TAMWORTH has always been at the epicentre of Australia’s medical cannabis movement.
It started with Dan Halsam, an inspiring young man in his early 20s battling bowel cancer, who won over the public and politicians alike. When Dan tragically passed away in 2015, his parents Lucy and Lou Haslam carried on the fight.
Now medical cannabis has four new Tamworth warriors who have picked up the cause – three filmmakers and a cyclist – who are trying to prove the pen (or camera) is mightier than the sword.
Daniel Raffale, Craig Wilson and Peter Cross hope their documentary High As Mike makes such a splash, it will change the nation’s medical cannabis laws.
The documentary follows avid cyclist and Tamworth local Mike, as he tries to legally get access to medical cannabis to treat a brain tumour that is slowly robbing him of his sight.
Mr Raffale said while medicinal marijuana has been legal in Australia since 2016, it’s incredibly difficult for patients to get their hands on it.
In the two years since it’s been legalised, roughly 1000 patients have been allowed to access it. In Germany, where it’s only been legal since last year, 16,000 people have been granted a prescription.
The three directors, who make up DC Stories, have uncovered incredible stories – terminally-ill cancer patients who have made a full recovery and people who were told they had months to live, happy sharing their story years after the fatal prognosis, all because of medical cannabis.
But because it’s so hard to get a prescription for it, many people have been forced to source it from the black market.
“The whole thing is just a frustration,” Mr Raffale said.
“There are people out there suffering, there are people out there dying. It frustrates people, and that’s what we want, we want people to have the shits, we want people to yell at the screen.
“We’re hoping to change the laws, this is where the documentary is going. We’re trying to make it easier for everyone.”
However, Mike never intended to be the star of documentary – he actually started as a humble soundman.
Mr Raffela first got interested in the subject when his brother started a medicinal cannabis trail to treat his epilepsy.
He spoke to Mrs Haslam, who told him to come to a medical cannabis forum she had organised in Sydney that weekend.
“I only had four days, so I rang Mike and asked if he could give me a hand with sound – he’d done sound before,” Mr Raffela said.
“At the forum, Mike listened to the stuff about it curing cancer, and he’s sitting there going ‘hang on a second, I’ve never been told this’. He's tried every drug on earth to try and help with tumour.”
Then in another series of interviews in Newcastle, Mike heard one women say she knew a person who had a brain tumour, which started to reduce and get their eye sight back following medical cannabis treatment.
“Straight away he went out to the car after hearing that,” Mr Raffela said.
“We had talked about doing our own medical trial before, and Mike said ‘I want to be that medical trial’.
“So he turned from the sound guy into the patient.”
Mrs Haslam, who was interviewed for the documentary, said getting medical cannabis was not like getting a normal script.
Patients have to go the Special Access Scheme, which means doctors have to make an application to both the state and federal government, either of which can knock it back.
“It’s not something that takes a couple of minutes, doctors have to put in a fair amount of time to do these applications,” Mrs Haslam said.
“They’re assessed on a case-by-case basis but the federal guidances are very narrow in who is an appropriate patient.”
The willingness of doctors, or the lack thereof, is another barrier for patients.
“That something that’s very well portrayed in High As Mike – he went to three doctors in Tamworth with no luck,” Mrs Haslam said.
“One doctor told him ‘we don’t do that kind of thing here’. Patients have no way of knowing if a doctor will prescribe it or not, because it’s illegal for doctors to advertise that they do. In rural communities, it’s hard enough for a patient to see any doctor, let alone one that’s agreeable to prescribing medicinal cannabis.”
Another big problem is cost. Because medical cannabis is categorised as an “unapproved drug” by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), it’s not subsidised and is incredibly expensive.
“I had one mother ring me last week, who’s child had been approved Cannabidiol oil to treat her epilepsy – but when she found out it was $500 a week, they couldn’t afford it and had to go back to the black market,” Mrs Haslam said.
“Special clinics have been set up, charging $300 an application, but there is no guarantee of success. Most people who are chronically ill can’t afford that.
“And if you do get approved, it’s not like getting a repeat script. When you run out, you have to make another application, which again needs to get approved.”
Mrs Haslam said the bottom line was that administering medical cannabis through the TGA didn’t work.
“The whole process is designed to suit medicine produced in a lab that has one specific use, whereas cannabis can be many, many things, with many variables,” she said.
“It’s like putting a square peg in a round hole.”
When Mrs Haslam wants to check if the nation’s medical cannabis legislation has progressed, she applies “the Dan test”.
“If Dan was still alive, he’d be buying on the black market and treated like a criminal,” she said.
Greens leader and senator Richard Di Natale, who was also interviewed for the film, echoed Mrs Halsam’s concerns.
“When the scheme to legally access medicinal cannabis is more difficult, expensive, and time consuming than the black market it’s clear that something’s wrong,” Senator Di Natale told The Leader.
“Thanks to the regulatory nightmare that is the Narcotics Amendment Bill, patients are still being denied access to medicinal cannabis that they desperately need.
“The TGA medicinal cannabis experiment is on the verge of failure, and it needs a serious overhaul soon.”
High As Mike is still in the process of being filmed and is due to be released at a United in Compassion forum on the Gold Coast in March.