When I was in Switzerland last year climbing in the Alps, I noticed that CBD (the marijuana extract, Cannabidiol) was available over the counter in pharmacies, without a script. I’d been wanting to test out CBD for a long time, given its reputation in assisting with improving sleep cycles, and alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression and mood disorders, without the medical side effects of prescription meds, such as benzos (liable to cause tolerance, addiction, and subsequent withdrawal) or SSRIs (which have countless side effects, including rapid weight change and loss of sleep), both of which I have used in the past, but want to avoid as much as conceivably possible.
The reason CBD struck me as such an attractive alternative is that, to the best of my understanding, it:
- Is not psychoactive (in the recreational sense that it makes you high).
- Does not cause dependence or addiction.
- Does not lead to withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.
- Is non-toxic.
- Does not have adverse side effects such as weight change, or liver/kidney problems.
- Can be safely used long-term.
- Does not cause any kind of hangover or inhibited cognitive or physical function that hinders work.
- Cannot result in overdose.
That is to say, CBD is safer than taking an aspirin or a Panadol.
Note that CBD is entirely distinct from THC, the recreationally sought-after cannabis compound that makes you high. THC also has legitimate medical uses, also legal in Australia for medical purposes. But this is not what I was exploring – I only wanted CBD.
Upon trialling over-the-counter CBD in Switzerland, my self-reported response was very positive. My partner and climbing buddy, who was with me during this trial, agreed with my self-assessment. We both agreed that this was something worth pursuing once back in Australia, given that only just recently (in the last few years) Australia had legalised medical cannabis.
So upon returning to Australia, I went to see a GP about it. They declined and said to see a specialist. I spoke to a neurologist (for about $600, and a significant waiting time). They also declined. I spoke to a psychiatrist (for about another $600, and another substantial wait time), who also declined. Using their own words (paraphrasing),
The medical marijuana legislation is a complete shambles. You’re best off going to one of the dodgy telephone companies or sourcing it on the black market.
I did both.
First the black market.
Because it’s the black market, despite it being quick (as in 30 minutes quick), there is by definition no quality control, and no guarantee that what you’re getting is what’s advertised (every recreational drug user is aware of how large the variance is in the purity of black market products – Don't trust the coke from the Ukranianian syndicate on the north side, whatever you do!). That is, if the intent is a medical one, rather than a recreational one, where you require consistent and predictable dosage, this is obviously completely unreliable. Anyway, I approached one of the underground Uberised drug dealers — who asked if I'd like any LSD tabs or MDMA pills while he was at it (I won't comment on the answer I provided). This turns up.
It certainly smelt like distilled pot. I have no idea what was in it though. It doesn’t even have a label! (Apparently it was illegally imported from Amsterdam, and therefore was legit).
So I moved onto the grey market, via one of the seemingly legitimate online dealers, who don’t advertise the CBD content overtly (instead just calling it ‘hemp oil’), in which case it’s just an obvious online racket via lack of enforcement of guarantee. Here’s me with a bottle from one of the 'legit' online suppliers. They privately communicated that it contained 10% CBD. I have literally no idea whether that’s true or not, and it's not even written anywhere on the label.
After that whole nonsensical debacle, on which I wasted hundreds of dollars, I decided to try the (using the words of the psychiatrist) ‘dodgy phone guys’. What awaited me was the most stunningly medically unethical distribution and protection racket I could conceivably imagine. The whole system is so self-evidently implicating that it might as well be considered a political sex scandal.
First, I had to send through my doctor's certificates by email, then have a phone interview with a 'specialist' doctor, that lasted less than 5 minutes and cost $95. The doc immediately said “yep, all good, you meet the criteria, we’ll lodge an application for you”. On my behalf, they sent an individual application to the federal government for approval. Despite only requesting CBD, not THC, each application has to be individually considered, and signed off on by the federal government. The ‘dodgy telephone guys’ specifically advertise that they are experts in lobbying the federal government on behalf of their patients. It’s not beginning to sound the slightest bit unethical at this point, is it? Paying a highly secretive, non-disclosing third-party to lobby the federal government for your right to access a legally sanctioned medicine? It's literally easier for me to walk into a GP and fabricate a reason for requiring strong synthetic opiates than this (I know). Nothing to see here, guys...
Two weeks later I receive a congratulatory email from the company, advising me that my application with the federal government was successful, and I am now approved for CBD use!! Hurrah!
Does this mean I get a script that I can use to approach competing pharmacies to seek the most competitive price? Oh no, that’s where you’d be forgiven for thinking that a pro-free market, neo-liberal government were in power.
Instead, it turns out that the doctor is part of a fully vertically-integrated supply chain between the prescribing doctor, producer and distributor. I don’t even get to hold the physical script in my hand at any point. Instead, the doctor ships the oral CBD product to a cooperating pharmacy, from whom I pick it up. The cost of the product was never even advertised beforehand online. Who wants price transparency to enable market competition? The cost is only revealed after you’ve already invested into the upfront cost, at which point they have vendor lock-in regardless. Anyway, at a cost of $400 for a 25mL bottle, I was able to pick up the product several weeks later from a nearby pharmacy. Btw, as an initial customer they gave me a two-for-one deal, which I’m pretty sure would be illegal (or at least considered an unethical medical marketing practise – except in the United States) for any other medicine. Can you imagine if they started offering two-for-one first customer deals on Oxies? What could possibly go wrong?
Upon turning up at the pharmacy, a small privately run pharmacy in Newtown, the poor guy was so overwhelmed (showing visible signs of anxiety — he probably needs some CBD himself) by the complexities of the online system, that after me sitting there for more than half an hour waiting, he completely gave up and gave me the product, promising to navigate the ridiculously over-protective online system later on when he had the time.
So then I had this, an actual legitimate CBD product, with pharmaceutical quality control, and all the other bells and whistles you’d expect in contemporary medicine, at a cost of only $400 for a small bottle of plant extract (notwithstanding the two-for-one first customer deal).
Seriously, it’d be so much cheaper if I just started smoking bongs every night, especially given that none of this is PBS subsidised, leaving legitimate medical users with astronomical out-of-pocket expenses (in excess of $10k annually from some patients I have spoken to). If I did so, it might even score me a free sexual interaction with the NSW Police (get your annual NSW Police sexual abuse calendar here).
So after many months and countless hundreds of dollars down the drain, I finally have a legitimate medical supplier. Of course, given that the supply chain is fully vertically-integrated from doctor to producer to distributor, this thing is so obviously intentionally overprotected that I could swear it was some kind of mob-like political protection racket. In fact, I’d be willing to place bets on who’s friends with the federal Health Minister at this point, given that they need to be individually lobbied on behalf of patients, and that the suppliers benefit from full vendor lock-in (should I want to switch to another supplier, I’d have to go through their full process from scratch).
And all of this red-taped protectionism coming from so-called Liberal governments. Give me a break — I’m willing to take a position in the betting markets you guys are sleeping with the doctors.
PS: To give you an idea of just how safe and non-psychoactive CBD is, here's a picture I took of a bottle of Swiss 10% CBD oil, of which I drank half the bottle (almost 100 times the recommended daily dose) near the summit of the Lagginhorn in Switzerland, at an altitude of 3,750m, from which I nonetheless managed to safely return to the hut in time for dinner, despite the route being almost entirely unprotected. Here's the video to prove it.
There's an enormous cost and regulatory barrier of entry to people seeking access to medical cannabis, and from what I gather it's not uncommon for people to fork out in excess of $1000 in out-of-pocket expenses to gain entry into the system, not to mention the time required to navigate it. So to save you all from an enormous waste of time and money...
Executive summary: Use the dodgy phone guys for now, because for the remainder of the medical industry, from GP to high-charging specialist, it isn't worth their time to do the paperwork.
Or buy a bong...