How simple is Australia's medicinal cannabis access pathway if the greatest minds in the sector struggle to explain its many layers and bureaucratic processes?
This is the question many were left to dwell on while sitting in an underground auditorium at the University of Sydney on Monday evening, as some of the most high profile and respected voices in the nation's still adolescent cannabis community tried their best to explain.
The discussion came in the form of an event: the university's Sydney Ideas festival. Canada's Dr Mark Ware, the former executive director of the non-profit Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, was tasked with opening the panel. He was later joined by former nurse and patient advocate Lucy Haslam, Mills Oakley lawyer and scientist Teresa Nicoletti, deputy secretary for health products regulation at Australia's Department of Health John Skerritt, and Professor Iain McGregor, the academic director of the University of Sydney's Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics.
The topic of the discussion was formally focused on addressing the experiences and challenges faced by all sides of the medical cannabis world: patients, researches, regulators, and doctors. But it didn't take long for the country's often criticised access pathway to spur heated discussion between the Department of Health's John Skerritt and other panelists.
Mark Ware (more in-tune with Canada's system) and Iain McGregor (who focuses more on the research behind cannabis) were largely left out of this part of the conversation, as Nicoletti, Haslam, Skerritt, and cannabis users in the audience rallied back and forth over whether the current system was working.
Skerritt tried his best to laud the simplicity of the process, mentioning the 48-hour turnaround online portals the government has put in place.
In reality, such a thing would be extremely helpful to thousands of Australians looking for a way to apply for the drug, but Haslam told the room that her phone "would not stop ringing" with calls from people who had been bounced back by the government's system.
"I have applauded the intent to achieve that, John," said Nicoletti, who has helped multiple families with medical cannabis-related cases pro bono.
"But what I'm seeing is it is not happening."
"Well, as you know I guess since Europeans first arrived in Australia the Commonwealth has been trying to control the states," responded Skerrit, arguing that there was only so much the Department of Health could do to sort out difficult layers of bureaucracy.
"Now my view as to whether it's sensible or stupid is irrelevant," he said.
Audience members who were sourcing their cannabis from the black market heckled as Skerritt insisted that the program was workable. Another insisted that their road to legal access via the pathway had been easy.
Eventually the panel moved on, but an exact understanding of the process and whether or not it was working wasn't quite reached. BuzzFeed News asked two students in the audience if they had any understanding of what was just said. They shrugged.
"At the end of the day they're just polishing a turd," one professor and cannabis researcher told BuzzFeed News. "They should be asking: is this turd worth polishing? Are there better ways to do this?"
"It's the bureaucrats," said another researcher. "The ministers, they come and go. But the bureaucrats stay for as long as they want and influence whatever they please."
Brad Esposito is a news reporter for BuzzFeed and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Brad Esposito at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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