As a former NSW police officer with 35 years of service – eight years in the drug squad – Lou Haslam is no stranger to the dangers of certain illegal drugs: health problems, committing crime to support the habit, and even family violence.
For years, Haslam saw drugs as the enemy – especially during his time as head of the Tamworth drug squad.
He preached relentlessly to police force detectives and new recruits about the long-term effects of drugs including cannabis, how THC can build up in the body like lead, and how long-term cannabis use can cause psychosis and lead to drug-induced schizophrenia.
So no one was more surprised than Haslam’s family and former colleagues to hear that he was persuading his own son to use marijuana.
But the circumstances leading up to that decision were tragic – Haslam’s youngest son Daniel, in his late teens, was fighting a bitter battle against bowel cancer.
The chemotherapy affected him horribly, making him feel sick and causing painful ulcers in his mouth, right down his throat. Daniel struggled to speak, to keep food down, and the chemo killed what little appetite he had.
And then, just when Daniel was starting to recover, it would be time for his next round of chemo.
Marijuana helped ease the side effects
One night, a friend suggested Daniel try marijuana. Given his father’s history and strong stance against the drug, Daniel was understandably reluctant. However, as a concerned father, Haslam was desperate for anything that would help his son. He encouraged Daniel to take the drug.
After that first joint, Haslam witnessed first-hand the almost miraculous effect of the drug on his son’s symptoms. Marijuana helped control the nausea and vomiting, and increased his son’s appetite. Heartened by the results, Daniel began to try cannabis oil in a bid to slow down the progression of the cancer in its later stages.
“The results were sensational, said the former detective. “We’d give him a smoke just before and just after chemo clinic. That first night he asked for steak and eggs!
“We later found out, through all the petition signers leaving comments, everyone using it medicinally felt the same effect. That last year of Dan’s life was the best of all five since his initial diagnosis. His nausea eased, his appetite returned. We got Dan back, even if it was only for a year.”
Campaigning to make medicinal marijuana legal
Haslam’s wife Lucy (centre) began the campaign for medicinal marijuana to be legalised when she saw the positive effect it was having on her son.
She logged on to Change.org and signed a petition demanding not to be treated as a criminal for providing her terminally ill child with medicinal cannabis.
Going public with their own personal story was the first step in a long campaign for the Haslams, but they eventually amassed 250,000 signatures, belonging to an army of passionate campaigners who helped them to successfully pressure State Premiers, Health Ministers, party leaders and pharmaceutical giants.
In February last year, Daniel Haslam died. He was only 25. Honouring his legacy, his parents stepped up their lobbying. They had already convinced NSW Premier Mike Baird to rethink his views on the subject, with the Premier writing an article dedicated to Daniel titled “The young man who changed my mind about cannabis.”
The Haslam’s then turned to their 250,000 supporters and asked them to take the debate to federal politicians too. Eventually, their collective voices could not be ignored.
2016, steps towards legalising medicinal marijuana
In February 2016, on the first anniversary of Daniel’s death, the Haslams won a major victory.
Health Minister Sussan Ley issued an official response to their Change.org petition announcing the federal law would change to decriminalise medicinal cannabis.
Two months later, the Haslam family purchased a farm on the outskirts of Tamworth, where, surrounded by state-of-the-art high security fencing, they intend to run Australia’s first ever medicinal cannabis crop farm, appropriately named DanEden.
They intend to make the cannabis available for use by ¬patients with a certain severe conditions and terminal illnesses, as well as for children with chronic epilepsy.
The Haslam family’s vision is that they will successfully apply for a licence from the federal government to cultivate and manufacture medicinal cannabis, in order to provide the drug on a subsidy for people who cannot afford it.
“I still believe that there is no such thing as a soft drug,” said Mr Haslam, “But our argument is not about recreational use by people who make that choice. This is about a treatment for the chronically ill with pain, those suffering continuous epileptic seizures, those with Crohns disease for example, and those suffering from the effects of chemotherapy.”
The new federal laws, passed at the start of 2016, allow for licences to be granted for the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
NSW trials of the drug have already been scheduled, with 40 children suffering from severe, treatment-resistant epilepsy being selected to receive the cannabis-based drug, ‘Epidolex’, through the Sydney Children’s Hospital.
Recreational drug possession remains a crime throughout Australia, with state-based criminal laws still in place.