Medicinal cannabis in Australia is legal but patients claim it is still incredibly hard to obtain.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) estimates a few hundred people have legal access to the drug, while roughly 100,000 people use the drug medicinally through illegal means.
Currently, the pathway to accessing medicinal cannabis is determined in part by what state or territory you are in. Patients say it can be an incredibly stressful and time-consuming process, with doctors, specialists and the TGA all getting involved. Also, many doctors feel they do not know enough to confidently go about prescribing the drug.
Compassionate suppliers, growers, and medicinal users of the plant say they continue to fear police prosecution, especially if they tell their stories to the press.
Late last year, a young woman who said she juiced the plant to help her deal with her debilitating Crohn's disease had her house raided by police only a few weeks after blogging about her situation. Police allegedly seized all of her plants, which she says were being grown by her father, who was then taken to the police station. He now faces a costly trial and the family is crowdfunding to cover costs.
BuzzFeed News spoke to medicinal cannabis users about their options and why some still choose to access the drug from the black market.
Juanita*, from Queensland, uses medicinal cannabis to deal with chronic pain as a result of injury-induced osteoarthritis.
She says the drug has changed her life. Before discovering medicinal cannabis, Juanita was depressed, unable to make her way up stairs or to the bathroom without assistance.
She told BuzzFeed News that "the pain was unbearable. I've given birth to multiple children and I'd rather have that all one after the other, rather than suffer that pain again."
Within a week of taking the drug, Juanita said she was walking again. The first time she took it she slept through the night, uninterrupted, for the first time in two years.
"I did not think it would work, I really did not," she said. "I knew about cannabis...but I didn't know about the medical side."
Juanita attempted to access the drug legally but says she was told by her doctor not to bother because of the exhaustive paperwork and huge price involved. Her doctor quoted her $1,500 per prescription. She currently pays $250 for three month's supply on the black market.
Now, Juanita fears her medicine being taken from her, or suppliers no longer being able to produce it for others. "I'm not a pothead. I have never been. The public seems to perceive it as a gateway drug. A gateway drug to what? Less pain?"
Also in Queensland, Suzette uses cannabis to treat complications from Lyme disease. She told BuzzFeed News her biggest fear was returning to a life of pain, not the law.
"If police started shutting down suppliers...that terrifies the hell out of me. You try and find back up, but you really haven't got it.
"I know I'd go back to a very dark place — and I think a lot of people would."
Suzette's doctor also told her it wasn't worth putting in a request for legal medicinal cannabis. "He just gave me a look and said it wasn't worth it unless I was paraplegic or terminally ill ... He actually recommended looking for a compassionate supplier."
Elsewhere, in NSW Steven sources medicinal cannabis for his brother, who has a genetic condition resulting in tumours growing on vital organs. He says he wouldn't access medicinal cannabis legally even if it was available to him, largely due to price and quality: "A month's supply ... would cost two to three times as much if I had it legally. Legally, it would probably be synthetic, too."
Steven distrusts the government's plans for medicinal cannabis accessibility, which is not uncommon among medicinal cannabis users — even those who access it legally. One of his compassionate suppliers has already stopped producing after police raids.
Steven worries he and his brother would have to return to a neurosurgeon who, before medicinal cannabis, told them that surgery was the only option. "If my brother gets the surgery, he's basically dead, or he'll be in a wheelchair," he said.
Growers and compassionate suppliers told BuzzFeed News they service hundreds of people with the drug, in oil or herb form. Most of the access is either very cheap or in many cases free.
"We are not included," Gold Coast patient Jayde told BuzzFeed News. "They make all of these decisions – governments and politicians and health experts – and they don't ask us, the patients, what we need.
"The government is telling people that it's legal, that they can access it, when it's not and they can't.
"We have been doing this for years — before anyone was even talking about it. But I'm a criminal for using something that has changed my life and that I can't even access legally if I tried."
*All surnames have been withheld for privacy reasons.
Brad Esposito is a news reporter for BuzzFeed and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Brad Esposito at email@example.com.
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