The Australian Mums and Dads That Got Medical Marijuana Over the Line
The only thing that could stop Dan Haslam's chemotherapy sickness was marijuana, so his mum started to fight for its legalisation.
This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine.
There's this one memory Lucy Haslam comes back to: it's a stinking hot day in Tamworth, April 2014, and her 24-year-old son Dan has dragged himself from chemo to watch NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner open a cancer centre. "Dan looked terrible, like a ghost," Lucy says, but after the ceremony wrapped, he introduced himself to the minister. "Hi, I'm Dan Haslam, I just wondered if I could talk to you about medical cannabis?"
Dan told Minister Skinner how he'd started using cannabis to manage a violent illness called "anticipatory nausea" brought on by his chemo. He'd get physically sick just thinking about a session. There were also the powerful and addictive painkillers he'd been prescribed: Endone and OxyContin. The struggle to get off them left him suicidal. Then, in October of 2013, encouraged by a friend, Dan sat in his backyard and smoked a joint for the first time. His dad Lou—a former undercover drug cop—had to roll it for him. Afterwards, Dan was hungry for the first time in months, and hadn't been sick from chemo since.
After hearing Dan's story, Minister Skinner was quiet for a moment. "You know," she said, placing her hand on his arm, "Smoking will give you lung cancer." Of course, Dan already had cancer—terminal adenocarcinoma—that started in his bowel four years earlier, and had since spread to his liver, bones, and lungs.
Lucy was dumbfounded by the minister's response. "You've got a young man who's dying standing in front of you, vomit bag in one hand, chemo pump around his neck. He's pouring his heart out to you and that's all you've got to say?" she wonders. Looking back, that was the moment the gloves came off. Ask anyone on the inside how Australia—a country otherwise resolutely anti-drug—moved so quickly on medical cannabis, and they'll point to Lucy and Dan Haslam. They were the tipping point.
In just over a year, the former nurse and her son from a tiny regional town built a network large enough to storm the halls of power in Canberra. First there was the massive Change.org petition started in early 2014 calling for legalisation of medical cannabis, each signature triggering an email to Jillian Skinner. In June 2014 came the pair's interview with Alan Jones, which turned the conservative shock jock into an unlikely ally. Somehow, they even won over now-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Liberal NSW Premier Mike Baird. The pair had humanised the national debate in a way decades of campaigners had failed to.
In November 2014, Baird addressed the medical cannabis symposium that Lucy organised in Tamworth. There, Lucy and Dan were joined by another parent who'd soon become a key figure in the push for legislation. Michael Lambert had started giving his two-year-old daughter Katelyn cannabis oil just months before the symposium to manage her Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy which causes hundreds of seizures a day.
One night after coming across a video of a young girl in the US with Dravet who'd dramatically reduced her seizures using the oil, Michael typed "cannabidiol oil for sale" into Google. "I just ordered it thinking, 'This will never come through customs, I'm going to get in trouble for this,'" he told VICE, but his daughter had run out of options. The oil did arrive, and the effect was instant. "It seemed like all of the noise in her head had gone quiet," Michael explains.
Katelyn's grandparents, businessman Barry Lambert and his wife Joy, also saw the impact cannabidiol oil had on their granddaughter. So, in June 2015, they gave the University of Sydney $33.7 million—the institution's largest ever donation—to support cannabis research. Because of the Lambert's donation, researchers in Sydney are set to start clinical trials this year: treating everything from severe childhood epilepsy to chemotherapy nausea, and pain with cannabis. Professor Nick Lintzeris says that if medical marijuana is going to be offered like any other drug, it needs to be researched like one—something government and pharmaceutical companies alike neglected have to do for decades.
Dan passed away in February 2015, and hundreds of people traveled from Australia, and around the world, to pay their respects. Premier Baird spoke at the memorial, telling those gathered that every step towards medical cannabis was built on what Dan had left behind. A year later Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 passed unopposed through Parliament, paving the way for the legalisation of medical cannabis in Australia.
However, while legislative fine-tuning and clinical studies remain incomplete, many Australians will continue to seek DIY workarounds. Just like Dan, who had to boil down his own cannabis oil in the back shed using a rice cooker because the law made it so hard to get.
Lucy Haslam continues the fight she and Dan started, selling the family business to start her own affordable medical cannabis company, United in Compassion. As the government drafts regulations over the next six months, she'll be there advocating for patients. "You know, mums would walk over hot coals for their kids. I would've done anything for Dan," she says. "I still feel like it helps me keep connected to him. I'm still doing this for him, even though he's gone."
This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
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