A familiar sense of dread fills Cassie Batten and Rhett Wallace as two police officers knock on their door.
It isn’t the first time this has happened. It probably won’t be the last.
The first time was earlier this year after the pair appeared on Channel Seven’s Sunday Night Program. They are some of the estimated 150 Australians who use medical marijuana, utilising the substance to care for their seriously disabled son, Cooper. Along with Cheri O’Connell and her family, they are among the most prominent faces in the growing campaign to legalise the substance.
After going public with their story, police officers knocked on the Mernda family’s door, confiscated the cannabis oil used to treat their four-year-old son and took the two into custody.
They were later released, and continue to use cannabis oil to treat Cooper.
It’s only a few minutes before I visit the family that police knock on their door once again. This time however, it was for a much less serious reason. One of their six other children had apparently accidentally dialed 000, leading the police to check up on the house.
It resulted in an almost comical situation: the police knew full well that the family was breaking the law, but laughed the coincidence off, and left them alone.
Cooper Wallace was a happy, healthy child. He was born premature, but flew through his nursery, and came home after four weeks. But the next day he was back in hospital.
He contracted bacterial meningitis, which left the infant with severe brain damage, cerebral abscesses, hydrocephalus, epilepsy, and cerebral palsy. He suffered near-constant seizures that would sometimes last more than an hour, and the family found themselves spending 95 per cent of their time in hospital.
After trying more than 10 different seizure medications, Cassie and Rhett reached a breaking point. They turned to a substance that they’d been hearing about for a while, mainly through whispers from other parents at their hospice. It was always an option, but for a while it was a step too far into the murky world of the unknown substance. But eventually they were left with little choice. The cannabis oil had an immediate impact.
“They say that he’s blind. Within 15 minutes of having his first dose, he actually started to see things, he was following things,” Batten says. “He wasn’t eating or drinking orally, he was tube-fed. About half an hour after the dose he actually ate a whole jelly cup.”
“As immediate as it was, it’s been a consistent development and change in him,” Wallace adds. “He just keeps coming along in leaps and bounds.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for the pair. They’re strictly anti-drugs, and due to the current laws, the product hasn’t be trialled or tested properly.
“We were just at a point with Cooper where he did not have long to live,” Wallace explains. “We turned to the cannabis to keep him comfortable and we got more than we bargained for.”
Many doctors didn’t believe Cooper would still be alive today, but when I’m talking to his parents, the young child is crawling on the ground, playing with his new dog, and smiling.
“The doctor said he’s not palliative anymore, he’s been on palliative since he was five weeks old,” Wallace says.
As Wallace explains, perhaps the hardest aspect of Cooper’s recovery is that he now becomes frustrated with his body’s disabilities. He has the cognitive function, but sometimes his body cannot respond. Despite this, Cooper’s life has been transformed in the last year.
Anecdotal stories like Cooper’s have been the driving force behind the recent push in Australia to legalise medical marijuana for serious or terminal illnesses. Cooper and his family recently appeared at Victorian Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews’ press conference where he threw his support behind the movement.
But anecdotal stories are just about all the movement has. There haven’t been any research or trials conducted in Australia as it’s currently against the law, but advocates point towards a multitude of studies in the US, where the substance is now legal in 23 states.
Drug reform campaigner, and this year’s Victorian of the year, David Penington says its been a long time coming.
“It needs to be viewed as a health issue rather than a moral issue,” he explains. “It’s not a simple matter to do it wisely and with the necessary safeguards. People just assume that it’s one or the other: you either have it or you don’t. The big issue is how it’s going to be supplied and regulated.
“If it makes them feel better, gives them some further relief apart from morphine, then why shouldn’t they have it? It seems to be a simple ethical issue.”
Dr Penington says medical cannabis can help with a variety of illnesses.
“There are situations where cannabis can certainly relieve nausea. It can relive pain and make people feel better,” he continues. “There’s also the case of epilepsy in very young children which is associated with many, many spasms during the course of a single day for which the conventional treatment of epilepsy doesn’t achieve very much.”
The current laws surrounding medical marijuana result in the strange situation where doctors can acknowledge the difference that the substance can make, and know full well that their patients are using it, but cannot offer advice in terms of dosage or usage. This is something that has confounded Cassie Batten.
“The doctors acknowledge that he’s on it,” she reveals. “They can’t recommend it, support it, or prescribe doses, but they acknowledge the difference in him.”
“It’s a shame that medical professionals can’t actually speak about it and are gagged to some degree,” she continues. “Privately and behind closed doors they’re all for it, they see the change.”
“It’s frustrating,” Wallace adds. “You’ve got this treatment here that has done wonders for this kid and to not be able to share that with the doctor and celebrate the triumphs.”
Cooper’s family was one of the first to step into the media’s spotlight and expose their use of medical cannabis. In the months since, many others have also come forward, and the movement has gathered a wide range of support. Not many other issues receive the extent of bipartisan support that this has. Even Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he has “no problem” with the medical use of marijuana, in a letter to none other than Alan Jones.
Cassie Batten and her family are public figureheads for the movement, with regular media appearances and contacts in state and federal politics, and this is a very deliberate tactic. As Batten says, now they are so heavily in the public eye, there would be a huge backlash if they were arrested, or Cooper was taken away by Child Services.
Batten and Wallace are now verging on celebrities; they’re regularly recognised on the streets, and deal with interview requests nearly daily. But being so deeply embedded in the media also ensures that the actions of police and politicians are also under heavy scrutiny.
“They say it’s against the law, but the police know he’s still on it, doctors know he’s still on it, yet nobody’s been here to take anything or stop us using it,” Batten says. “Obviously to some extent they do agree.”
Despite the various issues faced since going public with their actions, there’s only one thing Rhett Wallace would change about the last year.
“Our only regret is not starting it sooner,” he says. “That could’ve maybe prevented some of the brain-damage from the seizures.
“It would’ve given him a better quality of life a lot sooner.”
Regardless of the result of the upcoming Victorian state election, there will be movement towards the legalisation of medical marijuana. While the Opposition Leader has thrown his support completely behind its legalisation, Premier Denis Napthine and the Health Minister have entered a bill into Parliament to conduct clinical trials of the substance.
Nationally, many other states are also moving towards legalising medical marijuana. In New South Wales, Premier Mike Baird announced a clinical trial of the substance, while police guidelines are being formalised to not charge people who possess small amounts of cannabis and are also on a terminally ill register. The ACT has also signed up to the NSW clinical trials. At a federal level, Greens Senator Richard Di Natale has prepared a bill to legalise the drug.
Medical marijuana also has the support of the majority of Australians, with a July ReachTel poll finding that almost two-thirds of the population support its legalisation.
As social justice lawyer Lizzie O’Shea says, it’s an issue that doesn’t follow the regular trends in society.
“It’s something that doesn’t cut across the usual lines of political divide that you might expect,” she says. “The highest support is not where you think it would be, the younger group, but actually the older generation, the above 55s.”
She says that although it’s illegal in Australia to possess marijuana in any form, there is a growing movement among lawyers and politicians to reform this area of law.
“Political leaders now, more so than in the past, have developed an appetite for reform in this field,” she explains. “Now should be the time to put pressure on them to turn this into something real.”
Although they already have a steady supply of the cannabis oil, Batten and Wallace say it would’ve made a big difference if the substance was legal.
“A doctor would’ve been able to recommend it,” Wallace says. “We wouldn’t have been in the dark and having to find it ourselves. It would’ve been discussed in the early days.”
“We wouldn’t have had to break the law,” Batten adds.
“It doesn’t really directly affect us, but knowing that it is helping other kids and families would be a fantastic feeling,” she continues.
Cooper Wallace playfully jabs his father for most of our interview, before lovingly patting his new dog, one that is being trained to care for him later. Just a year or so ago they were planning for his funeral, but now Cassie Batten and Rhett Wallace are planning family events well in advance, and trying to raise money to buy a van that can accommodate Cooper’s wheelchair.
It might not be an issue that will decide the upcoming state election (roads seem to be the hot topic at the moment), but for some, it’s much more than a political issue. Although medical marijuana has become a highly politicised topic in Australia in recent months, at the heart of the issue are families like Cooper’s, ones that are just trying to improve the quality of some of the youngest and sickest members of our society.
“Think about the children,” Batten reiterates. “It’s not fair that they have to suffer like this when something is readily available.”
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