Like most war veterans Michael Ruffin, 78, is still paying for injuries he sustained while on active duty. During his deployment to Vietnam in the late 1960s, Mike (as he’s known to his friends) was involved in a horrific accident that left him severely injured and living with chronic pain for years to come.
Speaking to Starts at 60, Mike recalled the moment he miscalculated a helicopter jump in Vietnam and plummeted 20 feet through the air, hitting the ground below him “like a ton of bricks”. While he survived the fall, Mike, who served in the Australian Army for 27 years, was left with severe back and neck pain — pain that after decades never seemed to fade. He tried everything from physiotherapy to spinal fusion surgery, but nothing worked.
However, that all changed when Mike’s doctor introduced him to Dr Alistair Vickery, from Emyria (a healthcare technology and services organisation), who is a keen advocate for medicinal cannabis use in Australia. After being assessed by three doctors, two of whom had already operated on his back and agreed further surgery was too dangerous, Mike was given the green light to start cannabis treatment.
He was prescribed a 50 millilitre bottle of cannabis oil consisting of a combination of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
“I took one does of [the] cannabis oil, and I slept that night for the first time in about three months,” he says. This was in 2019 and Mike, who continues to take cannabis oil daily, says he hasn’t experienced any pain from his injury since.
“The pain was harder on my wife than it was on me,” he says. “I’d wake up and she would be crying because of the noise I’d make trying to sleep. The change has been wonderful for both of us really.”
Now almost two years on, Mike, who takes 0.07 millilitres of cannabis oil per day, is living the active retirement he always dreamed he would. “I go to the gym three times a week … I’m walking around, I’ve got five grandchildren and I go to all their sports. I live a pretty normal life,” he says.
While CBD does come with a risk of side effects, including fatigue, nausea and vertigo, Mike hasn’t experienced any.
He’s now encouraging others suffering from chronic pain to speak to a health professional about using the oil as part of their treatment plan, saying: “I would say give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose and the world to gain.”
Put simply, medicinal cannabis is made from the cannabis sativa plant. According to Dr Vickery, the cannabis plant contains hundreds of compounds, however there are only two major compounds (so far) that health experts believe have any real medical benefit: THC, the one that gets people high if you take it in large enough quantities, and CBD.
“Medicinal cannabis is a highly-refined pharmaceutical grade product that has known quantities of THC and CBD together,” he tells Starts at 60, adding that both compounds can also be prescribed separately.
And no, medicinal cannabis can not get you high as the levels of THC in it are too low.
“[When a] person is smoking a joint they may be getting somewhere between 150-250 milligrams of THC, whereas we’re prescribing in the regions of 5 to 15 milligrams of THC, so there’s quite a difference and because it’s oral and absorbed much slowly than the recreational cannabis you don’t get those hallucinating effects,” Dr Vickery explains.
Aside from the oil form, medicinal cannabis can also come as a pill, a nasal spray and a wafer. Dr Vickery says while no form is more effective than the other, oil is preferred as it can be more easily regulated.
While some health benefits are still being studied, Dr Vickery says medicinal cannabis is showing promise for some people with chronic pain or terminal illnesses, such as cancer, who don’t get relief from other medicines. He says it can also be used for a variety of mental health disorders, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia.
Studies have also indicated positive effects for those living with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, but more research is needed in this area.
And like any medicine you take, Dr Vickery says side effects can occur, although he says with cannabis oil, it’s more to do with the dosage. For example, he says some people are extremely sensitive to THC, adding the tiniest amount can make them feel dizzy or sleepy. Other side effects include being unsteady on your feet, fever, decreased or increased appetite, dry mouth, and diarrhoea. If you have a side effect that worries you, speak to your doctor immediately.
The first thing to do is speak with your doctor, who can then refer you to a specialised cannabis clinic. If you’re eligible, the specialist doctor will then need to seek approval from Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration to supply the product to you. However, the laws are different in each state. You can check the laws in your state by visiting:
Up until February 2021, low-dose CBD products were available by prescription only, now they’re available over the counter – but with a small catch. Dr Vickery says it’s going to be another 12 months before you actually see CBD products behind the counter at pharmacies, as experts “are yet to find a product that passes the Australian regulations to allow dispensing over the counter”.
As for those looking for easy access to THC products, Dr Vickery says it’s unlikely they’ll ever be available without a prescription.
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