We talk cannabis with Anastasia Suraev ahead of The Hemp Health & Innovation Expo & Symposium

It’s just about time for the controversial but incredibly insightful The Hemp Health & Innovation (HHI) Expo & Symposium to return to Sydney after thousands of Sydneysiders turned up to the inaugural event last year. The two-day symposium has gathered a lineup of brilliant minds, both global and locals speakers, to fill the space across 27th and 28th May, alongside 80 exhibitors and the largest ratified hemp crop in the Southern Hemisphere.

With cannabis still a widely misunderstood and complex issue for lawmakers and society in general, it’s becoming increasingly important to learn about the wide range of benefits and various topics to which this powerful plant is relevant. As the fight against criminalisation and stigma continues, arming yourself with knowledge is essential, hence the evident success of this event.

To learn more about the upcoming symposium we took some time to chat to one of the many speakers who will be scheduled across the two days, Anastasia Suraev, a Sydney-based research associate at the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at USYD. She completed her thesis on the cognitive outcomes of people with severe epilepsy and is currently coordinating an in-depth study on community use of cannabis-based products as treatment for paediatric epilespy. As you should be able to tell from the below transcript, prepare for plenty of insightful discussion around this controversial topic.

When it comes to your thesis, what drew your interest in the topic?

What drew me to the topic of epilepsy is the impact uncontrolled seizures can have on cognitive development, particularly when the seizures begin at a very young age. Epilepsy is more than just seizures. It can affect the child’s thinking skills, behaviour, language, social interaction and physical functioning. I wanted to find out more about the cognitive and behavioural trajectory in people with rare and complex childhood-onset epilepsies such as Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (LGS), and what we could do to help them.

What surprised you the most in your research?

One of the key things that I found in my research was the treatment-resistant nature of some of the more severe epilepsies and the detrimental effects it can have on the child’s cognition and behaviour – some of which are evident well before the first seizure. Epilepsies such as Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome have multiple causes, making it difficult to diagnose and effectively treat. It speaks to the complex nature of epilepsy and the need for new and better treatment options, particularly for those who have tried everything and are out of options.

Tell me a bit about the PELICAN research study and how that came into place?

There have been many reports from the Australian community of cannabis-derived oils and tinctures helping to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy. These oils and liquid extracts are produced in many different ways, from different kinds of cannabis plants – and likely differ in the types and amounts of cannabinoids. One of the cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD), has been linked to antiepileptic effects in humans. However, some of our previous work has shown that much of the street cannabis in Australia contains little CBD! We therefore wondered whether other cannabinoids such as THCA, CBDA, CBG, and CBC may be important in preventing seizures in children. This is when the Paediatric Epilepsy Lambert Initiative Cannabinoid Analysis (PELICAN) came into place.

The PELICAN study, conducted by the University of Sydney’s Lambert Initiative, aims to take an in-depth look at community use of artisanal cannabis oils and tinctures as a way to manage seizures in children with epilepsy. As part of the study, parents/guardians are interviewed about their experiences around their decision to use (or not use) cannabis as a way to manage their child’s epilepsy. Families are asked to provide a small sample of the product for chemical analysis and are also given the option to find out the results.

It is a really exciting study because it lets us liaises with these families and look at the reality of what’s happening in the community.

Has the changing public perception of cannabis help validated its research?

I think the growing public interest in medicinal cannabis has definitely been a strong driving force in promoting research into cannabinoids. Anecdotal success stories such as the high-profile story of Charlotte Figi whose seizures drastically reduced after trying a high CBD oil known as Charlotte’s Web or Australia’s Katelyn Lambert, has given support to cannabinoid medicine as a worthwhile research area. While it is not hard evidence, it is hard to ignore these kind of success stories, and I think cannabis deserves more scientifically rigourous investigation to better understand its therapeutic potential.

Do you think the research has helped change public perception?

I think it’s both. Cannabis has come a long way since the shock campaigns of the 1930s. For so long it was demonized as an “evil drug” and this perception along with its prohibition drastically stalled scientific work. In the past decade, increasing scientific studies are being done looking at the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis rather then the negative effects. This has helped provide a more balanced view on cannabis for not only the public but also health professionals and policy makers. This is important because high quality clinical research can translate into real improvements in healthcare and policy.

Legally speaking, there’s a lot of work to be done in Australia. What would you like to see happen from a legislative level in this country?

There are now viable means of obtaining legal supply of medicinal cannabis in Australia, however this process is not without its kinks. Obtaining legal access can be a slow and complex process, and sometimes take months, depending on which state you live in. The issue is the very slow growing body of clinical evidence that is necessary to gain legal approval – generally speaking, only those who have tried and failed all other treatment options or for whom the side-effects of their conventional medication are intolerable are considered first.

These criteria will expand as more clinical trials are conducted. The other issue is waiting for product to be imported from overseas due to a lack of local supply here in Australia, however steps are now being taken to change this. Very recently, Australia has allowed authorised sponsors to import and warehouse legal supplies of medicinal cannabis products across Australia. This means that patients will not need to wait months on end for product to arrive in the country which is a great step in the right direction.

What are some of the biggest misconception about cannabis that you'd like to see changed?

The biggest misconception about cannabis is the perception of someone treating their ailment by smoking a joint and getting “high”. Firstly, the cannabis plant contains more than 100 different cannabinoids. The most well-known cannabinoid is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis (feeling “high”), however, many, if not all of the other cannabinoids in the plant are not known to be psychoactive and may have their own therapeutic potential.

Secondly, how cannabis is ingested differs widely. Cannabinoids can be administered orally in the form of a liquid or capsule, under the tongue (oromucosal), on the skin (topical), via the nose (intranasal), or vaporised. For example, Epidiolex TM is a 98% pure CBD product in sesame oil and strawberry flavour that kids with epilepsy ingest orally. For some, this oil can have dramatic improvements in their seizure frequency and there is no “high” associated with treatment.

I think education is important. The cannabis plant has a very complex chemistry and there is a big difference in composition, route of administration, and psychoactive effects when we talk about cannabis for therapeutic use versus recreational.

What are you looking forward to most about the Hemp Health & Innovation Expo & Symposium?

Everything about it! I am looking forward to learning about the varied uses of hemp in Australia, and listening to speakers such as Ben & Michael Oakley, Weeded Warriors, Tim Harding, and Jenny Hallam share their personal experiences with using medicinal cannabis.

What can we expect from your talk at the event?

My talk will cover the science basics of the cannabis plant, share some interesting findings from recent work our group and others have done, and also talk about the ins and outs of the PELICAN study.

The Hemp Health & Innovation (HHI) Expo & Symposium will take over Rosehill Gardens on Saturday 27th May from 9am to 6pm, and Sunday 28th May from 9:30am to 3:30pm. Tickets are priced from $14.50 and are on sale from hhiexpo.com.au. Free entry will be granted to veterans who present their DVA or retired ID card upon entry.

For further updates give the expo a follow on social media via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Intro by Chris Singh, interview by Larry Heath.

This is a sponsored post.