It’s rare that entrepreneurs implore governments to put them out of business by flooding the market — but that’s exactly what the duo behind a black market medicinal cannabis company want.
A new Australian documentary, Green Light, follows two men running an underground medicinal marijuana ring as they prescribe and administer cannabinoids to patients who struggle to access it legally. Treating everything from a face tumour the size of a saucer, to a bump on a horse’s nose, the duo have tens of thousands of patients across the country.
It’s a documentary deliberately light on evidence but heavy on testimonies, using patients’ stories to tug on heartstrings and raising questions about medicinal cannabis legislation.
A grass-roots movement
While medicinal cannabis prescriptions were legalised federally in early 2016, a scant 11,000 patients have been approved to access medicinal cannabis products. Most were approved this year. Meanwhile, around 100,000 Australians self-medicate with cannabis they’ve acquired illegally.
Medicinal cannabis hasn’t been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and can only be prescribed when other, clinically approved medications have been used. It’s a last resort to treat cancer pain, chemotherapy side effects, epilepsy, and a handful of other ailments.
This is where our protagonists, “CBD Luke” and Nicholas Morley come in. Luke, a former restaurant manager, and Morley, a jewellery-clad hippy with a long grey beard and a nose-ring, provide a service for those Australians using off-the-books weed to treat their illnesses.
They say their mission is to alleviate suffering and treat patients with medicinal cannabis outside of a system fraught with red tape. Given the clandestine nature of their business, the pair have frequently debated whether the documentary is a good idea. Director Ned Donohoe told Crikey they eventually decided to go through with it because the risks were worth the reward.
“It got to a point where they saw so many people benefitting from the medicine that they wanted to normalise it. Evangelising the medicine outweighed any fear of being incarcerated,” Donohoe said, adding that he believes the potential public outcry prevents police from making any arrests. “It would be a watershed moment — it would leave so many people without medication.”
A growing issue
The documentary is deliberately scant on legislative details because of how fast laws change. Accessing prescribed cannabis is significantly easier now than when filming started back in 2017.
Rhys Cohen, director of Cannabis Consulting Australia, said major changes began in March last year when the government and the TGA streamlined the application process.
“Prior to then, access was especially poor. People were waiting weeks and weeks, getting bounced — the paperwork involved was ridiculous. It was a dog’s breakfast,” he said.
But the system still has problems, and patient access is still low. “In August this year, just 550 doctors had prescribed medicinal cannabis across the country,” Cohen explained. “But tens of thousands of doctors, in theory, can prescribe.”
Medicinal cannabis is also not covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, meaning it is not subsidised like other medications. Cohen says legal cannabis treatments generally cost between $5 and $25 per day.
Despite the legal changes since filming, Luke and Morley are still in business. Many still turn to the black market simply to avoid having to jump through hoops or explain their conditions.
“While most who have a legitimate medical condition seeking relief would prefer to be prescribed it, they aren’t able to,” said Cohen. “They lack the soft skills, money and time to jump through hoops — so they feel justified in accessing the black market.”
Green Light goes to lengths to evoke emotion in its subject — which, Donohoe says, was exactly the point. “I just want people to be emotionally engaged with the plight of the patients, then go off and do research about where we are and the legal framework,” he said. “My hope is once people are emotionally engaged they’ll stay in the topic for a long time.”
Green Light premieres today in cinemas across the country.