The question of whether medicinal cannabis should be legalised to treat chronic health problems such as epilepsy and cancer is one which is hotly debated around the globe.
The issue becomes even more contentious when we consider the needs of seriously ill children, who some argue might benefit from unconventional treatments derived from cannabis.
But others say that these treatments are potentially dangerous, and that drugs like cannabis should never be given to children.
The present state of the law in Australia is that criminal charges can be pressed against parents for administering drugs to their sick kids– even if they have their child’s best interests at heart.
Father Charged for Giving Sick Daughter Cannabis Oil
Adam Koessler’s daughter, Rumer, was being treated at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane for stage four neuroblastoma cancer, which gives her a 50% chance of survival.
While Rumer underwent chemotherapy at hospital, her father added medical-grade cannabis oil to her food in an attempt to ‘complement her treatment,’ arguing that this was in her best interests.
According Mr Koessler, the cannabis oil had a ‘miraculous’ effect on Rumer’s condition, giving her ‘almost instant quality of life’ and enabling her to eat and gain weight again.
Unfortunately, his good intentions were not overlooked by police, who charged him with ‘supplying a dangerous drug to a minor under 16’ and drug possession.
Mr Koessler was also initially prohibited from contacting or visiting Rumer – but following public backlash, that restriction was later amended to allow him to visit her in the presence of a medical practitioner.
Koessler’s story follows the highly-publicised case of Jai Whitelaw, a 10-year-old boy who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy causing him to suffer up to 500 seizures a day, as well as side effects such as incontinence, inability to walk, tremor, drooling and vision impairment.
Jai has reportedly been prescribed 25 different medications and treatments over the course of his life, none of which have worked.
His mother, Michelle, considered treating him with cannabis tinctures after hearing positive feedback from other parents, whose children had benefitted from the treatment.
After spending days researching tinctures online, she ordered a sample from Mullaways Medical Cannabis, a Kempsey-based company which supplies tinctures to hundreds of chronically ill persons around Australia.
But before she could give Jai the tincture, Mrs Whitelaw was advised that the treatment was not supported by the Australian Medical Association, and that she would be reported to DOCS if she gave it to her son.
Accordingly, she made the decision not to treat Jai with the oil, but she has since launched a campaign to reform the law and allow trials to determine its effectiveness in treating chronically ill children.
Potential for Reform
The above cases illustrate the difficulties faced by parents who wish to treat their sick children with cannabis-derived substances.
However, the promising results of a recent American study offer parents a ray of hope in their fight to reform the law.
The study, which was published in the American Academy of Neurology, examined the effects of a drug derived from marijuana on 213 epileptics ranging in age from toddlers to adults. The drug contained canabidiol, which is a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.
The study found that, over the course of 12 weeks, there was a 54% decrease in the number of seizures experienced by participants – but around 10% reported experiencing side-effects such as diarrhoea and drowsiness.
The results are likely to spawn future studies to look more closely at the effectiveness of similar cannabis-derived drugs.
In recent years, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes has been legalised in a number of countries including Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands and several of the United States. The growing body of research supporting the effectiveness of these treatments has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of medical associations around the globe voicing their support for the use of medical marijuana in treating chronic health issues.
The increased acceptance of marijuana by both health professionals and the general public has prompted legislative reform in Australia.
The NSW government has committed $9 million towards three trials to examine the use of cannabis in treating children with severe forms of epilepsy, as well as adults suffering from a terminal illness and chemotherapy-induced nausea. Meanwhile, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has promised to make cannabis oils and medications legal for medicinal purposes by the end of this year.
A number of high-profile politicians have also voiced their support for medical marijuana – Bob Carr advocated trials back in 2003, while former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman stated last year that he believes the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and / or the National Health and Medical Research Council should consider reviewing cannabis-based treatments.
Even our usually conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has backed the legalisation of medicinal marijuana, famously declaring last year that he has ‘no problem with the medical use of cannabis.’
Already, a cannabis-derived mouth spray known as Sativex has been approved by the TGA for the treatment of multiple sclerosis in Australia. Sativex is the only legal form of cannabis so far available.
Despite these promising steps towards reform, a number of health professionals caution that cannabis may have harmful side effects, particularly in young people.
Research indicates that the drug could potentially accelerate schizophrenia and other mental health issues when used by persons aged between 15 and 25.
Other experts, including former Dean of Melbourne University’s medical school Professor David Penington, have cautioned that the drug has limited use in the medical realm because it affects people differently, making it impossible to determine a safe dosage for any particular person.
However, parents of children suffering from serious illnesses hope that these issues can be addressed through further research and studies, so that they may be able to treat their children with cannabis-derived substances without fear of criminal prosecution.