A knock at the door of a home in Melbourne’s outer suburbs last month threw three parents, all with children who suffer debilitating epilepsy, into the centre of a political debate about legalising medicinal marijuana in Australia.
Mernda couple Cassie Batten and Rhett Wallace had recently appeared on national television talking about giving their toddler a cannabis tincture oil to stop his life-threatening seizures.
The man standing at their front door was Epping Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Detective Sergeant Brett Meadows, who had been tasked with investigating the couple after a report about Cooper’s welfare was made to police.
But Detective Sergeant Meadows knew better than most what the couple were facing. His eldest daughter has undergone three brain surgeries to stop life-threatening seizures and if they hadn't worked, his wife says they don't know what they would have turned to.
“We’ve got a pretty good understanding of how life-threatening it can be,” Detective Sergeant Meadow’s wife Allison Ryan said, adding that their son also suffers from seizures.
“We were fortunate enough that surgery was an option for us and ended up going down that path but our daughter was also on, at that stage, four different medications or anticonvulsant medications and still having seizures breakthrough.”
If surgery had not worked Mrs Ryan said they might have considered cannabis oil, but while it remained illegal and unregulated in Victoria she would still have had serious concerns about what they were giving their child.
“I don’t know how it's made, I don’t know what they’re making it from, I don’t know if it's the same product I’m getting every time.
“People like this family are obviously desperate to get some relief for their son and if it does give them that relief then surely whoever needs to look into it, needs to.”
Ms Batten and her husband were asked to hand their oil to police and go into the station to answer some questions. They arrived with a crew from Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program and a lawyer, supplied by the program.
The dark oily substance they had been giving little Cooper in his milk was sent off to be tested.
When the program went to air, Detective Sergeant Meadows’ business card was broadcast, in a move that Mrs Ryan said had unfairly singled out her husband in a "one-sided report" that was deeply critical of the police for launching an investigation.
Detective Sergeant Meadows and the Epping team have since received a barrage of abusive emails, calls and social media attacks.
While researchers struggle to attract funding and obtain the drug for trials, the potential side-effects and benefits remain untested, and police committed to protecting children find themselves in a difficult situation.
“It is an illegal drug and everyone knows that,” Mrs Ryan said. “Brett was following the law, he was doing his job, he did it with respect and he did it with an understanding of those parents’ situation.
“If there’s a complaint and if they didn't follow up on it and something did happen to this child as a result of using the cannabis, they were going to be in trouble for not acting on it. They needed to see what this product was.”
Detective Sergeant Meadows refused to be interviewed, but said he was aware his wife had spoken to Fairfax Media.
Ms Batten said she and her husband “have never faulted the police for any part of it". “They were as compassionate as they could be considering the situation,” she said.
The changes in their son’s condition after they started using the oil were remarkable but how it had helped him remained a mystery, she said.
“He now says mum and dad, he rolls, he eats, he drinks, he has a personality, he giggles at things, he’s close to crawling,” she said. “We don’t know how it works, all we know is that we can see the improvement. What choice did we have? It was either try it or know that we were losing him."
NSW-based Tony Bower, the owner of Mullaways Medical Cannabis uses a cold extraction method to create his tincture oil treatments. His tinctures contain small amounts of THC and something called THC Acid, which, he says, does not have the psychoactive qualities associated with recreational cannabis use.
“Your chances of abusing that would be the same as abusing hemp seed oil,” he said.
Although he does not have a scientific background, Mr Bower said he does have “a really good background in the cannabis plant". “It's an unusual knowledge I have of the plant,” he said. “I just seem to know a lot about it, I don’t know why, but I do, its qualities, how to change it.”
He supplies about 150 families with the oil and said he would continue despite already spending time in prison for cultivating. “I couldn't stop because the mothers don’t have a choice,” he said.
Other suppliers have started to appear on the medical marijuana black market over the past 12 months, Mr Bower said. “They’re just making people sick and getting people in trouble,” he said.
President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Dr Alex Wodak, said until the laws were changed desperate parents would continue to look outside of regulated medicine, leaving the door open to “snake oil merchants”.
“A medicine that’s effective and safe is being denied to people and people are therefore being forced to go outside of the medical system,” he said. “There’s a lot of good scientific work to be done over the next 20 or 30 years, working all this out.
“The politicians should get out of the way and leave health people to follow the usual paths.”
Both the Victorian and federal health ministers remain opposed to the prospect of legalising marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Weeks have passed since Detective Sergeant Meadows turned up at Ms Batten's door and no charges have been laid.