Medicinal cannabis maybe legal but obtaining it has been an exercise in the absurd.
My mother, Patricia, is 91 years old. She has spondylitis, which means she is bent over like a question mark and in pain. Eighteen months ago she fractured her L2 vertebrae when my father fell on her. She has macular degeneration. She was diagnosed with leukaemia but the medicos got that wrong then revised it to liver cancer. As she has no symptoms she’s decided to ignore them. Rightly so.
She also has bursitis. We think this came from when she didn’t let go of the retractable hose and went flying through the air. Her comment on that occasion was that she thought she was the "flying mum".
Yes, my mother’s brain is wonderfully intact, as is her humour. Her body sadly, using a term taken from the vocabulary of a producer friend of mine, is "Kangaroo Edward" – rooTed.
The problem my mother faced was constant pain and the failure of any drugs her doctors prescribed to counter it. Her quality of life was diminished. She was unable to leave the house, do simple tasks and even get out of bed without being in agony. My view was, and is, that no-one should have to suffer, especially my mother, and so I began researching medicinal cannabis.
What I discovered was that there is only one cannabis clinic in Sydney, albeit with a few outlets. The closest to us was George Street in the city. First, Mum had to obtain a referral from her GP. He was unaware of medicinal cannabis and so had to be educated.
Next, I made an appointment with the cannabis clinic. This was scheduled weeks ahead as the clinic doctor only works for half a day on Wednesdays. Mum had to be assessed to determine whether she was in enough pain to warrant a prescription. That meant a 20-kilometre cab trip, with her walker, to the clinic. It's on level 11. Thankfully there's a lift.
The doctor assessed my mother as a worthy candidate and charged her a $200 consultation fee, to be paid on the spot. He explained that she would also have to hand over another $250 for him to process the paperwork and send it to Canberra. It was a government charge, he explained. When I asked how long this would take, he said anything from 10 minutes to a month, depending who was standing at the other end of the fax machine. Fax machine?
And so, $450 out of pocket, we left to wait to hear.
Two weeks later the good news arrived. Canberra had approved my mother. However, she would need to return to the clinic to pick up the prescription. I explained she was too frail and in too much pain to do that so it was agreed for me to be the surrogate.
This visit lasted all of 10 minutes, cost another $125 and came with the instruction that I had to find a pharmacy that was government-approved to fill the prescription and distribute the drug. Luckily my mum’s local chemist was one such entity.
I then learned that it would take two to three days to deliver the medicine to the chemist. There were five repeats. Each prescription would include three 25-millilitre bottles and would cost $600. That comes to $200 per 25ml bottle.
I also discovered that the cannabis oil came from New Zealand via its Canadian company and that no Australian company was licensed to provide it. Apparently it’s a very complex process.
The cost of getting the first prescription: initial consultation $200, government documentation $250, pick up the script $125, prescription $600. Total: $1175.
Having obtained the oil, my mum is now required to make regular contact with the clinic doctor so he can report to Canberra on how she is going. This is mandatory if he wants to retain his licence to prescribe.
Cannabis oil has changed my mother’s life. She now goes on community bus trips, has friends and she can get out of bed free from pain. You don’t get high using medicinal cannabis. Even if you did, so what? It alleviates suffering without side effects.
During my crusade to ease my mother's suffering, all I could think was, given that we are all going to die in the end, why on earth do we make the trip so difficult?
My mother is lucky. She has support. But what of those people in our community who can’t afford the drug, or have no way to navigate the process and whose every day is agony?
It’s not enough that medicinal cannabis oil has been legalised. It’s time we manufactured it ourselves. It’s time it was included under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. And it’s time we made this happen. It could be your mother next time.
De Brierley Newton is the proud daughter of an independent 91-year-old.