Mind & Body

‘I used to get anxiety attacks, but medicinal cannabis changed my life’

Medicinal cannabis has transformed Stephanie Wray’s health, yet there are still many hurdles standing in the way for prospective users. Here’s the lowdown.

Stephanie Wray is a health battler. The 30-year-old mum-of-two suffers from fibromyalgia (pain and muscle stiffness), bursitis in both shoulders, carpal tunnel, insomnia, depression, chronic headaches and migraines.

“I was only diagnosed with fibromyalgia and bursitis three years ago, but the rest of it, I’ve struggled for 15 years,” she says.

“A few years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I spent most of the pregnancy in hospital and during the last few weeks I needed a feeding tube because I couldn’t hold anything down. The stress on my body brought on the fibro.”

She went downhill as her pain became excruciating and debilitating.

“I couldn’t do basic things like hanging out clothes, showering for long periods or doing the dishes, even writing was a struggle. I was taking Nurofen, Panadol and Endone, and antidepressants, but nothing could let me just…live.”

Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.

About six months ago, Wray discovered cannabis was legalised for medical use.

A new kind of therapy

“My doctor referred me to Cannabis Doctors Australia and they helped me through the process, which took about a month. I take CBD oil as droplets on my tongue, from Bod Australia two times a day and THC, the dry herb, at night for pain and sleep. It’s been amazing.”

Wray has stopped all pain medication and antidepressants. The best bit: she sleeps.

“I do jobs around the house now,” she laughs.

“I used to love gardening and weeding, but had to stop, and since taking CBD oil I get outside again. My kids have noticed I’m not as tired and not in as much pain. I used to get anxiety attacks going into Coles, but now I can go anxiety-free. It’s changed my life.”

A quick lesson in medicinal cannabis

Forget the Friday night weed parties with midnight munchies, medicinal cannabis is grown, cultivated and processed under strict guidelines similar to other pharmaceutical products. Cannabis is a complex little plant, made up of more than 400 chemical entities – 60 of them being cannabinoid compounds.

The two key ones with sweet therapeutic benefits are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is known for its psychoactive effects, while CBD counteracts it while dishing out other benefits.

“About one-third of current products primarily contain CBD as the main active ingredient, usually in the form of oils, sprays, or capsules,” says Professor Iain McGregor, academic director of the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

“CBD can be taken at high doses without any intoxication or major side effects, and can be very effective in treating epilepsy and in reducing anxiety, psychosis, pain and addictive behaviours. Other current products primarily contain THC, or THC mixed with CBD. THC is useful for chronic pain, for relieving muscle spasms, for stimulating appetite and for neurological conditions like Tourette syndrome.”

Cancer patients can also benefit from the drug, relieving nausea, and vomiting that commonly are felt as side effects of chemotherapy.

“It works as an appetite stimulant for those who are experiencing weight and/or muscle loss,” Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of the Cancer Council Australia, told Body + Soul.

So, here lies the problem(s)…

In February 2016, the Federal Government passed legislation “to enable the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and related research purposes”.

Yet, of the 600,000 Australians currently self-medicating with cannabis, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 30,000 are using it legally. In February 2019, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) confirmed to the ABC, only 3,100 scripts had been handed out in the first year since legislation passed.

“Most doctors feel under-educated in this area and are understandably cautious about prescribing,” he adds.

“There’s a fair bit of paperwork on behalf of each patient in order to prescribe cannabis. This problem can be overcome if you go to Cannabis Access Clinics, where doctors are knowledgeable and know how to organise access.”

Apart from feeling “a bit of lightheadedness after taking the oil”, Wray agrees the major downside for her is the price. Some users report paying up to $600 a month, others find it cheaper online via the burgeoning black market.

Where to from here?

Advocates want medicinal cannabis to become part of mainstream medicine. In September, the TGA released a notice for proposed amendments to the Poisons Standard, meaning medicinal cannabis could be available over-the-counter as early as June 2021.

“There’s a lot to look forward to,” says McGregor, who’s currently calling for users to take part in research.

“At the Lambert Initiative, we are running clinical trials in conditions such as schizophrenia, alcohol addiction, spinal cord injury, and insomnia and the results will uncover new applications for cannabis-based medicines and give doctors more confidence to prescribe cannabis. At the same time we are learning more about the 140 different cannabinoids in the plant, many of which have exciting untapped therapeutic effects.”

McGregor’s hope is that cannabis will cease to be something that people smoke and become a medicine you take in capsules, syrups, creams and ointments. For Wray, this news could mean an entirely different world.

“For now it’s still day by day, but I do feel more positive about the future.”

Felicity Harley’s book Balance & Other B.S, is out now. Follow her on Instagram for more.