Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in Australia. Now a doctor is using a combination of three medicines to help addicts regain their lives.
According to recent figures, Australia is in the grip of a marijuana epidemic. While it is often considered a 'harmless' drug, marijuana addiction can have disastrous consequences.
More than 5.5 million people aged14 and over have smoked dope in their lives. And 1.8 million Australians, the same number of people as the population of Brisbane, have smoked in the past year - some as young as 12.
Julia Norcott was a marijuana addict, lighting up a joint every day.
"The more you have, the more you want," Julia said. "It's habit forming and it becomes part of your lifestyle."
The qualified nurse first tried marijuana in her late teens and became hooked on the drug in her 20s. As a medical professional, she should have known better, but could not shake it.
A $20 per day habit quickly became $50, then $100 eventually she lost everything: house, car, job. It seemed there was no way out of the mess.
"I think marijuana for the long term chronic user can be very similar to someone that is a heroin addict," Julia said.
Dr Jon Currie is the only neurologist in Australia specialising in drug and alcohol addiction. He has come up with an Australian first treatment for marijuana addiction and says it is working.
"We treat this as a medical problem," Dr Currie said. "You have diabetes, you have asthma, you have an addiction."
Dr Currie first formulated his radical ideas in Israel. In 1997, he accompanied Today Tonight to investigate a radical Israeli heroin treatment using rapid detox and the drug naltrexone, a drug that blocked the terrible effects of heroin.
Back in Australia, Dr Jon Currie found the same addictive problems with marijuana and the same problem with quitting.
"There's a physical addiction and people who try to stop get irritable, angry, depressed, aggressive," he said. "And they might want to punch people, walls, wives, bosses."
"So most people who try to stop find it very, very difficult."
Dr Currie's solution combines three drugs normally used to treat other diseases.
"One of the drugs is used for craving to stop alcohol," he said. "One of the drugs is an antidepressant and the other is a very clever use of a drug that is normally used for epilepsy."
Julia is one of 300 dope addicts now using this special treatment. So far, 200 have gone clean and stayed clean after six months.
"I can say it's actually changed my life," Julia said. "The quality of life for me has improved incredibly."
The treatment was said to cost $5 per day.
"By the time you finish, it's about $250 for the cost of the medicines," Dr Currie explained.
By comparison, addicts could spend about $300 per week on marijuana.
The government is currently funding Dr Currie's research, making the tablets free for people who want to kick marijuana.
But today, 300,000 Australians will light up, equivalent to the population of Hobart or Canberra. Many do not realise they are addicted.
Dr Currie said he would not be able to cure everyone.
"No, there is always going to be a proportion of people who will want to smoke, who will want to use drugs, or for whom it is just tooo difficult," Dr Currie said.
"The aim is to get 80 per cent of people able to stop, 20 per cent of people with a problem that we can then help in other ways."
More information: Dr Jon Currie, Western Area Health Service, Clinic E, Westmead Hospital. Phone (02) 9845 6445, email [email protected]