Dr Pot

Deregistered doctor Andrew Katelaris is on a mission to bring cannabis to the masses

Police made 66,684 cannabis arrests in Australia in 2013-14, the highest on record. 87.2% of those were consumers, rather than providers.

- Australian Crime Commission Illicit drug data report 2013-14
A journey begins

Dr Andrew Katelaris on the way to setting up a new cannabis growing site

Dr Andrew Katelaris on the way to setting up a new cannabis growing site

r Andrew Katelaris wakes in the pre-dawn, opens the bedroom cupboard and unlatches the secret panel hidden behind a rack of clothes. He lifts out a section of plasterboard, crawls through the rough-cut entrance to the concealed room behind and pushes aside the four half-full buckets of old marijuana buds he had processed into oil earlier that week. He surveys the equipment neatly laid out on the low workbench in the centre of the space and begins carefully choosing what he will need to take with him. Carrying an armful of cords, tools and clothing back through the hole in the cupboard, he pulls on a blue polo shirt and, finding his glasses, heads downstairs to his 15-year-old station wagon, which he had started loading up the night before. Poles? Check. Tent? Check. Heat lamp, ropes, reflector, fan? Check, check, check.

Finally satisfied, he opens the lids of the two large white plastic boxes in the back of the car, gives the seedlings inside a quick squirt from a spray bottle and slams the tailgate.

As he punches the destination into the GPS of the iPhone wired to the car's air vent, he pulls out a second phone and types a quick message.

Several hundred kilometers away, a grandfather's mobile lights up in the darkness. Katelaris checks his watch – it is 4.48am.

"Early start -- ETA lunchtime," the text message reads.

34.8% of adult Australians have used cannabis at least once

- 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey

ew figures have become as polarising in the medical cannabis debate as Andrew Katelaris -- the man scores of desperate Australians have turned to when their doctors have run out of answers. He is the troublemaker the medical establishment wishes would simply go away.

One of a handful of suppliers openly flouting the law by providing access to cannabis oil for families in the ACT, NSW, Victoria and further afield, the clean-cut Volvo-driving deregistered medical researcher has become the most public face of doctors unwilling to wait for the law to catch up with the needs of their patients.

While quick to stress he is not operating as a GP, he conducts regular clinics on the NSW central coast and Skype consultations with patients in other states, advising them not just on cannabis but also diet and lifestyle. He has spent countless hours teaching patients how to use cannabis to treat conditions ranging from intractable epilepsy to chronic pain and relief from the debilitating side-effects of chemotherapy.

"This is a pharmaco-fascist state we live in," Katelaris declares, gesturing wildly with a grilled cheese sandwich as he pulls out of a roadside diner. "It's child abuse what's going on, I mean, what civilised country refuses to treat children with one of the safest medicines known to man?"

Spurred on by changes sweeping across the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, state and federal parliaments across Australia are now re-examining our cannabis laws.

A clinical trial being undertaken across three states has also given hope to a generation of epilepsy, cancer and seizure sufferers. But with legislation potentially reliant on the outcome of the clinical trials, which could take years to report, many are looking impatiently at medical access schemes in countries like Israel, where around 20,000 people have legal access to the drug.

Some have decided not to wait. Doctors are facing increasing pressure from patients demanding answers on whether cannabis might ameliorate their pain too, and if so where they can obtain it.

Most GPs, paediatricians and neurologists remain wary about the paucity of hard data on side-effects and quality control of this chemically complex drug -- not to mention the risk of finding themselves deregistered if they spruik it. But anecdotal reports suggest that a small but growing number of GPs are giving self-administering advice to their patients.

"We accept there is a legitimate place for treating some problems like intractable epilepsy with cannabis, or using it for appetite stimulation," says Dr Stephen Parnis, vice president of the Australian Medical Association. But Parnis is troubled by unregulated growers providing solutions of unknown strength to sick and desperate users with little idea of possible side effects or interactions with other drugs.

Indeed, the experts point to the growing problem of bogus medical cannabis, peddled by unscrupulous operators over the Internet. Forensic testing by the Victorian police last year revealed up to 40 per cent of vials bought by Victorian families contained just methylated spirits, pure alcohol and water, while the ingredients of the remaining 60 per cent varied wildly, some with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the drug's psychoactive component. It's especially alarming when a mystery drug like this, high in THC, is given to a chronically ill child.

"There are many unknowns, like becoming tolerant and needing to use higher doses, or becoming addicted to it," reflects Dr Parnis. "There is also a real risk of unmasking or increasing risk of psychotic illness, and no one is going to thank us if people start having adverse reactions."

While Katelaris and other advocates of the drug point to its naturally low toxicity and relative safety for adult users (around a third of the Australian adult population has tried it at least once), recent research on lab rats in the US and Spain has shown worrying signs animals treated with regular doses of THC can pass on learning difficulties to their young – and a propensity for addiction to the drug.

Heavy cannabis use by teenagers is also believed to harm long term memory. An American study released earlier this year found that early twenty somethings who were marijuana abusers as teens scored 18 per cent worse on long term memory assessments – a dramatic decline. It confirms earlier research showing that the area of the brain associated with long-term memory – the hippocampus – suffers significant alterations with heavy cannabis use during these formative years, and could result in a drop in IQ of 8 points.

What has traditionally hampered authoritative large-scale studies into the effects of marijuana, however, has been the drug's classification as a narcotic. And advocates argue that the beneficial properties of the drug should not be dismissed because a minority choose to abuse it. Like any drug, dosages need to be carefully monitored by medical authorities. That's why groups like the Australian Nurses and Doctors Therapeutic Cannabis Awareness Association, and its umbrella body United in Compassion, are unimpressed with the AMA's conservative stance, arguing thousands of sick Australians are missing out on relief for their chronic pain.

When you mention this to Kataleris, his zealotry quickly bubbles over. "No-one has ever died from a pot overdose; there are only benefits," he insists, boasting that he is producing a "better epilepsy medicine with this stuff than any drug house".

But in the next breath he admits he is working in uncharted territory. "I've had to charge into the unknown with drug interactions, but we've had no adverse reactions yet, and not one family that has gone on cannabis with us has asked to come off it, although it doesn't work for everyone. It's a fascinatingly complex plant, we're only just beginning to scratch around the surface in terms of its medical possibilities."

After more than a decade of constant friction with the law for growing, processing and supplying cannabis oil, he has begun working on a new, much bolder plan to get cannabis into the hands of the masses.

With the help of an expanding network of growers, producers and distributors, Katelaris has begun sending out carefully reared strains of the plant to small sites across the eastern seaboard, with the hope of making as many patients self-sufficient as possible, while providing a number of potential sources for oil for those unable to grow their own.

It's a risky strategy. Despite the national soul-searching on the issue, those choosing to step outside the law are finding there are still limits to what authorities will tolerate. Several of the biggest suppliers in Canberra and more recently Victoriahave been raided and charged with serious trafficking offences. In May Victorian police raided the Carrum Downs home of disabled pensioners Matthew and Elizabeth Pallett, charging them with posession, cultivation and trafficking offences. The couple helped establish the Compassion Club, which supplied pain and seizure relief to about 80 clients. Last year a Sydney woman who had been treating her disabled daughter with cannabis oil revealed that her Canberra-based supplier had been raided by police after he had written to then ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, imploring her to change the law. (Ms Gallagher later defended her decision to pass on the email to the Australian Federal Police by saying she had a legal obligation to report the situation because of the risk to the child.)

Katelaris can't remember exactly how many times he's been arrested, but estimates it's probably dozens. Having lost his job, his right to practise and most of his assets, he should by rights be bankrupt, but most of those he owes money to have simply given up chasing him.

Now on unemployment benefits, he charges a nominal amount of around $150 a month for access to the oils, but believes economies of scale will help drive down that cost further once larger operations are established.

"What we are trying to do here is start a revolution, expanding what used to be a one-man operation and forming a cooperative," he says. "Whilst I don't quibble with doctors wanting prescription cannabis distributed by licensed physicians, that can't be at the expense of people wanting to grow their own at home.

"We are also looking to set up a medium-scale grow this year, for a really big place to put up a big shed where we can grow thousands of plants."

It would be easy to dismiss Katelaris as just another stoner trying to make marijuana legal, were it not for his backstory and medical research pedigree. In 1995 he began growing one of the nation's first hemp research crops at Quiridi in northern NSW. At the time, he had been investigating the plant's fibre, for use in the fabrics industry and also as a construction material, because of its superb load-bearing strength. In 2002 Katelaris obtained approval to produce, extract and test cannabis in cooperation with Lismore's Southern Cross University under an exemption from the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act. But the following year his growing licence was revoked after police declared his property a security risk (a large shed was not padlocked), a decision that wasn't revoked despite many letters of support from European textiles companies impressed with the potential for the Australian-grown crop.

With no licence, Katelaris was forced to abandon his work and the countless hours and money he had poured into the project. But surgery on an old back injury that had left him incapacitated in hospital and dosed up on opiates for pain relief diverted his interest back towards the medical possibilities of cannabinoids.

As his investigations into the chemicals continued over the years, he became aware of the potential for a little understood component of the cannabis plant, cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike its better-known psychoactive cousin THC, CBD was showing great promise in relieving pain and seizures without making users high.

Convincing a major university research lab to run some tests on street-bought pot, he discovered that recreational growers chasing a better high had inadvertently bred out most of the useful CBD, in favour of the psychoactive THC-dominant strains.

Seeing the potential for a drug that reversed this trend, he began a worldwide search, eventually managing to source two seeds of a CBD-rich variety in from Spain. He planted a plot at Dungog, north of Newcastle.

It wasn't long before a neighbour noticed the plot of 48,000 plants set back from the road and reported it to police. Katelaris found himself facing the medical board, and the Newcastle District Court. At the hearing in 2006 Judge Ralph Coolahan said he had no idea what the appropriate penalty was for growing the crop that, while prohibited, had been found to be so low in THC that it was practically useless as a recreational drug.

A Tetrahydrocannabinol molecule

Sentenced to community service and deregistered by the medical board, the former North Shore Private Hospital registrar found himself unemployed, out of cash and unsure what to do next.

But the calls from the sick and desperate kept coming. As he walked down the main street of Nimbin in 2014 during the annual MardiGrass festival, Katelaris was stopped by Coffs Harbour father David Stevens, whose eight-year-old epileptic daughter Deisha suffered debilitating convulsions. "Andrew, you're my last hope," Stevens pleaded. "Can you help me?"

Deisha was put on a cold-pressed cannabis oil, one containing almost no psychoactive properties, and there were improvements within three days, and a dramatic reduction in seizures over a period of months.

NSW, Queensland and Victoria are planning clinical trials of cannabis by 2016. A Bill to be debated by the Senate would also create a national regulator of the drug if passed.

s Katelaris pulls off the dual carriageway, the four-lane road narrows down to two, then to a single unmarked strip of bitumen, until eventually the tar runs out altogether. At the end of the long gravel driveway, Sue* looks out towards the rolling foothills of the Great Dividing Range and watches the trail of dust coming towards her. The white Volvo pulls up round the side of the house and stops next to the improvised garden shed. This shed is supposed to be her space, a place to keep a ladder and some tools for tending the fruit trees she had planted two seasons ago, and somewhere to hang the strings of garlic she had grown over summer.

As Katelaris begins unloading and stuffing poles into the phone box-sized silver-lined grow tent at the back of her shed, she looks over at Barry*, who is peering into the boxes of seedlings that have just come out of the car. "Beautiful," he says, brushing a hand gently through the foliage.

"Did you ever think you'd hear yourself say that?" Sue asks, as she reminds herself of the time she had reported her own sister to the police after catching her with marijuana.

Despite growing up in the '60s, neither she nor Barry had ever touched a joint and had believed the dire warnings handed down by their parents about the drug's capacity to destroy lives. But that all changed after their 9-month-old granddaughter had her first major seizure while cradled in her mother's arms.

The girl with the snow-white hair and the red cheeks had been on life-support four times since that night, and they had stood by her bed with their son and his family, begging the doctors to make the hour-long seizures stop before they did permanent damage to her brain. They had stood by distraught, as surgeons drilled into the girl's tiny shin bone after being unable to place an intravenous line, and they had watched the strain etched on their son's face as dose after dose of heavy medication failed to quell the convulsions. The most terrifying moments had been those times where she had stopped breathing altogether.

Initially taken aback when their son first suggested trying cannabis, Sue and Barry reconsidered their stance after hearing extraordinary success stories from families overseas with legal access to the drug and those using it locally, like Deisha Stevens.

They had offered to travel to Colorado to try somehow to find a way to get it back into Australia, before their son had suggested growing it to make their own medicine.

"This is too dangerous for you to risk getting caught," Sue pointed out as they sat around the dinner table one night discussing options. "She needs her parents to care for her, and this might go wrong. We will take on the risk and grow it for you."

'We’re in our 60s now, what are they going to do to us?'

Cannabis grower Barry*

There had been several marijuana busts in the nearby region in recent months, which had made Sue nervous.

"We're in our 60s now, what are they going to do to us?," Barry said with a shrug. "There comes a time in your life when you just have to say, 'you know what? This is right'. I never thought I'd say that about cannabis, but this is the right thing to do, and if we can help, we will help," he said.

If all went well, soon they would have enough plants to begin taking cuttings, and eventually they would be able to supply other families like theirs desperate with hope.

As he sits warming himself in front of the slow-combustion fireplace sipping a cup of Earl Grey with the nation's two most unlikely illicit drug growers, Katelaris looks at his watch. He has a long drive ahead and it is time to get back on the road.

"Do you think this network will be able to grow enough to supply everyone who needs it?," Barry asks.

"It's a bit like that saying about rural Australia," Katelaris says, placing his teacup on the bench. "It's all held together with tie wire and optimism."

He walks to the car, closes the boot, and is about to climb into the driver's seat when his phone rings again. "Is that Andrew Katelaris?," the woman asks. "My son is having severe seizures, and I've been told you might be able to help us."

"I'll be on the highway soon, I'll call you back then," he replies, inserting his mobile back into its cradle and closing the door. The day is far from over, and there is still a long journey ahead.

*Names have been changed

This article is part of a series looking at the medical cannabis debate.

Part 1: Cannabis kids
Part 2: The politics of pot
Part 3: Pain, and a future on hold


Scott Hannaford

Rohan Thomson

© Fairfax Media 2015

© Fairfax Media 2015