An emaciated man is begging for help on the back verandah of the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, an organisation lobbying for cannabis law reform. His breathing is shallow and he trembles slightly. For the past six years Mike has endured dialysis treatment for kidney disease and was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. In a faltering voice, he describes how the medications prescribed by his doctors, particularly morphine, produce too many side-effects and are making him even more ill: he is in constant pain and can no longer eat properly.
Tony Bower, a bearded Aboriginal man of 55, calmly listens to Mike’s complaints, nodding, and gestures for Mike to take a seat. He then disappears inside the Hemp Embassy, an old, rambling wooden building on Nimbin’s main street, and returns with two homemade tinctures. Mike is so relieved that as he takes the vials he wilts a little, as if he’s just been relieved of a massive burden. When Tony explains the required dosages, Mike announces: “I’m pissing off the morphine. This stuff’s so much better.”
For over a decade, Tony has cultivated marijuana for medicinal use on a country property in northern New South Wales. He delivers it in tincture form to any ill person within two days’ drive of his home. For those in more remote areas, he sends the bottles by post. He refuses to charge for his medicine, and is not even reimbursed for the cost of production. “I’ve explained to the government and the cops that I am Aboriginal and it is against my culture to refuse help or comfort to someone in need.”
We sit together on the balcony of the Hemp Embassy, which overlooks a lush valley. Tony explains that 30 years ago, a near-fatal motorcycle accident left him with scores of broken bones and steel plates in his legs; it took him more than two years to recover. As he talks, he gestures to his calves and their fretwork of deep, pink scars. He tells me that it was during his recuperation, when he suffered unrelenting pain, that he began experimenting with, and growing, a variety of marijuana seeds.
A court appearance for cultivation of cannabis 12 years ago effectively left him with permission to grow up to 49 plants for personal use. Since then, however, he’s discovered a widespread need for his product, which necessitates growing many more plants. The licensing for these is proving difficult and currently he is in a legal no-man’s-land.
Tony leads me down the stairs from the verandah and through a paddock behind the embassy, where his white campervan is parked. I glance about, impressed by this unofficial mobile cannabis dispensary, the only one operating in Australia: a double bed at the back, a gas stove, a table set up for consultations and, most importantly, a portable fridge in which to store the tinctures. The entire van is impeccably clean and tidy.
Tony sits back as we chat, and puffs on a wooden pipe. He explains that the medicinal use of cannabis is legal in Canada, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, Israel, Italy and in 14 states of the US (with another 12 indicating an intention to legalise the herb). Currently, he says there are more than 1100 government-run dispensaries operating in Los Angeles alone. “But the stuff they prescribe there is a synthetic cannabinoid called Marinol. All my tinctures are made from organic products and they’re a hell of a lot more effective than that synthetic stuff.”
In 2009, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration approved the use of a British drug called Sativex, a mouth-spray made from botanical material. To access Sativex, however, doctors must apply for a special authority from the federal Department of Health and negotiate a bureaucratic labyrinth. “Meanwhile, people are suffering and dying in pain, and I have a product that works,” Tony says.
A father of three and grandfather of eight, Tony survives on a disability pension. In addition to growing and harvesting his private crop of medical marijuana, he also distils his own pure-grain alcohol to use as a base for the tincture-medication. For his oil-based medicines, he uses hemp oil.
He tells me that the tincture usually begins taking effect within five minutes of administration. “There was this one bloke I treated,” says Tony, grinning, “who’d just had a back operation and couldn’t even stand up. Fifteen minutes after taking the tincture he was not only out of bed, he was walking around.” Tony is quick to add, however, that his tinctures don’t work for everyone and some still need to take synthetic painkillers. “But if I can get a patient early on in their treatment, I find they have little need for high doses of other drugs, especially morphine.”
I wonder aloud about the potential abuse of his product by people not genuinely suffering from an illness. He smiles and nods again. “You can’t get stoned on my tinctures, which is why the older ones like it so much.” He adds that many of the pensioners he’s treated don’t like the idea of smoking marijuana, and that those who have eaten marijuana-laced cookies find themselves laughing too much and feeling out of control. “All my product does is provide pain relief, increase appetite and energy, and ensure a good night’s sleep – without any side effects.”
He tells another story of a woman in her eighties who, suffering from cancer, had been bedridden for two years. “Within days of her first tincture treatment, she was out in the backyard, gardening. Her son couldn’t believe it.” He then relates a story about two terminally ill men he met recently, men whose emphysema was so bad they couldn’t even walk down the driveway for a consultation with Tony. “After a week of treatment,” says Tony, “their lung capacity was tested and it was three times greater.” The reason for this, he explains, is that marijuana is a powerful anti-inflammatory, particularly for the lungs, and is possibly ten times stronger than aspirin.
“The only problem with those two blokes,” concedes Tony, “is that they’re feeling so good now, they think they’ve been cured and have taken up smoking again.” Tony shakes his head and shrugs. He believes that once most people start taking his tinctures regularly, they find they can reduce or even stop taking certain synthetic medications altogether. He suspects that this is why the government won’t respond to repeated requests for clinical trials of his tinctures: they have too much invested in the pharmaceutical companies.
Tony has spent years writing to both federal and state governments, sharing his research, sending samples and urging them to set up official trials so his product can be independently tested. “Every time we get a new premier I get the same letter, but with a different signature on the bottom.”
In 2008, a letter from the office of the federal minister for health and ageing, Nicola Roxon, acknowledged Bower’s compassionate actions, but also informed him that it is illegal to produce cannabis products for anything but approved scientific and medicinal purposes, adding that “no pharmaceutical form of medicinal marijuana could be approved unless an application is made to the Therapeutic Goods Administration with supporting data from clinical trials, which enables an assessment of its quality, safety and efficacy.”
In response to the letter, Bower compiled a 129-page submission of his research and forwarded it with samples of his product to the TGA – along with the application fee of $1600. Within a week, the cheque was cashed, but over a year has passed and a decision is yet to be made about his application.
He explains that there are between 150 and 200 strains of marijuana in Australia, and it has taken him years of trial and error to develop the one that produces the most efficacious tincture. “I’ve actually developed my own variety,” he says. “I’ve been wanting to register it with the Therapeutic Goods Administration but they refuse to co-operate with me.” He shakes his head. “The irony is, in Australia we have the best climate in the world for the cultivation of marijuana, yet we’re doing nothing with it.”
Of course, by this stage, I’m keen to try some of the tincture myself. Lately, I’ve been suffering from insomnia and a recent sprain in my right foot has left me limping. I don’t have a letter from my doctor verifying my condition, though, and I certainly don’t want to jeopardise Tony’s crusade.
Later that night I’m having a beer with one of Tony’s patients who is being treated for a range of problems: pancreatitis, arthritis, depression. She places an amber bottle in front of me and urges me to sample a capful of the oily liquid. I hesitate – albeit briefly – then obediently down the medicine.
Maybe it is the beer or Nimbin’s fresh air, but that night I sleep right through until midday the next day. And later, when I join my nephews – aged eight and ten – busking on the main street, I dance to their music for an hour without even a twinge of pain.
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