It’s some 22 years since my mother passed away. We didn’t know it at the time, but the unbearable, agonising pain she was experiencing in the months before her death was due to an acute form of leukaemia that was hard to detect. Traditional pain management wasn’t particularly effective, so Mum was forced to endure the suffering.
I was quite shielded from witnessing much of her pain at its most severe. I was 17 at the time, but Mum being Mum didn’t want her kids to see her that way if she could help it. I’m sure that was as much about protecting us as it was herself. There’s a relentless indignity in acute suffering. No one wants to suffer in front of an audience.
But I could hear her cries of pain. Those cries and the suffering I did see will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Looking back, I wonder if medical marijuana might have helped my mum better manage the pain of this unknown disease that was ravaging her body. I don’t know if it was ever raised with her as an option. Certainly at the time, the issue wasn’t prominent on the national agenda like it is now.
Most of all, I wish my mum had been afforded the choice - the legal choice to use it as a treatment if that was her wish.
Helen Kapalos’s documentary A Life of its Own: The Truth about Medical Marijuana offers a poignant insight into the unfathomable suffering those with debilitating illnesses endure and investigates the stunning therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis.
It remains a much stigmatised and misunderstood treatment. There’s a misconception it’s the same illicit drug as recreational marijuana.
Recreational marijuana’s high derives from the compound Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Medical marijuana has a much higher concentration of the therapeutic compound Cannabidiol (CBD) and a much lower concentration of THC. Unlike THC, CBD is generally thought to be non-psychoactive. Put simply, medicinal marijuana’s purpose is not to make people high, it’s therapeutic.
Complicating access is that the scope of legality or lack of it differs between states and territories. Legal access is incredibly limited, so people have been forced to break the law to source treatments from the unregulated black market or by growing their own cannabis. People can feel like criminals for sourcing what is, for some, their only form of effective treatment.
There’s an infuriating irony here. Conventional opioids that can have serious side effects are a legal treatment for the management of chronic suffering. Meanwhile medical marijuana with its proven benefits - and, according to many users, no reported side effects - is not readily available in Australia, stuck as it is in a legal and bureaucratic minefield.
How can we allow people to endure the barbarity of their suffering?
There’s a desperate need for widespread, legal access that is currently limited - for example, to select patients participating in strictly controlled trials. For patients and their families, there’s growing frustration at how slow the process towards legalisation is in this country.
Progress is happening in Australia, but it’s a mixed blessing. The federal government announced recently that importation of medicinal cannabis treatments would be made easier, but only those with a doctor’s prescription can access them. The government is also promising a faster approval process for licences to grow and harvest medical cannabis domestically.
There’s also a key stumbling block in the contentious issue of research within the medical community. Some believe there’s overwhelming evidence to legalise medicinal cannabis; others say that more definitive research needs to be done before safe, legal treatment can be prescribed.
What’s heartening is the groundswell of advocacy and support for legalisation that has made the issue a key rung on the national and media agenda. That’s due in large part to the tireless advocacy of Lucy and Lou Haslam, a former policeman who has led drug squads.
Their late son, Dan, was a tireless advocate. He had benefited greatly from medical cannabis to treat debilitating sickness from chemotherapy for his bowel cancer. A bill has been introduced into federal parliament to legalise medicinal cannabis in Australia - it's named "Dan’s Law" in his honour.
When it comes down to it, only those who are battling these severe traumas to the body and mind can know how that feels. And only those who also suffer as they watch their loved ones in debilitating pain can know the sheer desperation of wanting something, anything to take it away.
Imagine the suffering that could have been prevented if medical marijuana was already a legitimate treatment like opioids?
If we take the red tape out of the equation - and it’s a mighty barrier - the right to legally use medical marijuana for those in desperate need becomes an issue of compassion and empathy.
We can’t stop people being dealt a bad hand, but we can help them manage it. If medical marijuana can be beneficial to those in pain – and we know it can – then blanket legalisation needs to happen as soon as possible in Australia. When people are suffering needlessly, it should be a human right.
Watch A Life of its Own: The Truth about Medical Marijuana on SBS On Demand right here: