The conversation Australia needs to have

IT’S a headline we’ve seen spelled out in bold, capital print before. Wonder drug gives new hope to cancer patients. But medical marijuana is a remedy that’s not nearly as palatable for those seeking a miraculous intervention. And so begins the debate Australia has to have.

SN ART: The conversation Australia needs to have

SN ART: The conversation Australia needs to have

Medical marijuana has been around for some time. But it’s mostly associated with easing pain relief. It’s true that it can act as a potent analgesic and much milder alternative than the tougher opiates and opioids the body has a much tougher time digesting, like morphine.

That’s how it was first introduced to Dan Haslam last October, in the final stages of a long battle with primary Bowel cancer. But he wasn’t interested, despite the ravaging effects of chemo and pain killers, which for him led to massive weight loss, and constant nausea and depression. His impression was one formed in his childhood, when he says his dad Lou, a former drug squad detective, put the fear of God into him and his two brothers about the effects of drugs like marijuana. So it was his mum Lucy, a retired nurse, who finally talked him round.

She, like other grieving family members, has watched in despair Dan’s gallant fight against the assault of metastatic cancer on his young body since he turned 20.

Twenty is supposed to be the year of whimsical and carefree thinking. Our big life plans like family and settling down seem an infinite number of years away. But for Dan Haslam, it was the year that robbed him of that idealistic mindset. It was the year of the grim diagnosis. He recalls that terrible afternoon when he and his young girlfriend of five months, Alyce, were delivered the prognosis: Stage 4 cancer and 43 spots on his liver. He was told it was inoperable.

That was four years ago, and he’s now hoping 24 is the year for a miracle. His new and final frontier in this weary fight has come in the unlikely form of medical marijuana, and not just for pain relief. He’s also using cannabis oil to go one-one-one with the cancer. Alyce, now his wife, is right beside him, and behind the family is the entire community of Tamworth, the country music mecca in regional NSW.

When I met Dan for the first time, during the filming of our story for Sunday Night, I expected to see three things; a gaunt, frail and vulnerable man at the end stages of cancer. He was none of those things. His life force is full to overflowing. Even though he does concede to emotional lapses, he’s far more predisposed to constant, humorous thoughts and observations.

His love for life and everyone around him is palpable. He says there isn’t anything he hasn’t tried in the past four years. He’s been steadily ticking off the bucket list much sooner than he should have to. The list is already a comprehensive one, and includes woodworking, photography, film-making, even knitting.

He refuses to let the inertia of his dark diagnosis halt his life in any way.

Lately his talents have turned to making cannabis oil from scratch, a lengthy and complicated process he takes us through during the filming of a sequence in his shed. It was there that he would sneak off to smoke his joints when he first started using marijuana, where no-one could see him. These days, he’s switched to a vaporiser, which he prefers because it’s easier on the lungs. It also has less shame attached.

Dan is hoping that ingesting the cannabis oil will directly combat the cancer cells which are now ravaging his bones. Cannabis oil contains cannabinoids - chemicals that activate cannabinoid receptors in the body. They exert influence over the body through binding with specific cannabinoid receptors.

The full process is complicated to explain without scientific terms, but in essence it’s proving an effective treatment option in some parts of the world for a growing list of conditions, from epilepsy to HIV, autism and even ADHD. You’ll see some compelling vision of this in our Sunday Night story, even from Australian families.

Some of the strongest evidence has come from Israel, where government-approved medical marijuana farms grow legal marijuana with and without the psychoactive component THC, depending on the condition which is being treated. Yet, firm laws are in place when it comes to recreational use. The debate continues to rage in the US, where it is legal in 22 states. Four months ago Colorado took the bravest step of all, legalising marijuana for recreational and medical use.

But that’s all beside the point for the Haslam family at this stage of the game. Medical marijuana could prove to be the elixir their son has been searching for. Terminal doesn’t exist in the mind of this 24 year old, even though it’s a label every medical practitioner treating him feels necessary to use. For Dan, the evidence is in his pain-relief, and the absence of nausea and pain his body spent too much time fighting. The evidence is in his inexplicable weight gain in the final stages of cancer and fewer morbid and depressing thoughts. But none of the improvements remove the stress of doing something he knows is against the law. None of it stops Dan feeling like a criminal.

The politics around the legalisation in Australia have so far have proved murky and defeatist. The issue has been on the agenda before, and last year the debate was revived when a NSW parliamentary inquiry recommended that small amounts of cannabis be used to treat terminal illness. Despite unanimous support, the recommendation was rejected by the government.

Now thanks to Dan’s story, the local member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson is due to table a bill in the NSW parliament in coming weeks. But not without some first-hand pain for Dan at the hands of NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner earlier this year. It became another deflating moment in Dan’s painful journey, when during an opportunity to address the issue with the minister directly while she was visiting Tamworth, she abruptly warned him that smoking marijuana would cause him to contract lung cancer. Unbeknownst to her, his cancer had in fact metastasised to his lungs already.

In each interview conducted with Haslam family for the Sunday Night program, the heartbreaking narrative was painfully obvious. We aren’t doing this because we want to. We are doing this because we have to.

It’s difficult not to be touched by the constant gaze of Dan’s mum towards her baby boy during filming, when you can see she is absorbing every precious moment with him. Or Dan’s wife Alyce who tells us that everyone who meets Dan falls in love with him. Or tough Lou, who even grew a marijuana plant for his son as a symbolic gesture. Within it are the seeds of hope and love. Maybe even survival. After meeting the Haslam’s you’ll feel the compelling need to do something more too.

Helen Kapalos is a senior correspondent with Channel Seven’s Sunday Night. This episode airs on Sunday June 15 at 7.40pm.