28 February 2017
Powerbrokers in Canberra convene the ‘Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis’ a group of individuals whom it appears aren’t much enamored by the idea of a regulated cannabis environment. Well, not for the foreseeable future.
It must count as one of the most dazzling examples of Doublethink since George Orwell sat down and wrote the clocks were striking thirteen. While claiming it believes access to medical cannabis is of ‘vital importance to many Australians’ the Federal Government has appointed what appear to be some of the most inexpert ‘experts’ on the matter to ‘advise’ on its programme for weed.
Such apparently contrary behaviour in relation to the issue however is nothing unusual for Canberra. For the last three years or more the subject has been smouldering away just below the public and political imagination – and occasionally erupts into flame. In 2014 a massive push to get the plant legalised for medical use was followed by no fewer than seven Public Inquiries at Federal and State levels which showed overwhelming popular support, forcing Ministers – eventually – to act. So in February last year legislation was passed permitting cannabis cultivation here for medicinal purposes for the first time in over five decades.
But the problems did not go away. Since then, regulations to do with the drug have been written, so arcane and restrictive those who’d campaigned say they’re worse off today than before legal changes were made. The Government, they say, has deliberately shifted the goal-posts to ensure benefits – if benefits there are to be had – will only be seen by drug companies wishing to develop pharmaceutical products using the plant – something that could take years and then deliver compounds inferior to the natural thing.
Patients meanwhile have, they claim, been left stranded as bureaucrats and senior politicians do all they can to prevent actual cannabis or its extracts from ever falling into their hands. The black market, as a result, has simultaneously and predictably thrived.
The announcement of this latest, newly-formed cadre – the ‘Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis’ to provide it its full epithet – was made at at a gathering in Sydney last Wednesday (15th Feb.) and in a press release issued that day.
The aforesaid campaigners are livid, wondering what recently-installed Health Minister Greg Hunt was thinking by setting what many say is a vastly under-qualified line-up such a highly specialist task. The Government itself meanwhile stands accused of repeatedly misleading the public by pretending to take action while in reality dragging its feet, apparently more interested in waging a propaganda war with advocacy groups than progressing any solid plans for medicinal use of the plant.
Such ire is understandable too, looking at the new appointees. Though some do, without question, bring estimable scholarship and knowledge to the role and in a variety of useful fields, not one can claim expertise in, specifically, cannabis. Others though are so breathtakingly inappropriate and antithetical to the stuff it’s difficult to believe even a Minister as inept as Hunt – who managed to increase carbon emissions in his former life at Environment – could be so dense as to think such a move could or would slip by un-remarked. Or that it wouldn’t be seen as another premeditated effort to delay and obstruct the possibility of what for many is an urgent medical necessity being accessed by legitimate means.
To illustrate our point, and for fun (you find it wherever you can) we’ve checked out the members individually and awarded each of them an out-of-five star-rating. An entire set means they’re so extraordinarily, preposterously terrible, inclusion can only mean ‘saboteur’ and that the Government is deadly serious in its intent to ensure whatever does happen with cannabis, what won’t happen is its availability to patients any time soon. Four stars mean much the same, except those involved haven’t quite reached the vertiginous heights of sheer hostility toward it shown by their newly found friends. Three is just averagely bad. One or two is getting close to neutral while none at all suggests a good pick. We’re open to further input on this mind you, and will be happy to adjust up or down, depending on the arguments received. Please send these to info at amcsignpost dot net – we’re ready to admit when we’re wrong. Completing this little exercise though has been to experience acute deja vu. Haven’t we seen this before, when we wrote about the Government placing ‘Foxes in Charge of The Medical Cannabis Henhouse‘? We think so – the first in our pageant was actually one of the ‘Foxes’. Read the story and you’ll see what we mean.
One further thought however, before starting our beauty parade. Does anyone recall Andrew Southcott, the former Liberal MP, one-time medic and general cannabiphobe? We thought he was supposed to be chairing the Council. Somewhere in the political desert perhaps with disgraced former boss Sussan Ley who originally gave him the job? That or beneath the Hunt patio. Either way, in our view a lucky escape….
Professor Wayne Hall ★★★★★★
University of Queensland
Your eyes do not deceive you, and no this is not a mistake – there are more than five stars above. It’s such an outlandish selection we’ve had to award it a six.
Professor Hall is one of the most prominent critics of cannabis not just in Australia but on the planet. Here’s one chap the plant has certainly done wonders for, providing him an illustrious career spanning decades, including with the World Health Organisation, the International Narcotics Control Board and the Australian Government.
Professor Hall was one of the founders of this country’s powerful anti-weed propaganda machine, NCPIC – the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre. Inaugurated with help from Big Pharma villain Pfizer (of which more momentarily), upon opening – and thanks to John Jiggens for posting this recently – the Centre’s Director Jan Copeland (another of the ‘Foxes’ referred to above) reportedly said: ‘The burden of disease…due to cannabis use and dependence is estimated to be greater than that of HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C combined.‘ Oh dear. Cannabis as many are aware has killed no-one in 5,000 years of known use and the above diseases obviously kill millions. Not saying that these types would fib……
Professor Hall himself though is unrivalled in his specialist area – demonising the herb and chronicling its many harms – using research that’s been called ‘highly flawed‘. He once prompted a letter to the BMJ complaining of his ‘long running association’ with NCPIC which closed its doors in December, redeploying staff – along with Professor Hall – to ‘review evidence‘ on medicinal cannabis and knock up some clinical guidelines – based on material that’s years out of date.
Some of his biggest hits include ‘The Adverse Health Effects of Chronic Cannabis Use‘, ‘What are the policy implications of the evidence on cannabis and psychosis?’ along with ‘Cannabis use and psychotic disorders: an update.’ Professor Hall told the Federal Inquiry into the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill he believes ‘Medical use of cannabinoids requires much better evidence than we currently have‘ – you can read his Submission here. With people like him gathering such evidence perhaps he might have a point.
Dr Chris Hayes ★★★★★
Faculty of Pain Medicine – Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists
Trotting behind in Professor Hall’s rather large footsteps comes Dr Chris Hayes of ANZCA. The organisation itself, it must firstly be said, enjoys a few questionable ties of its own – receiving generous endowments from Pfizer mentioned earlier and an outfit called Mundipharma. Pfizer was, as we’ve said, instrumental in the creation of NCPIC and is often in court for its sins. Literally. In 2009 – a year after NCPIC was opened – the company paid US $2.3 billion in a settlement for civil and criminal allegations it had illegally marketed Bextra, a painkiller which was later withdrawn. Mundipharma is the ‘international wing’ of Purdue which makes OxyContin, a main culprit in the US ‘opiod epidemic’. The company financially supports anti-cannabis campaigns in America, concerned prescriptions for its drugs are dropping in States where the herb has been legalised. More on this kind of thing can be found here.
As far s Dr Hayes himself is concerned, only a few months ago he found himself in a spat with Emeritus Professor Laurie Mather of Sydney University – one of the few boffins in Australia genuinely expert in cannabis pharmacology.
Writing in the ANZCA Bulletin last September Dr Hayes accused advocacy groups and legislation of ‘moving ahead of evidence’ on the matter – and that was just in the title.
His musings, on page 19, quoted Professor Jennifer Martin (who’s awarded five stars – below) and maintained, among many other things, ‘beyond the lack of pharmacological data there are multiple reasons for caution and to avoid an overly optimistic extrapolation from community advocacy to clinical practice,’ concluding: ‘We have a responsibility to speak out about the risks to our society of well-intentioned advocacy and legislation when it moves ahead of or is out of step with the evidence.’
Professor Mather hit back in December with a reply in the same journal titled ‘Evidence supports use of ‘medicinal’ cannabis’ but not before Dr Hayes, also in that edition, added: ‘Community advocacy continues to call for compassionate access to medicinal cannabis for people suffering chronic non-cancer pain. The call is based largely on anecdotal reports.’
And Dr Hayes didn’t leave it there either – expressing the same sentiments in newspaper editorials aimed at the lay reader with headlines like ‘Hunter pain specialist questions why introducing medicinal cannabis is being rushed with so little evidence‘.
The Medical Cannabis Users Association of Australia were naturally quick to respond, but his words, not ours, are the reason for Dr Hayes’ whopping five stars.
Is it it stupid to ask why he, and not Professor Mather, was invited to serve on the Council?
Professor Jennifer Martin ★★★★★
University of Newcastle
Pharmacologist Professor Martin was a surprise pick to help out in the NSW Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation after her damning article in the MJA ‘Medicinal cannabis in Australia: the missing links‘. In it was explored – in commendable detail – the question of how insufficient evidence exists to prescribe cannabis safely and how it might be put through its regulatory paces. ‘There are already several safe and effective registered therapeutic goods available for most conditions for which patients are requesting access to medicinal cannabis,‘ it concluded, nowhere mentioning the drug’s safety record (though its toxicity – just about non-existent – was discussed several times) nor touching on the matter of the ‘entourage effect’ believed a property of its chemicals in combination.
Quoted by Dr Hayes in one of the articles mentioned above, Professor Martin said of cannabis ‘There is an absence of basic pharmacological information about cannabinoids in the literature. There is a lack of characterisation of specific cannabinoid products for testing and a lack of the requisite dose response curves. Until such information is available there is no foundation on which to base analysis of potential risk and benefit in volunteer and patient populations.‘
A position with which many differ, given the plant is now one of the most closely-researched things on Earth.
Dr Morton Rawlin ★★★★★
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
‘Flyin’ Dr’ Rawlin does not so much get his five stars for what he’s written about cannabis – since an (admittedly cursory) search suggests it is nothing: how invaluable such ‘expertise’.
No, they’re awarded to his organisation which has long been obstructive and sceptical on pot as its position statement on the matter reveals. ‘There is very little high quality evidence for the medical use of cannabis‘ the RACGP insists. And little chance of it ever in Australia if those we’ve looked at so far are involved.
Michelle Lynch ★★★★
Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
Ms Lynch’s organisation also feels more evidence is required in relation to cannabis and in its position statement is categorical that ‘standardised pharmaceutical products containing cannabis which have been evaluated for quality and safety must be used,‘ (our emphases). Hard luck if you feel the full-spectrum plant or its extracts are what’s needed – the Society – another Mundipharma beneficiary – doesn’t agree.
Liz Callaghan ★★★★
Palliative Care Australia
Palliative Care Australia also receives Mundipharma cash – we wonder, are we seeing a pattern? – and in addition is Government-funded. In 2015 the organisation made a Submission to the Federal Government’s Public Inquiry into the Regulator of Medicinal Cannabis Bill, which, had it been enacted might have solved some of the problems faced now. Its contribution, endorsed by Professor Richard Chye (below) opposed the Bill and argued: ‘At present there is not comprehensive evidence to address questions such as who may benefit from medicinal cannabis and derivatives,’ as well as the ‘fact’ that ‘medicinal cannabis is not the only measure available to provide comfort for people with a terminal illness. While there are many accounts in the medical and non-medical literature of the value of cannabis in symptom relief, there are also clinical trials that have found no superior benefit of cannabis over other available medications for symptoms such as nausea, pain or weight loss.‘
Palliative Care Australia scores a four rather than five only because we gather at the session in Sydney last week where the Council was first announced, a representative of that organisation seemed more onside than perhaps the Submission suggests. Time will tell if it’s truly moved its position.
Professor Richard Chye ★★★★
St Vincent’s Hospital
See above and also this article from the Sydney Morning Herald in which Professor Richard said of medicinal cannabis ‘I think we should test it properly and get an answer once and for all.‘
Professor Helen Zorbas ★★★
Professor Zorbas gets three stars not because of anything she’s published about cannabis – since from what we can tell (like Dr Rawlin before her) it is zilch. You can blame the politicians for these though. They have her organisation down as a ‘patient group’ when in fact it’s a Government Agency. A small but important total lie – making the Council appear to have more end-user representation than it in fact actually does. Is there no end to such Ministerial mythomania?
Emirita Professor Anne Tonkin DEPUTY CHAIR ★★
Chair of South Australian Medication Advisory Committee
Professor Tonkin is a sort of South Australian counterpart to Professor James Angus (below). She gets her two stars however through association, because of her involvement with the RACGP for whom she apparently writes (small world, isn’t it). Professor Tonkin is also on the Expert Committee on Complementary Medicines in the Health System at the Therapeutic Goods Administration which is supposed to regulate medicinal cannabis. Her specialisms are therapeutic drugs (prescription and non-prescription); blood pressure; high blood pressure; low blood pressure; drug regulation; medical education; curriculum development, assessment.
Ria Pryce ★★
Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation
Assists NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane and from what we can tell is an administrator more than anything else. Winner (in 2014) of the ANZ School of Government’s ‘Urbis Prize for Decision Making Under Uncertainty‘. A fitting accolade for a job on a Council like this? Probably not – we see little ‘uncertainty’ here….
Dr Simon Walsh ★
Australian Federal Police
Difficult to know what the AFP’s Chief Forensic Scientist is doing with a set-up like this. Dr Walsh’s expertise within his field generally and DNA in particular is world-class – his research is of the type other learned papers make reference to, such as this one – ‘Application of new DNA markers for forensic examination of Cannabis sativa seizures – Developmental validation of protocols and a genetic database.’ Dr Walsh also heads up the huge, spanking new police lab in Canberra. Let us hope he’s been chosen for his scientific nous (which, honestly, is extensive) rather than to hunt down those pesky ‘compassionate suppliers.’
Dr Ian Freckleton QC
University of Melbourne
Dr Freckleton led the Victorian Law Reform Commission Review which conducted an Inquiry into medical cannabis on behalf of that State, eventually returning a report that remains a mini-masterpiece. It was responsible for Victoria moving rapidly toward legalisation putting pressure on the Federal Government to move. A lawyer – especially one with such a background – is an undoubted asset.
Epilepsy Action Australia
Ms Ireland’s organisation is one of the few advocacy groups supportive of cannabis from the outset. It has even played a part launching the recent campaign ‘greenlight.support‘ with pressure group United in Compassion and philanthropist Barry Lambert (discussed here). The greenlight.support website hosts three excellent pieces of learning material about cannabis created by Epilepsy Action. No stars at all for Ms Ireland.
Dr Phil Wright
NSW Department of Primary Industry – Chief Scientist / cultivation
Involved with the national science hub for organics research at the Lismore campus of Southern Cross University, conveniently nearby to another significant hub at Nimbin – Australia’s cannabis capital. Know-how and the kit to go with it make Dr Wright – we hope – a good pick.
Professor James Angus -CHAIR
Chair of Victorian Independent Medical Advisory Committee on Medicinal Cannabis
Esteemed pharmacologist – we’ve heard nothing but positive remarks about the Professor, who said when appointed Chair of the Victorian Committee ‘We have many tasks ahead we will provide advice in the types of cananbis products.’ From this it is difficult to discern quite what Professor Angus had in mind when he said ‘products’. Victoria is growing a cannabis crop of its own and has provided an update today (21st Feb) which looks promising.
From the above – a seemingly random mishmash of disciplines, positions and interests – the Minister has with no question made sure advances with cannabis are going to be held up for years.
Nowhere is to be found any of the extensive knowledge on the plant and its use as a medicine that exists here and even more so abroad.
Where advocacy groups are concerned, of the three Greg Hunt claims are included, one is well-known as a sceptic and the other doesn’t represent patients at all.
No wonder those at grass-roots are so angry – they and the public find themselves conned yet again.
For reference: The press release announcing the formation of the Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis and its chair