It’s hardly groundbreaking news that you can get cannabis in Nimbin, but in a non-descript white van in a Nimbin car park you will find Tony Bower distributing medicinal cannabis to people with chronic health problems.
Tony has developed a way of extracting the psychoactive substance THC from the plant and putting it into tinctures that can be taken orally. From his van in Nimbin he is giving it away to people he thinks it will help, as long as they show him a doctor’s certificate confirming their condition.
Cannabis has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of pain and nausea for people suffering from HIV and cancer-related wasting, as well as neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease, and a range of other conditions.
In Los Angeles there are now more medical cannabis outlets than there are McDonald’s restaurants and since a change in policy by the Obama administration not to use federal laws to override states where medical use of cannabis has been made legal, it is expected that the number of US states allowing its use will jump from 14 to 26 this year.
In Australia the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the regulatory agency for medical drugs in Australia, allows for the importation of some synthetic cannaboids. Last year they approved a new product called Sativex, a mouth spray from the UK, the first time a cannaboid made from botanical material has been approved. But if you want to get any of these drugs you can’t just get a script and walk into the chemist; your doctor has to get a special authority by writing to the Federal Department of Health.
For the past 18 months Tony has been trying to have his product tested and approved by the relevant government authorities, but despite jumping through all of the legal and bureaucratic hoops that have been placed before him, he has been frustrated every step of the way.
“I tried to get it tested through a university but they called me up and said, ‘we’ve got pressure from up high and we can’t involve ourselves’... Every time I try to get a test done the government stops it,” he said. “I’m not going to sit back and be treated like a criminal when these other people (drug companies) are allowed to bring it in. I’ve done all the stuff they asked me to do – let me get it tested!”
Tony’s legal adviser Debra Sands is planning to take the matter before the Supreme Court later this year.
“NSW Health is stalling Tony in having his product analysed and blocking his right to make a local medicine that (we believe) is better than Sativex. That’s what this is about,” she said. “He has the electric fencing (for growing the plants) and scientists willing to work with him. He has complied with every request from NSW Health.
“In NSW (medical cannabis) trials there was a strong recommendation for non-smokeable products. This is a local medicine that could be available... but the NSW Government don’t care about this issue and are denying people their health rights. This is a genuine attempt to get to people who cannot grow their own and have a non-smokeable product available to them. There are so many people on other (pain relieving) medications that have disastrous side effects... A lot of people who use cannabis can reduce their prescription medication and even go off them entirely in some cases. The Commonwealth say their hands are tied until NSW Health let him have his tincture analysed, so there is no other appeal process other than to go to the Supreme Court.”
Under Section 23 (4) of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act there is a provision for the Director-General of Health to issue an authority to cultivate high-THC cannabis when satisfied that such activity is “for the purpose of scientific research, analysis, instruction or study” and also to manufacture, supply and possess prohibited plants or drugs.
Tony Bower believes his application to get a licence to cultivate is being held up for political reasons.
But according to a spokesperson for NSW Health, Mr Bower has failed to supply information needed to assess his proposed research.
“Until such time as the requested additional information has been received, no further consideration can be given to his application to assess it in accordance with the statutory criteria,” the spokesperson said.
NSW Health would not be drawn on whether there was a lack of political will in getting non-smokeable cannabis products on the market, saying only that it was a matter for the TGA.
Tony Bower has been a cannabis grower and smoker for most of his adult life. About 30 years ago he had a motorbike accident that left him with broken bones in both arms and legs, a shoulder and knee smashed and half his face torn off.
“I was on every kind of drug you could think of – anything that could help me at the time. I haven’t been on anything now for years, only the tincture, and I still smoke.”
He said cannabis was the most effective form of pain relief for him and he got a letter from a doctor recommending that he use it. That letter was presented to a court and effectively allows him to grow marijuana for his own personal use.
For the past decade or so he has also been involved with supplying ‘compassion clubs’ (groups of people who will distribute cannabis to people who need it for medical reasons) all over Australia.
For years Tony has been experimenting with different ways of growing the plant and has become something of a backyard scientist.
“I knew a lot about the plant because I’ve always grown it and been good at what I did... I started working on getting consistent doses for cookies. I just experimented,” he said. “Different plants give you different effects... I’ve worked out how to turn certain things on or off in the growing.”
It was through his experimenting that he worked out his process of extracting the THC and putting it into either oil-based or alcohol-based tinctures, and he has been sending these all over the country to the compassion clubs.
“We got such good responses back from people. They didn’t want the cookies anymore, they wanted the tincture because it was better and easier. A lot of old people, when they have a cookie they get the giggles and they don’t necessarily like that,” he said.
But about 15 months ago he had a knock on the door from the Federal Police who had intercepted one of the parcels he was sending through the post.
“We had talks with them and they basically didn’t want anything to do with it and told me to get it in a legal framework. That’s when I started following all the steps the government told me to.
“If you give something to somebody who is sick and it helps them, then they tell somebody else and they tell somebody else; well you can’t stop giving it to these people. It’s just got to a stage where I had to grow a massive amount of plants to make a massive amount of medicine to give out to people that the government should be helping. When I explained all that to them they said, ‘put it in a legal framework’ – register it with the TGA, register with IP Australia (the government body that deals with intellectual property rights)... I filled in all the applications, sent applications to Federal Health and NSW Health, but I just keep getting these letters fobbing me off.”
Tony has applied to have a high-THC breed called ‘Clever Man’ registered with IP Australia and has applied for a drug manufacturer’s license from the TGA. He needs to be able to show the TGA the quality and safety of what he is producing and show IP Australia that the plant is distinctive, uniform and stable. But before he can do that he needs NSW Health approval for a licence to cultivate it so he can supply it to a lab for analysis.
“Tony has been sending applications to NSW Health for over 12 months and each time we have gathered more support and more information,” Debra Sands said. “The last submission was over 100 pages. Just before Christmas he got a standard letter saying it would have to go to the Minister for Primary Industries. The State and Commonwealth have been mucking around all last year over this.
“What Tony has done is quite amazing... The question is why is Tony getting blocked when pharmaceutical companies who make millions of dollars are getting their products onto the market and some of them have huge side effects.”
Tony has registered a company called Mullaway’s Medical Cannabis and ultimately he wants to set up a manufacturing and distribution centre so his product can be available to people who need it all over the world. But in the meantime he continues to provide his medicine free of charge from the back of a van in a Nimbin car park.
In the past month or so he said he has seen hundreds of people, although he said most of them didn’t have certificates from a doctor.
“I explain to them what I’ve got and I explain the benefits, but they have to come back with a letter,” he said.
Tony and his wife Julie live in the Kempsey area but will continue to drive up to Nimbin every weekend. On the day The Echo visited him a couple whose daughter was dying with bowel cancer had been to see him. He has also seen AIDS patients, people with severe physical injuries and somebody with multiple sclerosis.
“My aim in Nimbin is to get the cannabis extraction out to people who need it and to pressure the government and the police to do something about me,” he said.