Sick NSW mum must hide in the shadows to get 'cloak and dagger' medicinal cannabis
"I know my problems are so serious that a cocktail of prescription drugs struggled to hold the pain and rendered me an incapacitated mess. The cannabis oil has dropped my pain levels to a point where I can actually function," Helen told nine.com.au.
A NSW mother who started planning her suicide because she suffered agonising pain after an operation to remove a cancerous tumour has had her life transformed by cannabis oil.
Helen has chosen to break her silence as users of medicinal cannabis across Australia have begun to mobilise and criticise the government over access to the medicine.
Despite the government legalising medicinal cannabis in November last year, campaigners claim sick patients, many terminal, are faced with unnecessary barriers to obtain cannabis products that they need.
Cancer survivor Helen (not her real name), a mother of four from regional NSW, is one of those patients affected.
Helen has spoken to Nine.com.au anonymously because she has been forced to break Australian laws and buy her medicinal cannabis oil from the black market.
"Desperate people do desperate things," Helen said.
Following two kidney cancer operations and a period on life support, Helen was prescribed a "toxic cocktail of opiates" by doctors to deal with a legacy of excruciating pain in her abdomen.
The heavy duty pain killers were effective, but they turned Helen, a business-owner with operations in three different Australian cities, into a lethargic zombie.
"Eating, sleeping and showering was the extent of my capabilities," Helen said.
Inevitably, her marriage and family life suffered, as did her businesses and the household finances.
Helen's voice cracks with emotion as she described being largely absent from her eldest daughter's Year 12 studies.
"It was an absolute nightmare," Helen said, recounting the addictive consequence of opiates, the physical and mental side effects - including suicidal thoughts.
"I not only had suicidal thoughts, I got right through to the planning phase."
Helen, a self-described stickler for rules, says she is troubled by having to access medicinal cannabis oil through the black market. Do you have a similar story about medicinal cannabis to tell me? Mail me in confidence firstname.lastname@example.org
She decided to stop taking the opiates. One drug in particular, which warns of suicide and likely addiction, required three attempts to free herself.
As an absolute last resort, Helen, who describes herself as a law-abiding citizen and a rigid enforcer of rules in her home, decided to experiment with cannabis oil.
"Instant relief," Helen said. "The night I took my first dose I had the best night's sleep in three years." She is quick to point out that the medicinal cannabis oil is free from THC, the part of the plant that causes a "high".
Despite this, in the eyes of the law, Helen is still a criminal.
The buying process is "cloak and dagger". Conversations are had, never on the phone. Money and cannabis oil, of which she takes a couple of drops each night, is exchanged.
Without being able to go to the doctor to buy cannabis oil from an approved pharmaceutical company, which is what last year's government law change seemed to promise, Helen's health is at risk.
"I'm sourcing my product from a faceless person. No two batches I've had have been the same. I've had to adjust my dosage.
Medicinal cannabis campaigner Lucy Haslam (right) speaking at at a press conference with Greens Leader Dr Richard Di Natale (centre) and Federal Labor Senator Anne Urquhart (left) at Parliament House, Canberra in 2015. "I'm in a situation where I am self-medicating … and there's no assurance in the continuation of supply."
Two of Australia's largest compassionate suppliers of medicinal cannabis have been raided by police in the last two months.
Campaigner Lucy Haslam, whose son Daniel died of cancer, fears the knock-on effect of those busts for people across the country. Haslam told Nine.com.au that although medicinal cannabis has been legalised, the government had put in place a bureaucratic system full of roadblocks.
She accused Malcolm Turnbull's government of making big announcements but not delivering for those in need.
"Access to medicinal cannabis is actually harder than ever before," Ms Haslam claimed. A Department of Health spokesperson would not comment on specific issues about access, or claims that sick Australians were using black market channels to secure medicinal cannabis.
Helen told Nine.com.au medicinal cannabis is getting her back to the point where she can be a reliable mother and continue to employ 15 people.
"There are a lot of us out there, a lot of us facing the same battle that I'm facing. I don't want to be operating in the shadows and taking risk."
Medicinal cannabis campaigners plan to march in Canberra on February 7.
- Helen's name has been changed to protect her real identity.