Is medicinal marijuana doing good or harm?
Tuesday, October 7, 2014 - 20:30

It has been called a miracle, lifesaving medicine. But is it as safe as it’s cracked up to be?

Politicians from across the aisle in Canberra and in the states are moving to trial medical marijuana.

But many aren’t waiting for clinical tests.

A growing movement of parents are using it to control kids’ epilepsy and adults are using it to manage chronic pain.

This week, Insight cracks the lid on where medical cannabis comes from, what’s in it, and what it’s doing to patients.

Host Jenny Brockie speaks to the suppliers – who come from areas as far afield as Nimbin and suburban Sydney – about the 'science' behind their 'miracle drugs', and the legal risks they face by providing it.

Parents and patients speak about their success in using marijuana for a range of illnesses, and their desperation to have it legalised.

But Brockie also hears from medical experts who believe there's no proven medical benefit to using marijuana, and that those using it are at risk of mental health issues.

As the prospect of legalisation and clinical trials looms in several states, Insight also asks whether legal marijuana will lead to an increase of recreational use – and just what will happen to the black market.

Presenter: Jenny Brockie 

Producer: Kyle Taylor 

Join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter, posting on our Facebook page

Hot topics: Should marijuana be legalised?

Hundreds of families across Australia break the law every day by using medical marijuana. Recently, State governments announced plans which could lead the way to medical marijuana use in Australia. So what's holding us back? Click on this link to explore this topic.


Hi, I’m Jenny Brockie. Politicians of many persuasions are inching closer to legalising marijuana for medical use. Tonight we will look at why and how much we really know about the drug. We also want to hear from you about a broader question, whether or not to legalise marijuana in general. Our poll on this – which I am quick to point out is highly unscientific, has so far attracted more than 70,000 votes and they are leaning heavily in favour. There is still time to add yours, go to our website or use the twitter hash tags or maybe wait till you have seen this.



JENNY BROCKIE:   Welcome everyone, good to have you with us tonight. Nicole, your eight year old daughter Alice is currently using a form of cannabis. Tell us why? 


NICOLE COWLES: Alice has a rare genetic condition and she has life threatening seizures relating to that condition. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And how often does she have seizures? 


NICOLE COWLES: Depends on her health.  If her health deteriorates she has more seizures.  At the moment on the medical cannabis she's not having regular seizures. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay, so it's a form of epilepsy, is that right? 


NICOLE COWLES: Epilepsy is part of the condition, there's also intellectual and physical disability. 


JENNY BROCKIE: What is she like without the cannabis oil?


NICOLE COWLES: Well for the last nine years I've fought to keep her alive; we have spent a lot of time in hospital and our whole life revolved around her health. She has good days obviously but then when we have a bad day she can have up to twenty or thirty seizures a day. 




NICOLE COWLES: Mmm, and she stops breathing when she has a seizure so ever seizure she has she's at risk of dying. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And she nearly died earlier this year, yes?


NICOLE COWLES: She did stop taking the medical cannabis for a week earlier this year and within, within four days we were in hospital discussing her not for resuscitation order. 


JENNY BROCKIE: How often do you give her cannabis oil? 


NICOLE COWLES: Alice has the cannabis oil every four hours. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Side effects?


NICOLE COWLES: All positive.  She's started walking more, she's talking more and it would be lovely if some of the people who have known her from when she was little and knew how sick she was could see her now, I don't think they would recognise her as the same child. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So you're very happy with the results that you've had? 


NICOLE COWLES: It's not a question of whether she takes it or not, there's no other option to stop her seizures and the benefits of the cannabis have been so significant that I could never, I could never take her off. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Michelle, you're ten year old son Jai also suffers from rare forms of epilepsy, you want to give him cannabis oil, why? 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: Basically, golly, when you hear the stories of the families in Australia and around the world, um, that are in desperation, like we are, to save our son's live, when you hear that there's no side effects, they're getting positive results, um, why wouldn't you? Like it seems - like it's a liquid gold that it could possibly be a cure.


JENNY BROCKIE: Tell us how epilepsy affects Jai? 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: It consumes us as a family on every level of living. It takes away his ability to be a normal nine year, or ten year old boy, his ability to communicate, his ability to ride a bike, kick a ball, to have friends, he doesn't have any of that ability. Medical specialists' appointments, emails, it's just consuming. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And how many seizures does he have regularly? 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: Sub-clinical seizures, hundreds a day. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Why do you think cannabis oil might help? 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: Um, because everything else that we've used hasn't had any benefits. We have tried so many different medications, ranging from valiums to benzos, narcotic type pharmaceutical medications, many different AEDs, trial studies.  A lot of those we've attempted in hospital have nearly ended his life as well. When you look at those options and then you hear the stories and you see the changes in families, children that are using medical cannabis, I don't understand why it's not legal. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Now you have some cannabis oil but you're not using it? 




JENNY BROCKIE: Why are you not using it yet? 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: We have had many discussions and we were told if we were to administer that, or be suspected of administering that, we possibly will be reported to DoCS. We would have the police at our door and my husband's current employment would put that possibly at risk as well so we won't take that chance. We can't. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Ingrid, you're Jai's neurologist, what do you think as a neurologist about Michelle wanting to use cannabis oil to treat those seizures? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER, THE FLOREY INSTITUTE: Look, I completely understand that she wants to use it. There's just so much hype about it at the moment, it's in the press all the time, it's essentially trial by media at the moment and we need to figure out if it really works. Now we've heard it works beautifully in Alice, and I'm thrilled to hear that, but I think that we need proper randomised placebo controlled trials where you have double blind crossover, you check if it really works in a blinded manner and you look for side effects and you assess it fully and that hasn't been done.

There are lots of reports, there's some small studies but no true large studies. The good news is that the large studies are happening, so I think we'll have those answers and I think they're probably just a year away.  The problem is that we're hearing about where it's helped. We haven't heard about the children where the families have tried it and it hasn't helped. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  We had trouble getting anyone to come on tonight to actually talk about it not working, but I wonder whether that could be part of it as well. 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: It's partly that, you know, families have to be very confident of where they're at and comfortable to talk about having such a sick child, and you've got to understand that all families are on a different part of this terrible journey that they have to deal with trying to cope with their child's seizures and their disabilities, their behaviour, all sorts of issues.


JENNY BROCKIE: When you say trial by the media, what do you mean?


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER:  Well I mean it's everywhere, isn't it? It's on the news, it's in the newspapers, you just read about it constantly and it's really affected my world. I've never been in the situation before where six times a day, six patients in a row will ask me about cannabis. So this is a whole new world in medical, in the medical world too. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Allistair, you have colon cancer, you're also using cannabis oil. Why? 


ALLISTAIR LEAHY:  Mainly to deal with the side effects of the chemotherapy, the nausea, particularly the loss of appetite and to a certain degree I wanted to try it with pain medication as well. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And what got you onto it in the first place? 


ALLISTAIR LEAHY:  Through a cancer support network that my wife was involved in. It was suggested to us that we should look into trying it. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So this is coming word of mouth for most of you, through people you know, rather than through the medical profession or through the doctors who are treating?


NICOLE COWLES: I think for me, I've spent nine years researching how to keep Alice alive so I had done research on cannabis as a medicine but fear stops you, you know, but then Tara O'Connell, the girl from Victoria, she was brave enough, or her mother was brave enough to come out earlier this year and admit to using cannabis. And the results they found, their anecdotal results were quite significant. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So the point I'm getting to is the anecdotal results are having a big effect on people's decision making about what to do when other things aren't working?


NICOLE COWLES:  When you're faced with losing your child or trialling something that you're told you shouldn't trial, it's not really a choice, you trial it. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Allistair, what's it done for you? What effect has it had?


ALLISTAIR LEAHY:  It's certainly reduced the nausea. It's made it a lot easier for me to cope with the chemo, with the chemotherapy on a day-to-day basis. That combination has allowed me to go back to work part-time managing your weight and weight loss.


JENNY BROCKIE: How much weight had you lost? 


ALLISTAIR LEAHY: Oh, I'm 6 foot 4, I was 120 kilos when I was diagnosed, I went down to 80 kilos in February, late February. 




ALLISTAIR LEAHY: I'm about 88, 90 kilos. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Damon, you use marijuana for pain too. What sort of pain?


DAMON ADAMS:  Yep, I was in the Police Force, got a pretty bad knee injury when I did my knee on the obstacle course of all things and got put on a pain management plan for opiates and now I use cannabis to manage the pain for it instead opiates.


JENNY BROCKIE: How do you take it? 


DAMON ADAMS: In a vaporiser normally but otherwise it can be in edible form as well, little biscuits, that sort of thing, just single serve dose sort of things where you know the dose you're going to get is going to be the right amount. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Now you were a cop? 




JENNY BROCKIE: And you were in the Navy for eleven years? 




JENNY BROCKIE: What did you think of marijuana?


DAMON ADAMS: Yeah, so I got brought up in a pretty strict normal gen X household, um, religious conservative I guess you could call it so everything was say no to drugs, don't do drugs and I didn't discriminate between drugs as well. If anyone did cannabis as opposed to heroin or pills, they were all just druggies, I didn't think any of them were worse. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So you were very anti? 




JENNY BROCKIE: How did you get started? 


DAMON ADAMS: Okay, so I got started on medical cannabis after I left the police.  A friend with multiple sclerosis uses cannabis, I mentioned to her that my OxyContin dose was starting to go up and up and up and opiates just did not agree with me. I'd get allergic to them, get itchy and then the side effects and withdrawals from not taking them as well just too much and I had to find another option. I think I told her and laughed and had a bit of a snort when she said try cannabis and she picked up on my body language and sat me down quick smart and told me why she uses it and how she uses it and that was a pretty defining time in my life where I could start learning about something that my whole life I'd been told you're not supposed to do and it wasn't supposed to be there sort of thing.


JENNY BROCKIE: Milton, you're a pain specialist, is there any scientific evidence that cannabis works for pain management? 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN, ST VINCENT’S HOSPITAL:  We do know that certain preparations help with the pain of defined diseases such as multiple sclerosis and in the situation of chemotherapy. But pain otherwise are a very mixed bag and the evidence to date suggests that the effect is only modest and no better than anything else in the drug terms that is used to treat chronic non cancer pain in particular, just taking anything in a complex, long term situation, may have an effect. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So a placebo effect? 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN: Placebo effect, contextual effect, and it can be very difficult in these contexts to make a distinction between the attributable effect of the drug and the placebo or contextual effect.  


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, why are you laughing about this? 


DAMON ADAMS:  Andrew, and I know Andrew is thinking the same thing about all the controlled trials and testing and that sort of stuff. There's been thousands and thousands and thousands of tests done on cannabis. There are 25 states in the US that are using medical cannabis now and have patients using a regulated system and gaining medical benefits from it already happening. Tony Abbott said last week if it was already happening abroad and already being tested abroad, shouldn't need to be tested here in his letter to Alan Jones.  There's thousands of studies already. The US Department of Health has a patent on medical cannabis. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Milton your response? 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN: I don't think any of those comments, with respect, actually prove the point. I mean I wasn't aware the Prime Minister was an expert on the management of pain and to do a clinical trial in a relatively homogenous population to answer these questions about effectiveness is very difficult. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So are you saying that trial hasn't been done or those trials haven't been done at all? 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN: Some trials have been done. 


TONY BOWER:   They have been done, they have been done, done and done, quite a few times and there's the placebo. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Controlled scientific trials, with placebo, with placebos involved? 


TONY BOWER: Yes, with placebos and as to a placebo, that is effective if the person knows, then they are aware of what's going on. If a person is unaware, and a lot of the kids that I help they're unaware of what's going on around them, they are given a medicine and they become better. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, but what I want to know, what I want to get to the bottom, forget about anecdotal stories, what I want to get to the bottom of is, is the science in on cannabis and pain management? 






JENNY BROCKIE: Yes, no?  Ingrid, is the science in? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: Definitely not. We need to know about placebo effects. I mean it's well shown that placebo effects in children are actually…


MALE: I have to intervene here… 


JENNY BROCKIE: No, no, no, you can't intervene, let her finish, please, just let her finish.  Go on. 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: Studies showing that placebo effects in children are actually greater than in adults. So I think we need those proper trials, we want to help the patients but we want to do no harm, we want to make sure that it works. I hope it works. 


JENNY BROCKIE: What I'm trying to define here is what we mean by trial because I think people, I think people have different understandings of what…


RECHELLE LEAHY: Could we clarify whether we're talking about trials that are here in Australia or if we're looking at trials internationally because I think that's partially what the frustration is coming from. Allistair's my husband and I went and did a lot of research before we made a decision to try the cannabis oil for him in his circumstances and a lot of the research I did was overseas, it was international studies.  So I guess what I think is frustrating a lot of people currently with this conversation that we're having nationally is are we talking about not accepting international studies and utilising the benefits of the oil in that way.


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Ingrid are you talking about international studies or are you talking local studies? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: There are no good studies around the world and these large studies are starting internationally, in epilepsy which is my area, and I'm one of the advisors actually to the large American English study. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, that's on epilepsy, not on pain management? 




JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, Shane Varcoe in Melbourne, you're an anti-drugs campaigner. Politicians are opening the door, politicians of all political views are opening the door to trialling the medical use of cannabis.  What's your reaction to that? 


SHANE VARCOE: My concern is that we've moved into a place where again, media, anecdotal evidence, compassion driven media stories are now driving policy rather than solid evidence based trials. We're not hearing the other side of the coin because we know from thousands of pieces of literature, of evidence that exists from trials, the negative impact of cannabis use. The long term impacts on particularly developing brain and young people and those sciences are very clear on the table are unrefuted. And so we're concerned that we're starting to let things off the leash and for the sake of these very disturbing circumstances, but is that going to open a floodgate because we've not actually done this properly.

I'm glad tonight's been more about cannabis and its therapeutic products, not just using the term medical marijuana.  We've seen that used as furphy and a Trojan Horse as well and one of the concerns we have is that the term "medical marijuana" is sadly being hijacked by some unscrupulous parties and elements to try and use that as a measure to get recreational use more freely accessed. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Murat, you're a neuroscientist, what do we know about the long term effects of cannabis use on the brain? 


PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL, MONASH UNIVERSITY:  I work in an area of psychiatric illness and addictions, where people are abusing and dependent and they're actually trying to come off rather than take it on so it's a very different context. One of the things that we really appreciate, after doing a decade of research, is this individual variability that really exists, cannabis can affect each individual quite differently and we need to be mindful of that. So the fact that it works for one person is no guarantee that it's going to work for another.

If we however draw a line and say everyone's equal, the decade of research that we've looked at where we study regular heavy users of cannabis, so we look at people who have been using almost daily, or close to daily, at least a few times a week, and when we look at those people we tend to find that about after seven to ten years of use as a general theme we're starting to pick up memory impairments, brain structural alterations and links to psychotic symptoms and disorder and so that's the findings we consistently find.


JENNY BROCKIE:  But does it have implications for long term cannabis use of the kind we've been talking about? 


PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL:  Look, the oil tends to be a slightly higher concentration of THC so it may well have an effect. 


JENNY BROCKIE: I'm interested - I mean do you think about those things?  I mean I appreciate the situation that you are faced with. 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: I just find it quite frustrating because I do know from my own research, and I've done quite a bit, even in regards to countries like Israel that have had this, you know, medical cannabis for at least then ten years and Canada, UK, USA, like  there's country after country after country that have started, or if not have had those studies available for so long, and when people come forth and say, you know, it may cause a psychosis or it may get you high, or you know, destroys families, I think people need to realise there's a big difference between recreational use and medical cannabis. 


JENNY BROCKIE: What did you want to say Nicole? 


NICOLE COWLES: Oh, we've got so much to say. I think also, you know, there's a lot of myth and misconception. The sort of cannabis that Alice is using I actually don't want her to have a high level of THC, I want to her to have high levels of CBD which, according to some of research especially coming out of places like Israel and America, seems to be that the chemical component that assists with the seizures.


I guess we think of cannabis as one plant but it's actually much more complicated than that. It has a rich cannabinoid profile. It's like talking about horses. If you want to win a race, you buy a race horse. If you want to plough a paddock, you would use a Clydesdale, they are all horses but have different functions.  And I think we talk about research - personally I believe research is really important because I want to know that I'm giving my daughter the right cannabinoid profile, so the right ratio of THC and CBD. I want to know that I'm giving her a product that I can trust, is the right ratio that has the right medical benefits.


 JENNY BROCKIE: And how can you know that at the moment?


 NICOLE COWLES:  I can't. I can't even get it tested - it's illegal to have it tested. So that's one of our big issues. I don't want Alice being exposed to high levels of THC so I'm very lucky I can source a product that I feel comfortable to give her and I have tried it myself. I would never give Alice something like this. It's a huge decision to make a choice like giving your daughter an illegal substance, but when you have no other choice, it's very much a difficult decision to make. But it was possibly the best decision I've ever made and no-one is going to stand in my way and tell me I can't. No-one is going to tell me I have to watch my daughter die.


 JENNY BROCKIE:  So where do you get your supplies from then, at the moment?


DAMON ADAMS: You don’t have to answer that question.




 DAMON ADAMS: I'm lucky enough, I've been trying to educate people about medical cannabis for a while now so I've made enough contacts, I guess, that I get it fortunately for free and then I can use my own. Before that though, I was just subjected to the black market, whatever the black market had, whatever the prices were, whatever the crap was that was going around; you'd win some, you'd lose some.


 JENNY BROCKIE: Where do you get yours? 


ALLISTAIR LEAHY:  In our case the first batch was given to us by someone who had provided it to some other cancer patients in the northern Sydney area and that was, we were put in contact with this person through the cancer support network. The product, the batch that I have currently actually came from South East Queensland and there's a group of parents and cancer sufferers and carers that have got together and they've decided basically to propagate some plants and we hope that will probably keep about four or five people in my position, or similar positions, in supply, you know, over a reasonably constant period of time. 


DAMON ADAMS: And alive. 




MICHELLE WHITELAW:  Quality of life. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Nicole, where do you get your supply? 


NICOLE COWLES: From Mulloways. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Mulloways, which is Tony? 




JENNY BROCKIE: Tony's organisation. Alright, Tony, you supply Nicole and many others with cannabis oil. You make it? 




JENNY BROCKIE: What's in it? 


TONY BOWER: It's a very low THC, psychotropic THC, and it's reasonably higher in the other cannabinoids, THCA or THC acid. I don't have any CBDs in my medicines at all. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Where did you learn how to make it? 


TONY BOWER:  I just learnt it, yeah, I couldn't read or write or anything years ago.  Everything I've done I've actually done it myself, I've learned it from what I've done. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So are you a chemist or anything like that? 


 TONY BOWER: Me father was a chemist and a few mates. 


JENNY BROCKIE: That doesn't count. 


TONY BOWER: No, no. 


JENNY BROCKIE: But you call it "medical cannabis tincture"? 




JENNY BROCKIE:  A NSW Health analysis of a batch of your oils found no reportable traces of cannabis? 


TONY BOWER:   No, they said there's no illegal products. 


JENNY BROCKIE: No illegal products? 


TONY BOWER: No illegal products. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, how do you explain that? What does that mean? 


TONY BOWER: Well THCA is legal, THC acid is not, it's not illegal. They're cannabinoids that are legal cannabinoids.  It's only THC, the psychotropic part of that it is actually illegal. I actually had it tested, I paid for tests and everything to be done through Southern Cross University so I know, knew that I wasn't giving anybody a poison or anything, I knew what was in it. 


JENNY BROCKIE: But every batch gets tested? 


TONY BOWER: Every batch is exactly the same. It's made exactly the same from the same plant. 


JENNY BROCKIE: From the same supplier? 


TONY BOWER: The plant that I grew it from nearly twenty years ago, is exactly the same plant it's made from. It's made exactly the same way. It's, everything is exact. So I have all the old things, they can be retested, but it is exactly the same. There's been no change. 


 JENNY BROCKIE: David, what do you make of that? 


DR DAVID ALLSOP, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: Well, it sounds like a good process that he's got going, it sounds like the process that is being used in industry, in the medical cannabis industry to generate their product. You know, he's using clones; he knows the consistency of his product; he's had it tested.  I looked at the results - really minimal amounts of THC, the illegal one, so small the amounts that you'd have to consume tonnes of it to get high. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, what do other people here think about this? I'll get to you in a second Andrea. Yeah? Milton? 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN: Well, I mean we've heard there are 200 plus substances and certainly there's different clones of cannabis. Marijuana plants will have their own profile. But surely you want to know precisely what the chemicals are in any one mixture and we need to know their pharmacological properties and their ratios and their safety profiles. It sounds like there's a mixture of largely unknown rations, quantities in what's been available. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Do you recommend doses Tony? 


TONY BOWER: I don't recommend down anything with it, no, no, I'm not a doctor or anything. I give it to the parents, the parents choose what they do with it. 


 JENNY BROCKIE: But I just wonder how you can know that it's safe with kids, for example? 


TONY BOWER: I don't give it to kids.


JENNY BROCKIE: Well, but Nicole does? 


TONY BOWER: That's her problem.  


JENNY BROCKIE: She gets it from you, that's her problem? 


TONY BOWER:  Yeah, but she gets it to me, I give it to her, I do not give it to her kid. Youse have got this all wrong, I don't give it to her kid. 


JENNY BROCKIE: No, no, no, but you…


TONY BOWER: No, she makes that decision, the same as she does with all the other pharmaceutical drugs that the doctors give her. She makes that decision, they are all illegal to give her kid, right, every one of them. 


 JENNY BROCKIE: But doctors prescribe a dose…


TONY BOWER: And he gives to the parents, he does not give to the kid. 


JENNY BROCKIE: The situation is Nicole is having to make that decision.


TONY BOWER: That's what I'm saying - she makes that decision, not me. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay. Anyone like to pick up on this. 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: Well I just think it's frustrating, the fact that they say well, you know, we don't know what the cannabis oil is. You know, like people say you're giving that to your child in regards to Nicole's defence but at the end of the day, the five medications that I'm giving to my son…


NICOLE COWLES: That we know a toxic, that we know have adverse side effects and are toxic.


MICHELLE WHITELAW:  And no specialist can say well this one interacts with this one and this and that and that and it's all juggling. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Alright, Ingrid, your response to this because there's a lot of criticism going on here about what you're doing right now? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: In all the drugs that we prescribe, 99 percent of them have had proper double blind randomised placebo controlled trials, so we know that they're…


TONY BOWER: Not on children though, not on children. 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: We know that they're shown to work and we know that they're significantly better than placebo.  And we also know their side effects. So that…


JENNY BROCKIE: But have they been tested on children? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: Absolutely, we've been doing drug trials of anti-epileptic medication for the 25 years I've been at the Austin and we do many trials all the time and we - they're proper placebo controlled trials, international, where we contribute patients and they're rigorously assessed and then published in the medical literature.


JENNY BROCKIE: And the interaction between drugs is trialled? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: Well that's something you - no, generally it's just one drug is added to whatever the child is on. 


MICHELLE WHITELAW: Professor Sheffer is one of the best neurologists in Australia, we're very grateful to have her on board with our son.  A lot of families fight years and years to actually even get an opinion from her because she's, you know, most of the time travelling overseas and works around the clock and I do believe, you know, to have the best in Australia, in my opinion, Ingrid's name is the first name that comes to my head.




 ANDREW KATELARIS: It is a vast fighter chemical treasure house, the cannabis plants. It is antispasmodic, antiepileptic and anti-inflammatory. This is an epilepsy treatment. I thought I was the first to do it. I saw a YouTube clip of someone doing it somewhere else two years ago. There’s nothing new under the sun, we don't claim ownership of any of this. It's simply using high frequency sound to enhance the extraction of any material.


This is simply a cannabis infused oil. Olive oil, it works quite well. The oil is to provide a stable cannabinoid level in repeatedly epileptic children – it is more simple than a scone recipe. You can make an effective herbal cannabis extract with less difficulty than making scones. We are dealing with such a young and vulnerable population and like to have the best cannabis to make their medication.


But any way cannabis is prepared, as long as it's prepared with the best interests of the patient in mind, a good result can be expected. I have personally supplied vaporised cannabis to children who had the regrettable experience of dying of a malignant disease and they need not die in pain because of some misplaced right winged psychopathic ideology that kids could not have access to cannabis.


There seems to be no human disease that cannot be touched in some way by cannabis. We should be on a much greater medical revolution than the discovery of antibiotics, much greater than that. Cannabis is a very forgiving medicine. There is no capacity for toxicity. There's no capacity for overdose. It is completely safe.



JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, you're making some big claims there, there seems to be no human disease that cannabis cannot, that cannot be touched in some way by cannabis, no human disease. What do you mean? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Well, I prefer to talk about the area that I've concentrated mostly on and that's in intractable childhood epilepsy. 


JENNY BROCKIE: No, but you're saying no human disease that cannot be touched in some way by cannabis. What's your evidence for that? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Well it's the responses across a broad range of conditions.  We've already mentioned epilepsy, spasticity, Crohn's Disease, there's a long, long list of responsiveness and the commonality is the broadly distributed endo cannabinoid system. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And no capacity for toxicity, no capacity for overdose? 


 ANDREW KATELARIS: Absolutely.  There's no toxicity. GW Pharmaceuticals reported on the results of 5,000 consecutive patients, there was no evidence of mental health disorders, there was no toxicity. 


JENNY BROCKIE: You also made a statement about, you know, as long as the best interests of the patient are at heart you can guarantee a good result. Is that right? 


ANDREW KATELARIS:  Well, you can put your questions any way you want. But I prefer…


JENNY BROCKIE: No, no, no, I'm putting your statements to you. I'm putting to you what you just said there and I'm trying to clarify why you're making such sweeping statements about cannabis? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Because that's been my experience so far, right?  Now in the area of epilepsy -if we can focus on that for a moment…


JENNY BROCKIE: Well no, we will but before we do, I'd just like a response from a few of the people in the room to what they have heard. 


DAMON ADAMS:  I can just back up Andrew's claim, that sweeping claim, and I think we've touched on it tonight. The US Department of Health has a patent, 6630507, that lists cannabis as a neurodegenerative, it's a neuro protectant so it fights against neurodegeneratives like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, motor neurone disease, it can be helped in strokes, with heart attacks, and it's got a whole list of things there that can be mentioned. This is from the Department of Health in the United States so this is already being patented with a whole list of medical things that can be helped by cannabis.


JENNY BROCKIE: Murat, what do you think? 


PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL: My heart rate just doubled after that video so I'm just trying to calm it down. 




PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL:  Because of the generalised sweeping nature of the statements. I think we do have to go back to appreciating that there are many chemicals in there, many have been associated with mental illness, with changes in brain structure and function, with learning and memory difficulties and poor educational and job outcomes and so on and I think…


ANDREW KATELARIS: I really have to make one point.


JENNY BROCKIE: No, no, let Murat, let Murat finish and then I'll come back to you. 






PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL:  One example, or example in the area that I work, there's clearly been an association between cannabis and psychosis and one of the most robust findings that we know is that normally you might get psychosis at about in your low 20s, but if you're a heavy cannabis user you're likely to get it two, three years earlier.  I would like to also say just today with a colleague of mine where we do a lot of this work, we just analysed, we separated out the effects of cannabidiols so people who have been using cannabis with and without cannabidiol in the cannabis and we're actually finding that cannabidiol does seem to be having some potentially protective effects. 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Absolutely, that's point I was trying to make.


PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL:  I think, you know, in our research over a decade we have consistently found harms and the problem, the stage we're at is we don't know what the mechanisms of those harms.  Are they are directly as a result of cannabis?  Which compounds?  Are they indirect effects because they're altering systems and circuits in the brain? Now we don't know any of that yet so we don't know who is at risk for the harmful effects and who is not going to have any of those harmful effects. 


JENNY BROCKIE: But there are harmful effects for other drugs as well. 


NICOLE COWLES: I was going to say the side effects.


RECHELLE LEAHY: Chemotherapy, three types of chemotherapy that did not work for him. He has now a nervous system issue because of the chemotherapy that he was taking. He took so many opiates that at one stage we had to take him off it like he was a drug addict because he was getting itchy and he was having bad dreams and he was not enjoying it. We came to the cannabis oil because we had gone through what is a living hell trying to get him help and I think the reason we're passionate about this is we don't necessarily have the time to wait for someone to say let's keep trialling this. We have pumped him full of drugs and chemotherapy that has stripped away his life and I have done that in the trust of doctors and that is what frustrates the absolute living heck out of us in this particular issue. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And you have a frustration about the idea of clinical trials, even though the aim of that is to ensure that it's safe? 


RECHELLE LEAHY:  Look, I would like to know what kinds of dosage levels I could give Allistair. I would love to see clinical trials that told me you could give him this amount of the drug and it could help you in this way. But at the same stretch, the drugs that I have given him to date, I mean he's taken, he's taken opiates and he's taken steroids which are  really very interesting and when one steroid causes him to have a rage, they throw another one at him and say here, try that one and see if it calms you down. 


NICOLE COWLES:  The side effects of the first drugs. 


RECHELLE LEAHY:  Absolutely.  We don't know what the side effects of those drugs are and I do agree that they need to be tested and trialled and we absolutely stand for that.  We run a hotel business; every day I get to see the outcome of the use of recreational marijuana and I absolutely don't like it. We don't support recreational use, we are anti-drugs, but it's very hard to be anti-drugs and then be told by doctors that you should be feeding him all these opiates. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, how much, no, no, how much cannabis oil do you make? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: I've treated, for the last nine months, twelve children with intractable epilepsy. These are children that are failed by the hospital system, were sent home on three, four or five anti epileptic drugs having daily multiple seizures, right. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, and what qualifications and authority do you have to be making that oil? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: My qualification and my authority is I care about the children I look after and I seek what's best for them and that's all you need. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So a moral authority, you haven't got any…


ANDREW KATELARIS: I also have scientific authority. 


JENNY BROCKIE: You haven't got any formal qualifications? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Yes, I have a formal medical doctor, I have a doctorate in medicine, in immunology pathology. 


 JENNY BROCKIE: You were deregistered as a doctor in 2005 for professional misconduct? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: For prescribing and supplying cannabis. 


 JENNY BROCKIE: What were the grounds of the deregistration? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Supplying cannabis to patients which I did openly on national TV. 


JENNY BROCKIE: You were also found to have prescribed the drugs Endone and Pethidine for others when in fact they were for your own use. 


ANDREW KATELARIS: It's a bit hard for you to stay on the point and play the point, not the man. 


JENNY BROCKIE: No, you've just cited your qualification and I'm saying you've been deregistered from the Medical Registry and I asked you the grounds and you said it was cannabis and I'm now going through the ground and these are just some of the grounds. You were found to have prescribed drugs Endone and Pethidine for others when in fact they were for your own use; you refused to provide urine samples on twenty occasions; you were found to have prescribed narcotic drugs to friends and colleagues when you weren't their primary carer or you weren't in a hospital setting; you were found to have no legal authority to carry out cannabis research; no approval from an ethics committee and no clinical trial protocol; you failed to retain patient treating notes, it goes on and on this Judgment, but essentially the Medical Tribunal found that you'd flagrantly disobeyed, flagrantly disobeyed the conditions of registration, that's why you were reregistered? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Well this is hardly the point. We're talking about the treatment of severe illness with cannabis.  You can do your muckraking if you wish. 


JENNY BROCKIE: That's not muckraking, that's a decision by your professional…


ANDREW KATELARIS: Do you want to listen to the science or do you want to listen to yourself? 


 JENNY BROCKIE: No, but you're a man who's citing medical qualifications when you've been deregistered. 


ANDREW KATELARIS: I'm not citing them. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Yes you were, you just did? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: That's where I get my scientific background from. 




ANDREW KATELARIS:  You don't need to be registered by a Tribunal. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, just before we leave this question of qualifications, I mean the thing that I am interested in here is just what qualifications people have at the moment in this field and in this area because there is the potential, when you're talking about supply of an illegal substance, for that substance to not be consistent, to potentially be dangerous, to not be good for people. 


NICOLE COWLES: Isn't that why it's so important? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: Serious, is this show serious, right, what we're talking about, have you not heard from the mothers, right, the children that don't respond to the drugs? 


JENNY BROCKIE: Your argument is an emotional argument. 


ANDREW KATELARIS: No, it's fact.  


JENNY BROCKIE: No, no, you're not addressing, you're not addressing my point which is, my point is about, you could have the best motives in the world, you could want to save all the children in the world and that's a wonderful thing, but you're moving beyond that into an area where you're supplying a substance to people and you're saying trust me, just trust me, I've got your best interests at heart, just trust me. 


ANDREW KATELARIS: No, it's an empirical reaction.  The parents, we haven't had a parent that wants to go off the medication.  Our biggest problem is that the word of mouth now, we're simply overwhelmed by the demand. Right, there has been no harm.


JENNY BROCKIE: Milton, what do you think about what you're hearing? 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN: If only we knew what was in it. 


ANDREW KATELARIS: We know exactly. 


PROFESSOR MILTON COHEN: Their psychological properties, their combinations and their, safety profiles. We're talking about a soup. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Bianca, I want to bring you in. 


ANDREW KATELARIS:  If you drink a glass of wine, are you talking about a soup? 


JENNY BROCKIE: Bianca, I want to bring you in here because your son Declan also has a rare form of epilepsy.  You've been listening to all of this, you're not using the oil. What do you think about what you're hearing? 


BIANCA HENDERSON:  Declan's on five different epileptic medications, he's been toxic from other medications on two occasions, dangerously ill, the hospital trips are just continual. It was his birthday on the weekend, the night before he had eleven seizures. 


JENNY BROCKIE: You've given us some footage of him having a seizure




JENNY BROCKIE: Do you mind if we play to everybody, just so they can see.


BIANCA HENDERSON: Yeah, so the poor bugger missed his birthday on the weekend because he was so out of it. 




JENNY BROCKIE:  And how often does he have seizures like that? 


BIANCA HENDERSON: Every day, every day, multiple seizures, all different types of seizures.  Sometimes he has continual seizure activity in and out of absent seizures continually so hundreds, hundreds.  All types of seizures.  Three weeks ago he fractured his eye because he went face first into the cement so not on one occasion, twice, so he looked like he'd been beaten up, he was black and blue, chipped a tooth, blood coming out of his mouth.  So we have constant injuries, bruised knees, elbows, just constant injuries, constantly has covered in bruises. So seizures every day  


JENNY BROCKIE: So what is it that you're waiting for? 


BIANCA HENDERSON: I wanted it to be done the correct way, under a doctor, under trials.  I won't do it illegally. I want it to be done the correct way under a doctor, under supervision, knowing that I'm getting the correct dose.


JENNY BROCKIE: Adam, you're a criminal lawyer - you represent a lot of drug offenders.   Can you just clarify for us what is the legal position with marijuana at the moment? 


ADAM LY, LY LAWYERS: It's completely illegal, you can't have possession of marijuana period, whether it's in oil form, whether it's in leaf form or whether it's a plant. You can't cultivate and have possession or use marijuana, it is as simple as that. 


JENNY BROCKIE: So how is it that all these people in the room are having daily contact with it? 


ADAM LY: Oh well, from people that are in this particular room may not be as easily detectable by authorities. They're not your typical street marijuana users who grow in conspicuous situations and conspicuous properties. They're not the type of people who police are usually keeping their eye on. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Like your clients? 


ADAM LY: Like my clients. They're using marijuana for a positive or what they believe is a positive. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And Tony and Andrew have both been prosecuted, you've both found yourselves being arrested or being prosecuted, yes? Given that you're providing this oil. So supplying cannabis oil? 


ADAM LY: Supplying cannabis oil is an offence, it's a criminal offence. When it comes to the quantity being perhaps, like the gentleman in this room are supplied on that level, it becomes quite serious and if it's dealt with in a higher court or an indictable quantity, as the law says, penalties could reach 15 years.  The maximum penalty is 15 years imprisonment so they're treated by the law as very serious offences. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Marc Selan in Barcelona, you were convicted in April this year of possessing cannabis, what was it for? 


MARC SELAN: It was for treatment of my ulcerative colitis. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And were these plants that you were in possession of?  


MARC SELAN: Yes, yes, I was cultivating them at my house. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Okay, how many were there? 


MARC SELAN: There was twelve. 


JENNY BROCKIE: You're in Barcelona now, why? 


MARC SELAN: I'm in Barcelona because I have cannabis freedom here which means I no longer need to use the pharmaceutical drugs that were ineffective in treating my ulcerative colitis in Melbourne and here I have free access to medical grade cannabis, all different cannabinoid  profiles and ratios and I'm also a long term cannabis user. I've used cannabis since the age of 17, I'm 41, and you know, I've heard and can concur with some of the negative neurological side effects that cannabis has, it can cause some negative neurological side effects, but when you suffer from a chronic disease, the side effects of the pharmaceuticals are far, far more debilitating and damaging than the cannabis.


JENNY BROCKIE: How do you go about getting it there, what's the system for getting it in Barcelona? 


MARC SELAN: The system is Spain is that they have cannabis associations which are for Spanish locals.  So I'm a resident now in Spain which means I can join one of these associations and purchase cannabis freely. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And how much does it cost and do you have to have a doctor's letter or anything to get it? 


MARC SELAN: I, in Spain it's allowed for recreational and medical use, but I go in with my colonoscopy report and my letter from my doctor in Australia that I use cannabis to control my colitis.  So I joined these clubs as a therapeutic patient and a therapeutic user. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And how much does it cost? 


MARC SELAN: It can be anywhere from 2 Euros to join a club up to 20 Euros a year and the cannabis can range from  4 Euros a gram to 6 Euros a gram.


JENNY BROCKIE:  But my question to you and to the other members of the general audience is whether you think this is the beginning of making marijuana legal for recreational use.


MALE: If I want to get weed, I can get weed very easily and very quickly.  It's not about opening the door to recreational use, the door's there is no door, anyone can get weed.. 


JENNY BROCKIE: To making recreational use legal because as we've just heard, on the books it's illegal? 


MALE: Yeah, right, but I'm saying that the door's already open.  It doesn't matter whether it's legal or illegal, you can get it. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Murat, what do you think? 


PROFESSOR MURAT YUCEL: Yeah, look, I think the concern is not so much the therapeutic potential but if the promotion element starts to kick in like with alcohol, like with tobacco, like with gambling,  it's all over TV, if that kicks in the concern for me is that knowing that 80 percent of the world's cannabis is used by regular users and companies are going to want people to shift into becoming a regular user because that's where the money is, there might be a shift from being an occasional user to into something that's more regular. 


TONY BOWER: What about if you took control of it like we do cigarettes and alcohol and opiums and everything now?  What about if you took control? What about if our government took the responsibility to what's there?


SHANE VARCOE: Hang on, the controlled substance of alcohol, alcohol is a controlled substance. That's the interesting point. The substance that's doing the greatest damage in our culture at the moment, the substance that's causing the greatest amount of harm to the individual and to those close to us, that's alcohol. 


TONY BOWER: No, opioids. 


SHANE VARCOE: Alcohol, and that is regulated legal drug and tobacco is as well. Now we know that opioids are now becoming a problem because of the fact that over the counter use is growing and the elements behind that are pretty clear. But clearly the data is in and it's irrefutable that alcohol, the legal promoted regulated substance, is causing the greatest harm. Now we want to add another regulated substance that's not for therapeutic use into that space.


JENNY BROCKIE: Some responses here, yes?


TROY LANGMAN: I'm just wondering what this has to do with saving Alice's life. 


JENNY BROCKIE: Well, I think we're talking, the topic is marijuana, you know? 


TROY LANGMAN: Medical or medicinal. 


JENNY BROCKIE: It's not just about medicinal cannabis, it's about marijuana in general but I know you've got an interest in this because you want to start up in industry, if medicinal cannabis gets off the ground.  Tell us about those plans? 


TROY LANGMAN: Absolutely. We want to assist to provide a regulated and well produced product. I personally believe that a plant that is medicinal from a human rights point of view should be allowed and people should be allowed to grow it themselves if they wish. But having said that, most ill people, they don't have the capacity to grow their own medicine. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  What do you think of the products that are already being used and what do you think about this idea of it being unregulated?  


TROY LANGMAN: Look, I think there's good operators and bad operators from what I've seen and from the statistics that we've seen, Australia actually has the highest use of, well one of the highest uses of cannabis in the world and I would say that a lot of that would be medicinal use. And you know, if I can use examples of folk that contact us on a regular basis who are desperate to find relief and a lot of them are older folk and they'll drive hundreds of kilometres. And then the problem is that, you know, they're buying cannabis that they've got no idea what the cannabinoid profile is.


JENNY BROCKIE: How much are you spending on cannabis at the moment? 


NICOLE COWLES: My supply's free. 


ALLISTAIR LEAHY:  The first amount was free, the second amount I gave him $450. 


JENNY BROCKIE: And how long did that last you for?


ALLISTAIR LEAHY: It's about twelve weeks’ worth.  And I have heard claims that some people are claiming or asking outrageous amounts of money for quantities of it. 


NICOLE COWLES: And not only asking outrageous amounts but also selling products over the internet and in other ways that aren't… 


TROY LANGMAN: I had a gentleman contact me from Queensland, he'd spent $12,000 on what he thought was cannabis oil and turned out to be vegetable oil.   He had it tested. This is guy who's got stage 4 cancer, you know, he's just trying to get by.


TONY BOWER: I had a lady send me a bottle of stuff only a few days ago  and she paid $500 for it and it was only metho and dirty water.  


JENNY BROCKIE: Damon, how much are you spending? 


DAMON ADAMS:   I get it for free which is good but before that it could cost anywhere up to, I was buying it in an ounce so I started off an little tiny bags but you get crap, weed filled with little tiny bags so if you buy a bigger amount you normally get a quality amount and it's anywhere between 200 to $250 an ounce and it would last anywhere from one to two months sort of thing.  


JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew, how much do you charge? 


ANDREW KATELARIS: At the moment on a small scale we can maintain the children about $100 a month for treatment and that includes support as well, right? On a larger scale it would be much less.


JENNY BROCKIE: Ingrid, what about children because all the studies I've seen have been on adults or on people who started  smoking when they were teenagers but what the effects of cannabis or even cannabis oil on children, for example, if they're taking it very regularly every day to treat severe conditions? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: I think we really don't know what the cannabis is doing to the developing brain and that's the biggest problem, we don't want to do harm.


JENNY BROCKIE: What should happen next? 


PROFESSOR INGRID SHEFFER: We need proper trials, randomised placebo controlled trials in epilepsy. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Okay. Nicole, what would you like to see happen next? 


NICOLE COWLES: My belief is we need to do more research to make sure that we know exactly what we're giving, doing the right trials to assess the cannabinoid profiles and we need to be working together towards a medically regulated product that's actually going to be of benefit people.


MICHELLE WHITELAW:   My son is sick and I am fighting for his life and I think at the end of the day we need the trial studies, we need it done like five years ago here in Australia. Friends and family of mine are dying every day. There is 91,000 children alone with epilepsy that are refractory like my son. That's just in Australia. Whether cannabis works for every medical condition or not, let's do it, let's change the laws, let someone stand up and be that hero and let's get on with it and all work together.


JENNY BROCKIE:   And you can still vote on the broader question of whether or not to legalise marijuana. So far our poll has the yes vote at 87% and the no vote at just 13%. As I said before, this poll is far from scientific but it is generating a lively conversation.