Cannabis for cancer: time to show compassion

Anita Tang, Manager Policy & Advocacy, Cancer Council New South Wales

Published 26 June 2014

Anita Tang

Dan Haslam is a 24 year old from regional NSW suffering with advanced bowel cancer who has found cannabis helps relieve his suffering.  His story has led to reignited discussion in political and media circles about the medical use of cannabis.

But this is not a new discussion. Cannabis for medical purposes was raised in the Drug Summit of 1999. Soon after, the then Premier Bob Carr announced a four year trial of the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Cancer Council supported this move, because we know that cannabis can help some cancer patients in some circumstances. The trial never happened due to complexities around the question of how to supply cannabis.

We need a compassionate approach to cannabis for medical purposes. For cancer patients, we know it can help with the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy; relieve pain that is not managed by conventional pain medications; and stimulate appetite.

Imagine if someone you love had advanced cancer and was constantly struggling with pain, nausea, or weight loss. Nothing has helped. Wouldn’t you want to find a way to make things more bearable for them?

In late 2012, the use of cannabis for medical purposes was the subject of a Parliamentary Inquiry.  Cancer Council NSW again reviewed the scientific evidence. Our submission to the Inquiry recommended exemptions from criminal prosecution for cancer patients who have been certified by an approved medical practitioner as having particular conditions, and who have been counselled by such a practitioner about the risks of smoking cannabis. Cancer Voices, the independent voice of people with cancer, also strongly supports access to cannabis for cancer patients.

Despite all this, cancer patients still can’t get the relief they need from medically prescribed cannabis. Clearly there are some complex legal issues to work through, and the wheels of change move slowly. But time is a luxury not available to Dan and others like him.

Our evidence-based position is paired with insights from our direct contact with cancer patients. Our Cancer Council Helpline receives around three calls every week from patients and carers asking about medical use of cannabis, desperate to find a way to relieve pain or nausea and vomiting, after all other treatments have failed.

Some find it surprising that we support the medical use of cannabis. Perhaps this is because we are known for our anti-smoking work. Quite possibly it could also be because we are presumed to be conservative in our views, and therefore unlikely to support the use of something that is otherwise illegal.

But the medical use of cannabis makes sense. As an evidence-based organisation, we recognise the dangers associated with smoking of cannabis, and believe that it is balanced against the potential to relieve suffering when nothing else has worked. As a community-based organisation in constant contact with people with cancer and their loved ones, we cannot help but be moved by the plight of those who seek our help and advice on this matter.

Allowing controlled access to cannabis for cancer patients under certain circumstances, and with medical supervision, is about demonstrating compassion.

This is an issue where we should be guided by a combination of evidence and compassion. It has been heartening to see that Greens MLC John Kaye developed a Bill on the matter, and that Kevin Anderson, local Member for Tamworth, has also proposed a Private Members Bill. Even more heartening are reports that the Premier is open to considering the Bill.

We need to find a way through the legislative complexities, and we need to do it soon.  We all know that when you are extremely unwell, every minute counts. Let’s hope that it isn’t another 15 years of debate before cannabis is available for medical purposes. Dan Haslam, and others like him, can’t wait that long.

You can learn more about Cancer Council’s position on the use of medical marijuana here