that this is not a politically palatable response but it is the truth.
Of course, not all of the people offering cannabis oil or cannabis products are genuine. Because people wishing to use cannabis oil need to break the law to do it they are easy prey for criminals. Fortunately, the Facebook community groups are very good at naming and exposing fraudulent sellers, but you need to be a member of those groups to access that information. A lot of people searching for cannabis oil on the internet are desperate. They don’t have time to join forums or conduct research. Some of them have forked out thousands for industrial hemp oil worth a few dollars. Others send money and never receive any product. It’s risky, and financially draining, at a time when people least need this kind of stress. Legislation would undermine the criminals.
There’s plenty of information available about how to make your own cannabis oil. It’s not difficult, but it is dangerous as it involves using highly flammable solvents. People have been seriously injured when a spark ignites the whole lot and a fireball engulfs them. Legislation would allow for safe manufacture.
People will continue to buy cannabis oil, or make it, and use it, in spite of it being illegal. It surprises me that people in positions of power have so little empathy. If they had terminal cancer, or someone they loved had terminal cancer, and they knew cannabis would ease their pain more effectively than prescription drugs wouldn’t they break the law to get some? How about this question; if you or someone you loved was diagnosed with cancer and you formed the opinion, based on your research, that cannabis oil might actually cure that cancer would you use it?
This debate is less about whether or not sick people will use cannabis and more about the conditions under which they will use it.
At present, people choosing to use cannabis have the additional stress of worrying about where they will obtain a regular supply and what will happen if they are arrested. At a time when these families already have so much to be anxious about, making cannabis legally available to them would be an act of compassion.
There’s a flip side to the current legislation. Many people who would benefit from cannabis are not even prepared to try it while it remains illegal. In some cases this means giving up chemotherapy early because of nausea. In others it means enduring unnecessary pain and distress. If cannabis is conclusively proven to cure some cancers then there are people dying right now that might have been saved.
As an additional supporting argument I offer the observation that many of the cannabis forums include stories of police officers acting compassionately when they detect cannabis possession by seriously ill people. These officers find themselves in a position where they judge the law to be bad law, and choose not to enforce it. They place themselves at professional risk by doing so.
There are those that argue that cannabis has serious side effects for some people. Psychosis is the most often cited. Morphine causes acute paranoia in some people and it’s also highly addictive. We don’t ban it. We make sure it’s only available on prescription and that its use is monitored by medical professionals. Why not do the same for cannabis.
There are also those that argue that legalising cannabis will be ‘the thin edge of the wedge’. They worry that legalising cannabis for medical use will somehow naturally lead to legalisation for recreational use. Just about the only thing that has ever been the thin edge of a wedge is the actual edge of an actual wedge. This argument is a fallacy. Things don’t just somehow magically get incorporated into legislation. It needs to go through parliament. That’s why we make our laws that way.
I’d add that in Colorado the first measurable impact of their broad legalisation of cannabis has been a significant drop in youth suicide. It’s early days and I’m watching that state with interest. They might just change my mind about recreational legislation.
There are those that worry about the lung cancer risk associated with smoking cannabis. It’s fair to say that smoking anything is bad for you. That’s why people using medical cannabis usually use a vaporiser or ingest the oil. There’s no need to smoke it. And, of course, if you’re terminally ill you’re probably not too worried about the long term side effects of anything.
I hope my arguments have given you a basis on which you can lend your support to the availability of medical cannabis. I know that a large part of the obstacle to this legislation is public perception. Politicians are concerned over being seen to ‘go soft’ on illegal drugs. In this regard, I think pointing out that we don’t deny morphine to terminally ill people just because some people abuse morphine is, perhaps, the best response.
It is my fervent hope that we see a change in legislation and that it will open the way for much needed research into the potential benefits of this plant. It may well hold the cure for many cancers and is already being used overseas to treat children with epilepsy and Dravetts syndrome. It is unlikely that there is sufficient time for any of this research to be of direct benefit to me but cancer is hereditary and I have a daughter.
PS: Alcohol is a group one carcinogen, proven to cause a whole raft of cancers. That’s not a reason to legalise cannabis. It’s just hypocritical to have alcohol so freely available when it’s of no possible benefit to anyone while cannabis remains illegal.