Ketamine vs Marijuana: Australia’s Strange Preferences For Medicinal Psychoactives

Words by: Jon Davidson

Earlier this year, professor Graham Barrett from the University of Melbourne released research findings in which Ketamine was found to have a 75% success rate in treating depression in patients resistant to traditional anti-depressants. This attracted some early media attention. The proposal of an Australian trial was introduced to officials earlier this year across the east coast between Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT, including some additional Australian studies focusing on ketamine conducted in the last 12 months, and the idea got moving.

But then between July and August, there was a problem: Ketamine became a bad word when a chain of illegitimate dispensaries (or, ‘ketamine clinics’ if you work at the ABC) were busted by the watchdog commission for selling ‘take-home packets’ of ketamine to self-inject. Right off the bat, not exactly a good look. The company doing so were called Aura Medical and, according to the ABC, they’ve been doing it since around last year. So, that kinda put a halt on things, and funding for the trial took a wrong turn up shit creek between August and October, in a grant process that was already strenuous at best.

And then, it seems that it was just the case of the right person coming forward to put the issue into perspective at the right time, as the government have devoted to spend $600 million on different research projects around the country (and a change in prime minister is good to wipe slates clean, too.) Professor Coleen Loo from the University of NSW, working with the Black Dog Institute, has manged to get the greenlight – and $2 million in funding – from the Federal Government of Australia to commence a ketamine trial, treating 200 patients with depression in NSW and VIC, staring next year.

And just like that, the field of Australian psychopharmaceutical research has entered an area that one may dare to call progressive. Are we now “up there” with Denmark and the Netherlands, and all of their new ground psychiatric research using shrooms and LSD? I like to think that it gives us some street cred on the international stage.

But, wait – hang on. What about weed? We’ve just agreed to experiment with literal horse tranquilizer at a federal level before we’ve been able to sort out any substantial medicinal marijuana trial at even a state level.

This picture was the top rated comment on the ABC's link to the article. It had to be used.
      This picture was the top rated comment on the ABC’s link to the article. It had to be used.

So far, NSW have said that they will allocate $9 million towards medicinal marijuana treatment amongst epileptic patients, but there is yet to be any word on when that trial will actually occur. The NSW department of health website for the trial is clearly well informed in its ambitiousness, yet questionably vague.  On the marijuana-for-epilepsy front, here at home, there was some buzz last Saturday when the Epilepsy Assosciation of WA came out and said that 100 parents in WA are using medicinal marijuana, technically illegally, to treat children diagnosed with epilepsy. Just to cover this point right now, these kids obviously aren’t blazing it out of “modified” powerade bottles – we’re talking about the homemade production of cannabis oil.

This declaration from NSW is just one of many smaller aspects of ‘the conversation’ currently happening in Australia regarding the legalisation of medicinal cannabis and, in more fringe elements of this debate, the legalisation of marijuana at large. While I could find all kinds of articles to link to and relaxed state laws to reference, I think the most solid piece of evidence is that last month the Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley straight up declared that Australia will legalise the growing of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

So, clearly, it’s on the boards.

But how did Ketamine end up getting a more solid and coherent approval than medicinal marijuana ever has in Australia, and before we’ve even followed through on claims to start growing crops? Simply, I’m pretty sure the answer is end-of-year reviews for the government departments and ministers involved. For example, the actual move towards legalising medical marijuana crops and their harvesting is a complicated system full of contradicting policy and the overlapping interests of 3rd parties (read: from the people who want to be the ones doing all the growing.)

On top of that, some notable sources have come forward to point out that cannabis is not able to be treated as a pharmaceutical, principally because it can’t be relied upon to be consistent in potency and every other factor across all of Australia if there were to be a national medical marijuana scheme enacted. It would be hard to ensure that everything was being strictly adhered to at every farm in every state and territory across Australia, and poses huge risks for both researchers conducting the trials themselves to gauge their efficacy, and the governments enacting them who are putting their necks on the line if something goes wrong.

So, ketamine is a compound which is far easier to control and ensure that 200 patients in this upcoming trial will all receive the same dosage via the same method of administration at the same prescribed intervals. Makes sense. All in all, the steady presence of the medicinal marijuana debate in Australia throughout most of 2015 and the growing acceptance of professional voices supporting the exploration of psychoactive medicines in dominant media highlights some small but fairly dramatic shifts in the way government is looking at the role of drugs in society.

I also think I speak for all of us when I say hell yeah, bring on those student trials.