Legalising medicinal cannabis in Australia, the debate rages on.

“Cannabis sativa is the greatest wonder-drug ever known to man.” The grizzled, weather-beaten face of the aging hippie who sat across the narrow interview desk from me, in the close, stifling confines of the remand prison interview room, was stretched into a wide-eyed look of wonderment. “The Hindu Vedas sang about its powers in the Atharva Veda 1500 years before the birth of Christ. The Hindus called it ‘the food of the gods.’”

I took a reassuring glance in the direction of the panic button on the wall. It was comfortably within my reach.

“Yeah, right.”

“The holy Shamans of ancient China used it as an aid to divination, to connect with the spirit world and channel transcendental energies.”

As he lurched forward into my face I shuffled back in my less-than-comfortable prison-issue metal chair. Things were starting to get just a little weird.

“Wow. Really? That’s amazing.”

It was all beginning to feel a little too much like the opening scene to the next Indiana Jones adventure. I figured the first time he made any mention of Nazis, Knights Templar or the Holy Grail, I was going for the panic button.

But this guy needed more than just a swashbuckling hero with a bull-whip and a leather jacket to get him out of trouble. He had been pinched by police sitting on a marijuana crop half the size of Tasmania, and he was looking at a long stretch inside if he was convicted. When I got the call to go and see him in the prison I had naively assumed we would be talking about how and why he didn’t really do it at all, and was actually just another innocent victim of cruel circumstances, or at very least the sad story of what it was that drove him to a life of crime, and how he had now seen the light and turned over a new leaf, how he didn’t intend anybody any harm, and would never ever do it again.

None of the above. This guy didn’t want a defence, and he didn’t want a plea in mitigation. He had a point to prove, and he just wanted a soap box to climb onto, so he could prove it. Cannabis was a natural, medicinal, God-given gift to all mankind, and the poor, much-maligned prisoner was simply doing society a service by producing it. The herb was good, the law was bad, and that was all that needed to be said.

Of course I’d heard it all before. From the day I first walked out of law school I’d been listening to the true believers bemoaning the injustice of the criminalisation of marijuana use. I knew I couldn’t help the zealous cannabis campaigner, so I diplomatically declined to take his case. I later heard he represented himself and delivered an outraged and impassioned plea to the presiding judge who, having listened carefully and patiently to his every word, convicted him and promptly locked him up in jail.

I can’t help thinking of the Zealot and the other True Believers, as I follow the fascinating debate currently raging around the recent legalisation of cannabis in Australia for medicinal purposes. Last year the federal government legalised medicinal cannabis – used to treat patients with chronic or painful illnesses including cancer, severe epilepsy and motor neurone disease – and the states have since been charged with the regulation of its cultivation. Recently the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced government plans to import cannabis for medicinal use until local cultivation increases sufficiently to meet the ever-booming demand.

Meanwhile, the Australian Medical Association has urged caution, its Queensland president Chris Zappala warning there is not enough clinical evidence as to its long-term impacts, and considerable confusion reigns around exactly what products currently being marketed may be approved by medical practitioners. But wherever the product may come from, and whatever reservations some may have, the Federal Government is all for it, with Greg Hunt recently praising Victoria for its work in cultivating the herb, citing the urgent need for “safe, high-quality” cannabis – for medicinal purposes only, of course. He hopes that between hard-working local pot producers and industrious cannabis importers there will soon be enough ganga floating around the country to meet “all of the medicinal demands” of all Australians.

How times change. I bet the Zealot, sitting somewhere in a prison cell, never thought he’d see the day.

This article was first published in Ocean Road Magazine, Autumn 2017.