EXCLUSIVE: A recently formed medicinal cannabis firm, owned and operated by defence force veterans, is poised to trial a compassionate access scheme for up to 80 former colleagues who are struggling to afford the medication they need.

Provocatus, which launched six months ago, will provide interim financial support for ex-service personnel while their application for subsidised medicinal cannabis is assessed by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), a process that can take months.

The company will also fund medicinal cannabis treatment for a number of vets suffering mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

While the DVA considers subsidies for conditions such as chronic pain, it remains unconvinced about medicinal cannabis as a treatment for PTSD and, in the main, rejects appeals for financial help. The stance has led to mounting concerns that veterans are being denied desperately needed, and possibly life-saving, medical help.

Provocatus hopes the Veteran Access Scheme, which is backed by Cann Group, will help former service personnel access medicinal cannabis in a timely and cost-effective way.

Speaking of the launch, Provocatus managing director James Gatley told Cannabiz: “I don’t want to suggest cannabis is this pseudo wonder drug, but if we’re able to get people off the traditional, nasty benzodiazepines and opioid-based addictive drugs and, as a result, potentially save a veteran’s life, that’s all we need to get out of bed in the morning.

“Ultimately, we want to ensure the well-being of veterans and make access to medicinal cannabis easier and less financially prohibitive.”

James Gatley: scheme will fund up to 80 veterans

Provocatus was formed last year by Gatley and husband-and-wife team Kasey and Michael Mumford, who operate the Southern Cross Cannabis Clinic in Wollongong.

All had long careers in the forces. Kasey served with the Australian Royal Navy for 15 years while Michael and Gatley spent 20 and 15 years respectively with the Australian Army.

Through an existing supply agreement with Cann Group, Provocatus already offers a number of medicinal cannabis products for all Australians through the Special Access and Authorised Prescriber Schemes.

But given the military background of the trio, and the large number of ex-forces patients at the Mumfords’ clinic, focus has turned to supporting the veteran community.

Gatley said the compassionate access scheme, which is due to launch next week, will address common issues faced by ex-servicemen and women in their attempts to access medicinal cannabis.

“A couple of the barriers we saw from patient feedback was the initial cost and the time lag between showing an interest in medicinal cannabis, SAS approval, and the DVA application,” he said.

“We’ve seen lags of between four and 12 weeks [before the DVA make a decision] which, if you’re experiencing financial hardship, ultimately means a delay in receiving the medication. Under the Veteran Access Scheme, we’ll fund that gap between point of entry to determination by the DVA.”

“If we can potentially save a veteran’s life, that’s all we need to get out of bed in the morning.”

provocatus managing director james gatley

For those veterans suffering mental health issues, patients will be supplied product for a 12-month period, either at a subsidised rate or at no cost, depending on individual circumstances.

Additionally, expressions of interest are being sought for patients to take part in a clinical trial exploring the effects of medicinal cannabis and PTSD.

Gatley said de-identified data will be collected that could potentially be used at some future point by the DVA to “relook at their determination policy” around subsidies for PTSD treatment.

“We would certainly be interested in being part of that journey,” he said. “There is still an education piece that remains to be done, and supporting that with good evidence and good data is vitally important in changing people’s opinions.”

Support for the pilot stage of the scheme is being provided by Cann Group, with the company supplying product along with an undisclosed cash contribution.

But with interest in the program already rising, Provocatus is seeking additional support to ensure it has the necessary backing to continue.

“We have secured funding to support up to 80 veterans, but we’re already in a position where we’re seeking additional industry support,” Gatley said. “We’re also engaging with a number of ex-service organisations hoping to get funding through them.

“What we want to achieve is a drip feed of funding from interested parties to ensure the longevity and success of the program.

“We’ll get through the pilot phase, do a hot wash and see where we can improve, look at some of the procedural issues and expand it from there.”

Gatley added there was also an educational element to the scheme for medical practitioners, who will be offered support through the Provocatus portal.

“It’s not just about providing a short-term supply of medication to eligible veterans, we also need to enable the medical professionals to be part of the network,” he said.

“They’ll receive advice and coaching on the DVA process in order to best set that up for success. And we have a group of pain specialists that are needed to support the submission to the DVA.”

Derek Pyrah: twice knocked back by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs

The plight of veterans and the difficulties of accessing affordable medicinal cannabis was highlighted last year by Derek Pyrah, who spent nine years in and out of hospital as he battled mental illness.

Pyrah, a veteran of the Iraq War, only saw his quality of life improve when he turned to cannabis. Nevertheless, despite support from his GP, Matty Moore, and a clear upturn in his health, the DVA twice knocked back an application to subsidise his medication.

Pyrah, now a patient at Southern Cross, has vowed to take his fight to the Royal Commission into defence and veteran suicide.    

Gatley, too, said the Royal Commission presented an opportunity to discuss critical issues.

“There aren’t too many people in the veteran community that haven’t lost someone to suicide, particularly after the drawdown in Afghanistan,” he said.

“I think anyone involved with veteran wellbeing would see the Royal Commission as an opportunity. We do, and whether that’s an opportunity to help influence some of the DVA support framework associated with medicinal cannabis remains to be seen.

“But there is definitely an opportunity there, it’s timely and it’s in the public domain for discussion.”

Meanwhile, Provocatus is planning to expand its broader operation, with the company hoping to get its application for a manufacturing licence approved by the Office of Drug Control later this year.

For more information on the Veteran Access Scheme, visit the Provocatus website or email info@theprovocatus.com.

Steve has reported for a number of consumer and B2B titles over a journalism career spanning more than three decades. He is a regulator contributor to health journal, The Medical Republic, writing on...