Those who wish to see cannabis legalised are following overseas tactics of having it first accepted for medical purposes, then pressuring the Government for legislative changes.
A new book Cannabis & Cancer: Arthur’s Story by Pauline Reilly fits in perfectly with this strategy.
Arthur’s Story is about a Victorian couple in their 80s, Pauline and Arthur Reilly. The husband, Arthur, battles prostate cancer for 11 years and for the final eight months self-prescribed cannabis to ease the effects of the opiate drugs described by Reilly as "that horrible morphine". Pauline Reilly continually states that she only supports cannabis for medical purposes, however the content of the book suggests otherwise.
Reilly describes cannabis as a soft drug and likens it to alcohol and nicotine. She argues that legal alcohol and nicotine cause more illnesses and death than cannabis.
Yet cannabis is illegal because of its known toxic effects.
A study of 18- to 29-year olds published in August 2001 by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that keeping cannabis illegal discouraged its use.
The Bureau found that keeping cannabis illegal prevented 91 per cent of existing users from using more, and was the reason why 19 per cent of former users ceased using the drug, and also why 29 per cent of those that have never used cannabis did not ever try it.
The reference sources in Arthur’s Story disclose the one-sided nature of her information. Reilly uses sources such as David Penington (who wrote the foreword of Arthur’s Story), Alex Wodak, Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP), National Organisation for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Australian Green Party, the Australian Democrat Party. All are in favor of decriminalising the recreational use of cannabis.
Both the Reillys are members of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Victoria. In Arthur’s Story, Reilly outlines her strong support for individualism, freedom of choice and self-determination.
Sweden’s restrictive drug policy is never mentioned in Arthur’s Story and Reilly praises the Netherlands’ "enlightened" approach to cannabis. However, Sweden has reduced cannabis use for all age groups to two per cent in 1998 compared to 10 per cent for the Netherlands. For 15-16 year olds, regular cannabis use is only seven per cent in Sweden compared to 31 per cent in the Netherlands.
Reilly claims "Prohibition never works, and is an absurd way of tackling a problem." Prohibiting an activity because of its known risk of harm is a very normal and rational policy. For example zero drugs for air pilots, petrol tanker drivers, public transport drivers, P-plate drivers, refusing high risk blood donations, prohibiting violent movies for children; prohibiting sexual activity for children, limiting medically prescribed drugs; limiting military-style weapons are all successful policies that are working.
Cannabis is dangerous. A Medical Journal of Australia article in April 1992, highlights cancer of the upper airways, tongue, lungs, head, neck, mouth, larynx, upper jaw and respiratory tract as all being caused by the toxic THC in cannabis.
Reilly admits that "one risk with cannabis is the possible, but not proven, side-effect of suppression of the immune system". She goes on to say: "Does it matter?" The MJA article highlights the experimental evidence of the immuno-depressive effects of THC leading to cancer of the upper aero-digestive tract.
Cannabis damages the brain, heart and lungs and impairs learning, memory, perception and judgment. It is impossible for cannabis to be used as a medicine for patients with a terminal illness, given such side-effects.
Drugs used by humans must be subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny. In the past this has not always been the case (e.g.,thalidomide). This scrutiny not be undermined by political campaigns. In a small number of states in the USA and in some European countries, medical cannabis has been legalised by a popular vote.
Arthur’s Story seeks to undermine the scientific process and replace it with a political process. Australia’s scientific scrutiny of medicines must be improved to ensure every effect of a drug is known before it is used as a medicine. For cannabis, the toxic effects of THC are known, so why waste scarce funds when other research can produce more benefits?
Reilly continually comments about lack of medical research about cannabis. Drugs prescribed by doctors can be given to patients who may well recover or go into remission with prospects of long periods of life, so every effect must be known. With an increasing number of legal cases against doctors for medical malpractice, medical practitioners must be sure of every effect of the drug they have prescribed.
A 1993 report from the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence indicates that the cannabis available today is many times stronger than in the past. This new type of cannabis called "skunk" has been known to contain as much as 30 per cent of toxic THC. Skunk is a hybrid plant originating from Afghanistan, Morocco and Thailand and is gaining popularity in Australia. Therefore the potential for more severe medical effects from the higher toxin levels means that cannabis can never be used for medical purposes.
Reilly praises the countries that have legalised cannabis. Despite the medical evidence of the toxicity of THC, those countries that have legalised cannabis are yet to see the real effects in the long term.
Throughout Arthur’s Story, the issue of smoked cannabis compared to eaten cannabis is discussed. It is logical to suggest that eaten cannabis ensures the whole content of THC and its toxins are taken into the body through the digestive system. Smoked cannabis may allow some THC to be exhaled.
Prescribed medications, even opiates, do have side-effects. For Arthur these were severe nausea, vomiting, malaise, drowsiness, lack of appetite and weight loss. Whether these problems were a result of the prostrate cancer, or "that horrible morphine", may vary with each patient. However, there is an increasing range of legal drugs that can be used to combat these effects.
As in the case of other illegal drugs, the claim that addiction is only a health problem is not true. Addiction has wide implications for our society and must be looked at from social, medical, legal, mental, law and order implications.
Cannabis is a gateway drug. A substantial majority of heroin users have used or still use cannabis. Cannabis use is increasing particularly amongst young people, because they get a confused message.
Pauline Reilly herself describes cannabis as "a relatively harmless drug". This is not the message that Sweden gives its young people. It tells them truthfully about all the harmful effects that are proven by scientific research and instructs them not to use cannabis. Cannabis use in Sweden is now lower than any country in the developed world.
Reilly highlights an incident with a cannabis-affected companion whose driving was "slow and erratic". Such effects are well known. Cannabis is known to cause accidents with machinery and motor vehicles.
During the course of Arthur’s illness, Reilly grows her own illegal cannabis plants but the two plants were not able to mature in time to provide cannabis for Arthur. She is annoyed that she has to do something illegal. We are not told what happened to the plants after Arthur died, but the assumption is that they are still around. In South Australia, people are allowed to grow cannabis for private use. The authorities have no idea how many plants there are, or what they are used for.
Ironically, Reilly relates the incident where the dog eats one of her cannabis biscuits. It "walks splay-footed and bumps into a post" in its drug-induced state.
In public policy, if in doubt, don’t proceed. The known THC toxins, an expanded use of these toxins and the availability of legal alternatives means that cannabis for medical use is unnecessary.
- David Perrin is Vice-President of the Australian Family Association