Three and a half years ago, Pearl Schomburg was in a very bad way.
She’d washed up in Auckland after a marriage separation and her physical and mental health were deteriorating. The former computer programmer and social entrepreneur had always been a doer and now she couldn’t do anything. She was in constant pain from worsening rheumatoid arthritis. She remembers the day she hit the wall.
“I’d been to my doctor for prescriptions because I wasn’t doing well. I had several autoimmune conditions by this stage. I went to the chemist to get my prescription filled and I walked out of the chemist shop with two supermarket bags full of medications. And I had this moment where I walked past the chemist shop window as I was leaving and I saw my reflection.
“I was so upset. It just wasn’t who I was. I’d been eating organic food, doing everything right, and here I was in this situation with two supermarket bags. I was still miserable, I was still in pain, I was still struggling with depression and anxiety. I was vomiting all the time.”
When she arrived home, she put the two bags and the drugs they contained – OxyContin, Sevredol, gabapentin, Panadol and more – in her garage. And she left them there.
“I never took another pill. I went cold turkey. It was kind of like a suicide bid when I put those sacks in the garage. I honestly thought, if my life is no better without these pills then I’m out of here. Because this is not a life I can live. There was no joy, no pleasure.
“At that time I had a suicide pack, so I could easily have done it,” she says matter-of-factly. “I had it all well planned.”
What followed was “a pretty rough couple of days. But after that, I knew I was actually okay.”
The good news was that she was still alive. The bad news was that she was still in terrible pain. She started researching other solutions, including cannabis. She wasn’t innocent of weed: her mother had smoked it to ease the pain of terminal illness and she found some relief in smoking it herself. A friend had even given her a tub of cannabis-infused butter that sat unused in the fridge door until it went rancid. But she’d never come across anything like the cannabis balms she saw recommended on the internet.
“I had a big rheumatoid growth on my hand, it was excruciatingly painful. I used to describe it as like battery acid dripping into an open wound – it was so sharp and nasty and nothing would take that pain away. Finally, I just rubbed some of the butter from the fridge on that – and the pain started disappearing.”
The feeling of relief was swiftly replaced by something else.
“I was so angry, I was so upset,” she recalls. “It’d been sitting in my fridge for probably three months while I’d been suffering.”
In August 2017, Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern promised on live TV to legalise medicinal cannabis. “I don’t need 30 seconds, Mike, the answer is absolutely yes,” she told Mike Hosking in the TVNZ leaders debate. It was both an emphatic promise and a vague one.
Part of her job had already been done. A week later, and before the general election, new regulations allowed doctors to prescribe the non-psychoactive cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) without first seeking Ministry of Health approval. After the election, a Green Party member’s bill fronted by new MP Chloe Swarbrick – which would have allowed patients to grow their own – failed at its first reading. But 14 months after the election, the more conservative Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018 did pass.
The new law laid the ground for regulations on the prescription and production of products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is still controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. At the beginning of this month – all but unnoticed amid the Covid-19 lockdown – those regulations came into force.
The new act had already done another thing: it provided a specific defence for people in palliative care to possess and use cannabis, no matter where it had come from. It’s a defence that doesn’t apply to any other patients, or to the “green fairies” who grow the plants and make the oils, balms and sprays being used outside the system. It’s still against the law to grow, prepare, supply or possess cannabis.
But police are less inclined to prosecute and courts less likely to convict in what are seen as legitimate medical cases – and New Zealand’s underground medicinal cannabis ecosystem has been growing in size and sophistication.
No one, not even Pearl Schomburg herself, can settle on exactly the right word for the role the 67-year-old great-grandmother now plays in that ecosystem. She is not a green fairy herself, yet she’s more than an advocate. We settle on “facilitator”.
It’s a public role that began as that of another determined woman, the late Helen Kelly, was ebbing away. In the film Helen Kelly – Together, the unionist is shown struggling and exhausted on her way to Start the Conversation, a public meeting on cannabis reform at Auckland Town Hall in 2016. She explains to her driver that she owes this one, last appearance to the reform community.
That evening, Schomburg stood up for the first time, speaking from the floor about the desperate need felt by patients like her. Where, she asked, was the moratorium she’d been promised?
I was the moderator on stage who called her to speak, but I didn’t meet her until 15 months later when my old friend was succumbing to his brain cancer. His last weeks were racked by seizures that doctors said could only be quelled by sedating him, making him unconscious until he died, forbidding him to say goodbye.
His wife was distraught at the prospect. I’ll help, I said. I was directed to Schomburg, who helped me source a high-THC oil that we smuggled into his room in the hospice, then smuggled into his body. He passed peacefully, saying goodbye over a few precious days. The doctors were surprised.
“He didn’t have any more seizures,” I wrote later that year in a select committee submission on the Government’s medicinal cannabis bill. “I can’t tell you that was because of the medical oil. But he didn’t have any more seizures.”
By chance, when I went to see Schomburg, the man who produced the oil was there.
“This is Gandalf,” she said.
Half the country has seen Gandalf now – or at least, the back of his silver-grey head. He’s the Northland green fairy featured in Patrick Gower: On Weed, TV Three’s top-rating show for 2019. It was Schomburg who introduced Gower to Gandalf.
The fairy and the facilitator met some time after a friend had provided her with two grams of his full-strength FECO (fully extracted cannabis oil), which she says worked for her in tiny doses like nothing else had.
“It was quite a different feeling in my body. I wasn’t stoned 24-7, everything was calmed down. I was clear-headed, I didn’t need any other pain relief and I started smoking less straight away.”
When the friend later reported back to Gandalf that Schomburg couldn’t afford any more oil, he gifted her some and never charged her money again.
“That was divine intervention,” she says. “Gandalf and I have worked really closely together since we met. I take Gandalf with me in this fight – I’m fighting for fairies, my fairy, all fairies as well as patients.”
“I wouldn’t be in the position I am now if it wasn’t for Pearl,” says Gandalf on the phone from his home in the Far North. “I owe her pretty much everything. She’s put me in touch with exceptionally good contacts, a whole host of people that are well connected, people I normally wouldn’t be able to meet. She’s opened a lot of doors for me.”
Among those contacts is Chloe Swarbrick. They met at a New Zealand Drug Foundation workshop for people who wanted to make submissions on the medicinal cannabis bill.
“I’d had a breakdown,” says Gandalf. “They told us what we could and couldn’t do [in submissions]. I wanted to expose myself, warts and all, and someone said no, you can’t do that. And I started crying – all my work for nothing. But then there was a break, and Pearl went over to Chloe and said, ‘Mr Weepy,’ pointing to me, ‘would like to meet you.’
“I’d done a draft of my written submission and I said, ‘Would you be in a position to take that and go through it and give me a bit of feedback?’ And Chloe said, ‘Tell you what, I’m going back to Wellington, I’ll give it to my people and email you back the next day with the result.’ And she f***in’ did!”
He’s also grateful for an introduction to Paul Manning, chief executive of the Auckland medicinal cannabis start-up Helius Therapeutics. But it was a link at least as valuable to the chief executive as it was to the wizard. Helius launched with no real connection to a cannabis community that was innately suspicious of big business. Schomburg’s introductions have helped it build credibility.
Furthermore, Gandalf apparently knows what he’s doing.
Last year, Schomburg was approached via an intermediary with a message from two Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) scientists to ask if she’d be interested in supplying the agency with illicit green fairy products so they could form a picture of what was going on in the market. She agreed – and was happy to discover that Gandalf’s products stood out. Essentially flying blind, he was making oils that contained what it said on the label.
Growing cannabis flower with a high ratio of CBD to THC is difficult, not least because the past three decades of black-market plant breeding have had the exact opposite aim. Many products Schomburg sent through for testing were not as claimed – and the test results for one or two were horrifying.
In particular, one oil, provided by an elderly patient who had bought it but was worried, settled out with a bright blue layer on top. The suspicion was that the blue layer was a contaminant – police glyphosate spray, delivered from a helicopter. The ESR testing programme ended abruptly before the scientists could make a positive ID.
Schomburg’s proposed solution is an amnesty – an extension of the current palliative care defence to all patients, and to their carers and supporters. And to the fairies.
“It would give them more access to labs to get their medicines tested, so they know what they’re actually using. It means they don’t have to worry about being criminalised.
“The reason I’m really passionate about getting our fairies amnesty is because they’ve never had a voice up till now. It’s been impossible for them to stand up and speak for the right pathway for them. The current medical model doesn’t really suit them, their finances, the way they want to work or the kinds of products they want to make.
“I also believe an amnesty will bring to light and make it easier to manage the really bad fairies – and there are a few of those. They wouldn’t survive in the light of day. They only survive because it’s a prohibition environment.”
It should be emphasised that in scientific terms, cannabis medicines for many of the conditions for which they’re used outside the system are at best plausible rather than proven treatments. The evidence isn’t in yet.
But Schomburg herself is evidence of something. When she goes in for surgery – her chronic conditions mean she’s had more than 30 surgeries – she now takes her own medicine to the hospital. Although Auckland District Health Board specialists will not themselves prescribe even approved cannabis medicines, her doctors and nurses know what’s she’s doing.
“I kind of realised that I had got to a level where it was important for me to be honest in the way I do things,” she says. “I started openly using it – when I say openly, I wouldn’t do it in front of them, I’d use it in the bathroom, but as soon as I became conscious and could get my hands around the bottle, I would use my medicine. I didn’t take as much as a paracetamol from then. And my recovery was just streets ahead. I used to come home from the hospital after surgery and it would take me three weeks to get back on my feet. I’m pretty much on my feet the day after now.”
She says she can see the cycle in other patients: “Nurse, I need more pain relief, and then 30 minutes later, nurse, I’m going to vomit. I could really see what I used to be like.”
Remarkably, Schomburg, who is not medically trained, is also regularly consulted by doctors, either by phone or at her central Auckland home.
“In any given week, I’d probably be approached by two medical professionals, whether it’s a clinical psychologist, a neurologist or a GP. I don’t need to help all of those people, because some of them are quite knowledgeable already – they just need an hour or two at my table. But some of them do need support as well.”
Some doctors refer patients to her directly – and one this year asked her to take on his entire caseload of palliative care patients. That wasn’t something she could do – and not only because she’s 67 years old with chronic illness.
She’ll typically talk to a new patient and sometimes their family members for an hour or two. It creates something that’s scarce in the high-pressure world of medical practice: time and space.
I saw it when I brought along R, a friend who was seeking a cannabis product to help her friend through onerous treatment for throat cancer. After talking and listening for an hour, Schomburg said, “But what about you?”
It all came out. Trying to help her friend had brought up a lot of bad things for R. She was wrung out, couldn’t sleep for the horrors, was essentially wracked with PTSD. R was helped to source a small sample of an oil to use, a couple of drops under her tongue before bed, and a balm. I saw her two weeks later and she was visibly changed. She was sleeping well and happy. R, who had always loathed cannabis as a recreational drug, gave every appearance of having been saved by cannabis as a medicine.
The sceptical medical assessment might be that this was simply a demonstration of the power of the placebo effect. Certainly, it’s a demonstration of the power of having time to listen.
Drug Foundation adviser Renee Shingles, who met Schomburg when she was working for the giant Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth, compares her to Australian campaigner Lucy Haslam.
“She’s compassionate. People like her don’t search this out, people search them out because they’re at their wits’ end and they’ve got no one else to turn to. People like Pearl and Lucy show compassion– and they do it at their own risk, basically.
“With Lucy, it was her son. Pearl herself is a patient. When you have that personal relevance and these people are coming to you for help, it makes it that much harder to detach yourself from the situation. And they’re naturally going to turn to people who understand. More often than not, people are going to medical professionals, who just have this very blank, process-driven, transactional approach to healthcare. And there’s a massive gap, which is that they just need someone to listen and want to help.”
“She likes to make sure that they’re settled – that’s her word,” says medical herbalist Erin Hudson, another member of Schomburg’s network. “She says ‘until they’re settled, I don’t let go of them in my mind’. Then she can relax and focus on the next person.”
Hudson met Schomburg at the same Drug Foundation workshop where Gandalf was introduced to Swarbrick.
“I asked her if she thought Gandalf would be available to come and talk to some herbalists about cannabis. We really don’t have enough information on the plant and things are changing, so do you think you could approach him?
“And she just grabbed my hand and marched me straight up to him and put us together and said ‘You two should talk.’ So that’s pretty much as simple as it gets. I’ve probably been up there four or five times, just to look at the whole set-up and learn from the master. He’s a very good answerer of silly questions.”
Hudson, a former obstetric nurse, has become part of Schomburg’s plan to mainstream the fairies.
“Ideally what we’re looking at is that within the herbalists’ framework there’ll be a pathway for a green fairy or a grower or someone who’s been involved with cannabis for a long time to either become a herbalist, which is three years’ study, or become a safe practitioner, even at the level they’re currently working at,” says Hudson. “So it’s about providing safety for the public, but also inviting this group of people into that mainstream conversation.”
It’s an audacious plan, one which might not be viable without a successful “yes” vote in the forthcoming cannabis referendum. But Schomburg is about to launch an open letter calling for an amnesty – and access to testing – for green fairies and their patients, at least until the existing regulations are working properly and licensed local producers are up to speed. She’s been “gifted” the services of Helius’ PR man Cameron Brewer to get it out.
“What we’re asking for is an extension of what palliative patients already have,” she explains. “It’s about patient safety and harm minimisation. I believe an amnesty will bring to light and make it easier to manage the really bad fairies.”
In some ways, the timing could hardly be worse. When we last spoke, Schomburg was waiting on news about a potential bone infection in her shoulder. The mooted fix – a new joint to be built by specialists in Italy – has been swept away by the virus.
“It’s a bit of a nightmare,” she acknowledges, “but I’ve been in harder places.”
But the timing is important to her. It’s exactly two years since her friend and fellow campaigner Joan Cowie died of lung cancer. Cowie’s mobility scooter still sits in her hallway.
“It’s two years and if Joan was alive today, the situation would be no different for her. We’d be struggling to help her.”
Her mind goes back to the town hall and meeting Helen Kelly in 2016.
“I thought, there’s a model for me to follow. If Helen can do it and get away with it, why can’t an ordinary old nanna do it and get away with it?”