Dr Teresa Towpik: “Ignorance Isn’t Bliss, Knowledge Is.”

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doctor types at the computer

This article is written by Drive Change ambassador Dr. Teresa Towpik. Below, she shares her experience with the drug driving laws from the standpoint of a medicinal cannabis doctor and patient.

January 2016–what a month it was for me. 

I didn’t realise it then, but this would mark the beginning of a new chapter in my life. This was when I first heard that cannabis was going to be legalised for medicinal use. 

At the time, I was extremely surprised. I didn’t even really understand cannabis. To me it was better known as marijuana, a drug of addiction; dangerous and to be avoided. 

However, once I started to do my research, I realised how wrong and ignorant I had been. 

It soon became clear to me that I was now dealing with an amazing herb that has incredible medicinal and healing properties. I felt touched and inspired by patients’ stories, especially children suffering from intractable epilepsy. I began to see cannabis as a sophisticated plant.

In learning all this, I discovered that I wasn’t able to be passive and conveniently wait for others to speak up about this. I decided to become an advocate of cannabis and committed to long hours learning about this plant. 

Real-World Use

I made the decision to become involved in prescribing cannabis as a doctor. It was a difficult process to begin, because the access to cannabis was cumbersome and convoluted. It required hours of paperwork that turned into countless rejections from both TGA and NSW Health State Department. 

I first applied to the TGA when I had a patient who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. The application to prescribe was approved by the TGA in September 2017, but NSW Health kept rejecting it. There was a lot of back and forth, even a solicitor was involved.

Finally, in March 2018, I got my approval. It seemed the floodgates were open, and after that every application was approved within 48 hours.

Since then, I have prescribed cannabis for many patients and have observed how it changed them for the better. Many of my patients became more functional, alert, and active. A few of them even said to me “my brain is not so foggy anymore.” 

I have seen firsthand the positive effects cannabis has on these patients. For many of them, cannabis offers a return to normalcy, reinvigorating their functionality, motivation, and inspiration in life. It’s the key for them to return to working jobs, socialising, and living a full life.

Cannabis and Road Safety

Unfortunately, there is a very significant roadblock to improving patient outcomes through prescribing medicinal cannabis in Australia. That roadblock is the discriminatory and unfair drug driving laws on medicinal cannabis patients.

These laws are causing significant harm to many people dealing with pain and illness in our society. Many of these are people who have exhausted various therapeutic options in treating their condition with no success. Eventually, they come to think and feel that they are forgotten by the health system.  

Medicinal cannabis makes it possible for patients to leave behind days of taking 10-20 different medications, many of which reportedly makes them feel like zombies.

Some patients said that there were instances where they wouldn’t even remember how they managed to get from point A to B when driving on conventional prescription medicine.

I have had many patients comment that they became better drivers while taking cannabis. As a doctor I had to ask myself: what do I do in this situation? Should these people be reported for breaking the law?

Doctor, Advocate, Cannabis Patient

Through my professional experience I can tell you that the current drug driving laws limit clinical decisions. For many practitioners, the choice is often based not on what patients need, but on what the driving laws allow. Unfortunately, the laws don’t quite make sense. 

Roadside tests currently screen for THC in the system as defined by a mouth swab. Any amount present is considered a criminal act. However, there is clear scientific evidence which proves the level of THC in the system does not correspond with impairment. If it did, I might be classified as a criminal myself.

medicinal cannabis is a legal way to treat many illnesses.

In 2001, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. In May 2019, we discovered it was recurrent.

To cope with the effects of my cancer treatment, I have been taking significant doses of cannabis for the past 2 years. When I am not impaired, I have been driving. It is extremely unfair to know that the system labels me a criminal in this situation.

I am aware of the law’s zero-tolerance for THC, even for medicinal cannabis patients, but the fact is that I need my car to function. This is a situation that many patients experience in their lives, and no one is exempt from roadside drug testing.

I was drug tested on my way to Nimbin on 2 May of this year. Aware that this was a risk, I skipped my cannabis medication for 2 days before my trip. Still, my heart sank when I was stopped by the police. A lot went through my head, all the possibilities and consequences of me possibly testing positive. The fact that I have to deal with living in fear of being penalised for dealing with my condition feels terrible.

We know that cannabis is fat soluble and can stay detectable in the system much longer. Luckily, I tested negative. For me the trace amounts of THC was gone in two days, but this time frame varies by person, in part due to the rate of metabolism. I was not impaired and my driving record remains in good standing, but many patients feel like they are constantly at risk of losing their license. Patients have also told me that they feel more alert on medicinal cannabis than other drugs, yet they still face penalisation for the former. Feeling more alert makes sense because cannabis is proven to have a lower crash risk than many other drugs.

As a doctor and cannabis patient I am now standing up to the government in favour of appeal of these unfair laws and this unfair situation. Until this happens, I’m left with the question: is it moral to obey immoral laws?

To help change these unjust laws, please sign the Drive Change petition.

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