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Real Life

A woman's fight for her child's right to medical cannabis

When medical cannabis was approved for treatment of Kiwi teenager Alex Renton this year, it sparked a national debate. Michael Sheather reports on a similarly high-profile case across the Tasman.

Lucy Haslam’s first drug deal was anything but easy. Her hands were clammy, her heart was racing and the thought that kept pounding in her head was “just ask him – Dan needs this, so just ask him”.
Lucy had spotted a regular customer in her café. She knew he was in the music business and worked with the country’s biggest rock’n’rollers. If anyone knew where she was likely to get some grass, surely it would be a muso, right?
He was at a table by himself, sipping a latte and thumbing a newspaper. It was now or never, she thought, and threaded her way through the tables. “This might sound a little odd,” Lucy said, the words catching in her throat. “But then again, maybe it won’t. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I was wondering if you might know where I could buy some cannabis?”
There was a pause, then a smile. “Sure,” he said. “If I can find a little dope for the boys in the band, I can find a little for you.”
Lucy never imagined she would be considered a drug dealer. And when you see her at the cash register of her coffee shop and antiques business in a former Presbyterian church in Tamworth, north of Sydney, you’d never imagine it either.
Yet, technically at least, a drug dealer is exactly what this former community nurse and wife of a former drug squad detective became. Lucy has bought and supplied cannabis, otherwise known as marijuana, and that means she has broken the law, even though it was for the best reasons.
She has also become the public face of a national campaign over in Australia to legalise cannabis for medicinal purposes, a campaign that has thrust this unlikely crusader into the spotlight ever since her son, Dan, battled bowel cancer.
It is a fight Lucy continues today in her son’s memory. She is on the brink of success, with clinical trials scheduled to start in Australia, and new legislation soon to be considered by both state and federal parliaments.
Lucy Haslam with her son, Dan, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 21, but sadly passed away this year.
Dan was diagnosed with bowel cancer five years ago, at 21. He was at university, had just met the woman who would become his wife and had his whole life in front of him. Yet cancer changed it all.
“Dan was such a wonderful boy,” recalls Lucy. “He never complained. He just got on with it. He had stage four bowel cancer and the prognosis was poor, but he never let that get him down. He always took the view he could beat it.”
However, what Dan couldn’t take was the devastating effects of chemotherapy. His doctors placed a valve in an artery on his chest to allow easy access for the chemotherapy drugs, which left him weak and violently nauseous for more than a week after treatment. He couldn’t keep anything in his stomach and couldn’t eat. Yet he went through with the two-week treatment cycle almost continuously, despite the ever-worsening effects.
“Then he developed anticipatory nausea, where your body reacts in the lead-up to the chemotherapy, making you vomit before you even have the drug,” says Lucy. “I would take him to the hospital for the chemo and he would stall and stall, and then, finally, he’d start heaving and he would heave all the way there in the car. He’d have the chemo and then heave into a vomit bag all the way home. He would still be heaving at midnight and we’d have to take him back to the hospital to put him on a drip to keep him hydrated. It became so bad that the retching eroded the lining of his oesophagus.”
The cancer spread from the bowel to his liver and bones, so he would lose six kilograms during a treatment week and told his mother he felt as though he was being poisoned. Then a friend, who had survived bowel cancer, suggested that Dan might benefit from trying cannabis.
“At first, Dan refused,” says Lucy, who has two other adult sons. “Because my husband, Lou, was in the drug squad and because we thought it was right, we had drummed into all the boys that you just don’t take drugs, and they didn’t.”
Then, Lucy received a call from Dan’s friend. He had some cannabis left over from his treatment and he really believed it could help. “I said, ‘Yes, please, bring it round,’” says Lucy. “We were desperate by then. He was losing weight and just couldn’t keep anything down.”
What happened next was incongruous. Dan had his chemo and finally agreed to try cannabis. Yet he’d never even smoked a cigarette, let alone knew how to roll a joint or inhale. So Lucy texted her husband, Lou, and asked him to come home from their café to teach their son how to smoke weed.
“I sat in Dan’s lounge room and watched Lou, a former drug squad officer, teach his son how to roll a joint. It was very strange,” says Lucy. “But after a couple of puffs, Dan changed completely. It only took a matter of minutes and, suddenly, he went from a pallid white to having colour back in his face. He looked up and he said, ‘I feel hungry, Mum.’
“We got him something to eat. It was amazing. He kept it down and kept eating. We all looked at each other and said, ‘If this is what it takes, then this is what we’ll do.’ I didn’t care, as long as it was helping my son. It didn’t matter that it was illegal.”
Dan’s friend only had a small amount of cannabis. “Obviously, we had to buy some,” says Lucy. “I didn’t know where to get it. Lou, of course, had a better idea than me, but it wasn’t straightforward. I started looking at the customers in the café when they came in, trying to size up whether they might smoke marijuana or not. I got some very odd looks from some people when I asked. That’s when I spotted our friend from the music industry and he said he could help out. And once we started to make contacts, it started to get easier.”
Even so, Lucy was unsure. “I wanted to know what we were getting into, so I started researching. I had it in the back of my mind, perhaps it was dangerous, it might cause schizophrenia or something. So Dan and I started googling.”
Eventually, Lucy made contact with Dr Alex Wodak, at the time Emeritus Professor of drug therapy at St Vincent’s Hospital in Australia. “I explained Dan’s situation and asked if he would come to any harm,” says Lucy. “The answer came back straightaway, absolutely not. He assured me we were doing the right thing. ‘This is important, go to it,’ he said.”
Lucy and Dan discovered a parliamentary enquiry had just ended in New South Wales, where a committee of medical experts and politicians had recommended cannabis be legalised for medical use.
The state health minister rejected the recommendation, “I talked it over with Dan and we agreed this was wrong,” says Lucy. “How could they just ignore something that might help people and improve their quality of life when what they were suffering was horrendous?”
Above: Dan Haslam suffered terribly from the effects of chemotherapy and it was only after he tried cannabis that he was able to eat properly.
Both Dan and Lucy felt strongly that terminally ill patients should have access to cannabis legally. They lobbied media and met the New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.
“I was struck almost from the first instant with the strength in all of them,” Baird recalls. “It was Dan’s eyes that struck me most. As he told his story of pain and the relief from that pain, I didn’t have to imagine it. I could feel it. I decided that this was an issue we had a duty to do something about.”
The response to all their lobbying was “phenomenal”, says Lucy, who launched a petition that attracted more than 20,000 signatures last year. “I’m just a mum from Tamworth, but I started getting phone calls from all over the country, people who agreed, people whose sons and daughters had cancer or epilepsy and were like us, desperate for something that might help.”
Converts to the cause, Lucy and husband Lou, a former drug squad detective, who believe their son’s suffering was relieved by cannabis.
Around the same time, there was some good news. “Dan went off to uni before all this and he fell in love with Alyce,” says Lucy. “Dan was diagnosed just a few months after they started going out. She stuck by him and they married two years ago. He lived for Alyce. I don’t know what he would have done without her. He didn’t want her to stay, not when he realised how hard it would be, but she stayed anyway.”
Dan also discovered that, despite a lack of scientific evidence, some people used cannabis oil to treat cancer rather than just relieve nausea and pain. “Dan said, ‘Mum, I want to try that,’” recalls Lucy.
Cannabis oil – which was used on Nelson teenager Alex Renton while he was in Wellington Hospital in a bid to bring him back to consciousness – turned out to be “a whole new ball game”. Making oil requires huge amounts of cannabis. “Dan told me I needed to buy a pound [500g] of cannabis, which is a lot,” says Lucy.
“Dan bought a rice cooker and some other stuff, and set up a little lab in his shed. We went around to his place and he came out in a white coat. Then he put on the music from Breaking Bad and said, ‘Let’s cook’, and he and a mate went out into the shed. It took hours and hours.”
He came back with a beaker of concentrated oil. Instead of smoking cannabis, which Dan hated, he could now breathe it via a vaporiser.
Yet, in February, like many cancer patients, Dan contracted cachexia, a wasting syndrome that causes muscle atrophy, fatigue and weakness.
“I had to go away for a trade fair,” recalls Lucy. “I didn’t want to go, but when you’re in business, sometimes you need to go. Dan was getting weaker. We were still trying to pretend he wasn’t dying and he never gave up. He wanted me to go. So I went, reluctantly.”
Two days later, Dan went downhill dramatically. Lucy tried to change her flight to get home early, but couldn’t. “I stood in the airport crying, waiting for the bloody plane to hurry up,” she says. Lucy made it to Dan’s house to find him unconscious in bed. “I held his hand and we had a couple of hours before he passed away.”
The Australian Medical Association says it opposes legalisation of medical marijuana because the Hippocratic Oath that governs medical ethics says doctors should “do no harm”. It also cites the psychotropic effects attributed to cannabis.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians opposes legalisation, pending more investigations. Its president, Professor Nicholas Talley, says, “While some patients may experience relief from their symptoms, there is still insufficient data available on the effectiveness and safety of marijuana or other cannabinoids to treat these conditions.”
Nevertheless, a private member’s bill seeking to legalise medicinal cannabis use in Australia is before a Senate investigation committee.
Lucy is hopeful. “Dan cared a lot about other people and it is my way of continuing the campaign in his honour. He was a truly beautiful soul. He endured so much for nearly five years. Cannabis is as close to a miracle as we ever got. It gave him back a quality of life that he thought was gone forever and I just wish we had tried it much sooner.”
The situation in New Zealand
On this side of the Tasman, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne is planning to piggyback on clinical trials and research into medicinal cannabis conducted in Australia, the US and Israel. The Prime Minister, John Key, will not broaden access to the drug until he sees new evidence that it works.
Medicinal cannabis must be approved on a case-by-case basis in New Zealand – with the exception of Sativex, a cannabis spray that is available as an add-on treatment for some patients with moderate to severe spasticity due to multiple sclerosis. Sativex does not need to be approved by the government but it is not yet funded by Pharmac.
The use of medicinal cannabis was thrown into the spotlight this year when 19-year-old Alex Renton became the first person in New Zealand to be administered with a cannabidiol while a patient in hospital.
In April, Alex had a prolonged seizure and was put into an induced coma. In June he started treatment with Elixinol, a hemp oil from the United States, approved by Peter Dunne. Alex took the oil for more than two weeks before he lost the battle with his illness. It was reported that during the first week of legally taking Elixinol, Alex’s sedation medication was reduced, he regained consciousness and his ongoing seizures stopped.
Kiwi advocacy group United in Compassion (UIC) is campaigning with the Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills and The New Zealand Drug Foundation for broader access to medicinal cannabis. The UIC wants high-quality cannabidiols of different strains and ratios to be available here, and is pushing for our own drug trials to be done in New Zealand.
Next month, a first-of-its-kind national symposium on medicinal cannabis will be held in Wellington with guest speakers, including doctors, scientists and international advocates from the US and Australia.
Medical Cannabis
Pros
  • There have been no reported cases of lung cancer or emphysema specifically attributed to marijuana.
  • Patients receiving cannabinoids (smoked marijuana and marijuana pills) have an improved immune function compared with those receiving a placebo.
  • Marijuana is effective at relieving nausea and vomiting, especially caused by chemotherapy used to treat cancer.
  • Marijuana reportedly helps treat appetite loss associated with HIV/AIDS and certain types of cancers.
  • Marijuana is said to relieve certain types of pain.
Cons
  • Marijuana contains more than 450 different chemicals.
  • A marijuana cigarette can contain four times the amount of tar than a tobacco cigarette.
  • The side-effects include dysphoria (changed perceptions), tachycardia (heart arrhythmia), and motor
    co-ordination impairment.
  • The short-term effects of marijuana can include problems with memory and learning; distorted perception; difficulty in thinking and problem solving; loss of co-ordination and increased heart rate. The long-term effects are unknown.
Words by Michael Sheather, additional reporting by Nicola Russell
Photos by Alana Landsberry, Getty Images and Supplied.

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