Pot luck

For more than two decades Lisa endured the pain and struggle of life with Crohn’s disease. It’s a chronic and incurable condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract, and can lead to weight loss, fever and intense abdominal pain.

Along with the agony of the disease went the discomfort Lisa had to endure from the swag of drugs that she was prescribed to help her manage the condition.

Then, about six months ago, the Adelaide woman, 42, who is married with two daughters, decided she’d had enough. She dumped her regular bucket-load of pharmaceuticals and began taking marijuana oil, one capsule a night.

Now, she says, she feels fine. “I actually feel better than I did when I was on 13, 14 tablets a day,” she says with a grin.

The world is slowly beginning to understand that marijuana – or cannabis, or grass, or weed, or the stoner drug – can help with the treatment of a range of health problems. Marijuana has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, and research around the world has found it to be useful treating Alzheimer’s, arthritis, chemotherapy nausea, cancer, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and diabetic nerve damage.

Lisa’s marijuana oil was supplied by that unlikely hero of Australia’s medicinal marijuana movement, Jenny Hallam, the 44-year-old resident of Hillier in Adelaide, who is due to face court on May 4, charged with manufacturing and supplying an illegal drug. Jenny admits she had been supplying as many as 200 people with medicinal marijuana oil and marijuana extract for free, because, she says, “they needed it”.

Several months before Jenny’s run-in with the South Australian police, the federal government legislated to allow marijuana to be prescribed by doctors as a Schedule 8 drug, the classification for “drugs of addiction” – including opiates such as codeine and pethidine.

Now international and domestic medicinal marijuana start-ups are jostling for a slice of the action in Australia – listing on the stock exchange and waiting for licenses to begin either growing, manufacturing or distributing medicinal marijuana products. Academic experts in the field have estimated future demand could be as much as 8,000kg of medicinal marijuana a year, creating an industry worth more than $100 million annually.

There’s a big market for chronic disease treatments. At one stage Lisa was taking more than a dozen tablets a day to control the Crohn’s disease that was ravaging her body along with a weekly injection of drugs.

“It’s a needle which they call a blocker”, she says ruefully. “They try and block the immune system, because they feel that’s part of the disease, it attacks itself. So I’m on a tablet, I’ve stopped it now, but I was on the tablet – I couldn’t even tell you – ten, fifteen years non-stop. It shuts down your immune system; they give it to cancer patients basically when they have transplants. I was on an antibiotic for three years, 500 mg three times a day, I don’t even want to think what that was doing to my body”.

Abandoning these pharmaceuticals, she says, has worked wonders. She had her most recent colonoscopy and endoscopy (the internal examination of the digestive tract using a long tube attached to a camera) late last year, and she says the results confirmed her feeling that the marijuana oil was a better choice for her.

“I have damaged parts already from having the disease for 20 odd years – narrowing and scar tissue – and none of that will ever resolve,” Lisa says. “But she (the medical expert) said the rest of my bowel was perfectly healthy. She said it didn’t look I had Crohn’s. They gave me the photos of my internal organs from the hospital at the hospital, and it’s just all clear: normal colour, normal”.

Many of those taking Jenny Hallam’s marijuana oil or extract worry about social condemnation or police reprisals and want to stay under the radar. Lisa is one of the people Jenny helped with a supply of oil. The 42-year-old doesn’t want her surname published, but she is extremely grateful for Jenny’s help so she agreed to explain her situation and have her photo taken for this article.

Lisa’s primary concern now is future supply of the marijuana oil. Following the charges laid against Jenny, her source has dried up. Lisa is considering buying it elsewhere, or perhaps trying to make it herself. “Before I got in contact with Jenny, I was looking on the internet, and people were charging four, five six hundred dollars for a couple of mls worth. And I was nearly ready to pay that, just to give it a go”.

Meanwhile, her supplier is facing serious criminal charges. Jenny Hallam freely admits she has supplied marijuana oil and marijuana extract to an extended network of friends, family and acquaintances for medicinal use: to help some deal with the agonising cramps and pains of multiple sclerosis, to slow down the frequency of epileptic seizures, to provide others with relief from the debilitating pain of Crohn’s disease, or from the uncontrollable spasms of Parkinson’s.

Jenny Hallam, courtesy SA Weekend.

The 44-year-old is riding the crest of a wave of social change. Despite facing the possibility of a jail term, Jenny is unrepentant. “Yes, it’s worth risking prison,” she says. “There comes a point in your life, when it’s something this important, you have to stand up and do something”.

Charged with the crimes of “manufacturing a controlled drug and possession for supply”, Jenny has been summoned to appear in the Elizabeth Magistrates Court. Manufacturing a controlled drug is an offence that carries a maximum jail term of seven years or a $35,000 fine, or both; and supplying marijuana carries a maximum jail term of two years or a $2,000 fine, or both. Jenny has a lot of public support. Hundreds of Facebook friends applaud her every move – “Australian of the Year, I reckon”, one posted, and the number of people talking about her on Facebook has reached well over 60,000, and if she is convicted and jailed there could be an uproar.

Meanwhile, Australian states and territories are at various stages of coming to terms with the notion of medicinal marijuana. The Victorian government has already grown a marijuana crop, which will be manufactured into medicinal products for research purposes. The South Australia government on Sunday (subs April 23) finally announced that state approval was no longer required for a doctor to prescribe medicinal marijuana, at least for the first two months, and “The Office for Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis” had been set up to support the drug’s development in the state.

Whether this will make any difference to the charges laid against Jenny remains to be seen. With no medical training at all, she made the oil and extract herself from donated marijuana, and provided it to those who needed it most: those who have reacted poorly to pharmaceuticals, and those whose condition continued to worsen regardless of treatments prescribed by medical experts.

Jenny, who survives on a disability pension, began taking marijuana oil about three years ago to dull the pain of fibromyalgia, a nerve condition characterised by chronic pain and tenderness that she has endured for more than 20 years. Often she was in so much pain, she says, it made her feeling like vomiting.

“I was on morphine for 15 years; Oxycontin (a strong painkiller), and the last two or three years Lyrica (another painkiller) as well as anti-depressants,” she says. It took her five months to wean herself off these drugs, and she now feels far healthier than she did when she was taking them.

“I make up capsules (of the marijuana oil); when I make it for myself or other people I put the oil in the empty capsules. I work out what dose each person should use, depending on a lot of different things, their weight, age, the medical condition that they’ve got. It’s not something you can figure out straight away. It’s taken me years to figure out how to dose properly with it”.

The faith Lisa and Jenny and so many others have in the therapeutic benefits of marijuana is unshakeable, and it is in line with the thinking of some heavy-hitters in the scientific world. Marijuana has been legalised for medical use in a long list of nations, including Canada, Israel, Portugal, Ireland, Jamaica and Germany and many states of the US.

Here in Australia, the University of Sydney last year published a 54-page white paper titled ‘Medicinal Cannabis in Australia: Science, Regulation & Industry’, which reported that natural cannabinoid receptors had been found to exist throughout the human body and brain, and these receptors have been shown to affect a number of pathological conditions: cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, reproductive, gastrointestinal, liver, lung, skeletal, and even psychiatric and cancer diseases.

“The research required to fully understand the plant has been hindered by political barriers, and medical science is only now beginning to catch up on several lost decades”, the white paper says.

Scientists have identified more than a hundred unique cannabinoids so far, but in the past the authorities have focused on the law and order issues associated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ‘psychoactive’ element of marijuana that produces the high loved by stoners. But even THC has been successfully used to treat severe nausea, severe pain and muscle spasticity.

Another hindrance to understanding medicinal marijuana, according to the white paper, is traditional medicine’s insistence on a “single chemical, single target” way of thinking. Many medicinal marijuana users report that “whole-plant” marijuana medicines are more effective than pharmaceutical marijuana medicines, which some scientists believe is caused by the ‘synergistic effect’, or ‘entourage effect’ that comes from a number of chemicals, including THC, working together.

Now steps are being taken in Australia to harness the therapeutic benefits of the drug. A federal Office of Drug Control has been established to oversee the beginnings of domestic cultivation and production, and it has already approved a handful of applications and received more than 50 others.

Under the federal legislation enacted last year, any doctor can apply to the Therapeutic Goods Administration to prescribe medicinal marijuana. In practice, though, this has proved to be difficult. In February, the federal government announced it would introduce a policy to permit the importation of medicinal cannabis to deal with the shortfall until a domestic industry is up and running. “Product under this policy is expected to arrive shortly”, the Office of Drug Control advised SA Weekend.

Jeffrey Leahy, a 47-year-old Melbourne-based security contractor, says he was the first to apply for a licence to grow medicinal marijuana, even though he had never actually seen a marijuana plant before he considered cultivating it commercially.

His firm, Cannabis Life, has a plan to grow marijuana hydroponically in a 420-square-metre warehouse in Keilor East, in north-west Melbourne, guarded by armed security patrols. Leahy calculates the warehouse will hold about 2,500 – 3,500 marijuana plants, and produce roughly four crops a year. He expects each marijuana plant grown in the warehouse would produce about 50 grams of resin per crop, providing Cannabis Life with a total of between 500 and 700 kilograms of cannabis resin a year.

He believes he understands why the authorities are moving so slowly granting cultivation and manufacturing licenses for medicinal marijuana. “Australia is worried about damaging its clean drugs-growing profile (earned by the Tasmanian poppy producers, who grow opium poppies for use in morphine and other drugs)”, he explains. “That’s an important issue for them and us”.

He expects that once domestically-grown marijuana is widely available in Australia the police will get tougher on the backyard users who grow or supply the illegal product. “As soon as the police are comfortable that there’s domestic supply, the crackdown on illegal narcotics is going back to where it should be,” he says.

At the moment, there is so much illicit marijuana under cultivation, he explains, the police are swamped, and simply don’t have the manpower to deal with it all. He expects this semi-tolerance to change.

“If you have a plant and it’s over 50 grams, you’ll be charged. So for example you know how some people grow half a dozen plants, they would be classified as a dealer, and they would be dealt with according to the legislation”. The courts, he added, would also be less tolerant, because backyard growers could no longer ask for compassion because they couldn’t buy medicinal marijuana legally.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has already warned Australians who use illicit medicinal marijuana that it could be unsafe. “There are no controls over the safety and quality of medicines bought this way,” he said in January. “Recently in NSW for example, two women were hospitalised because the strength of the cannabis that they used in their treatment was much higher than expected’’.

In the cases he referred to, a struck-off NSW doctor injected two women with cannabis oil. The women both had ovarian cancer, and the oil injections affected them adversely.

There is little data on Australians being seriously adversely affected by eating, taking or smoking medicinal marijuana, but the medical profession is wary of any drug made without adequate quality control, by amateurs who don’t have any scientific expertise manufacturing a product that can be misused by consumers looking for a high.

Yet Jenny says she has provided marijuana oil and extract to about many dozens of sufferers in all, and no-one has ever had a problem taking it. Now people continue to beg her for medicinal marijuana oil.

“I never wanted to do this,” she says. “I never went out saying ‘I’m going to break the law, ha ha, this is heaps fun’. I did this because people were desperate for it and they needed it”.