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Australia

How rich-lister Barry Lambert became a cannabis mogul in a bid to save his granddaughter

Barry Lambert’s cannabis company Ecofibre is launched on the Australian Stock Exchange on a bright autumn day in Sydney. This is the first ASX listing I’ve attended, so I’m not sure how typical it is. But at about the point I find myself listening to Lambert’s son Michael talk about his sperm, it strikes me that this might not be a totally conventional event. Lambert’s wife Joy appears, looking exasperated. “Oh, Michael, stop blaming yourself,” she says to her son. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

Looking around, I note several tall, extremely confident-looking men in suits, whom I presume to be the kinds of titans of industry who regularly attend ASX listings. But there is also a surprising number of children, ranging from a little girl with enormous brown eyes, to various teenagers with long sweeps of glossy hair. Are children normal at such events? What about all these Americans? Scientists, pharmacists, executives. The brown-eyed child rings the ASX bell; someone smashes a glass; Michael Lambert buttonholes a group of polite people from Philadelphia. Their eyes widen as he speaks.

At a restaurant reception following the launch, people drink French champagne while musician Johnny Diesel (an Ecofibre investor) plays an acoustic number beside a potted plant. The titans of industry engage me one-by-one, dazzlingly keen to talk, albeit off the record and without telling me their names. One says he invested in Ecofibre after supplying “the product” to half a dozen mates on a surfing trip. Someone else invested “because I take the product myself”.

In the midst of these curious exchanges, I catch sight of Barry Lambert. He is, without a doubt, the most straightforward thing in the room. At 73, he’s neat and grey-haired, dressed in a dark suit and wearing unfashionable glasses. He looks exactly like a mild-mannered accountant – and for most of his career, that’s exactly what he’s been. For 30 years, he built an accountancy and financial advice company called Count Financial, which he sold to the Commonwealth Bank in 2011 for $373 million. Despite this deal making him one of Australia’s wealthiest men, he spent the following few years quietly tending his fortune (including two other listed companies), playing golf, and being a dutiful husband and grandfather. Then, starting in 2014, he watched his granddaughter miraculously improve from a devastating illness, donated almost $34 million to an Australian university, and became an international cannabis mogul.

All of which is truly surprising – not least of all to Barry Lambert himself.

Barry Lambert in a hemp plantation in Tasmania: “Hemp is as safe – and natural – as broccoli or orange juice,” he says.

Barry Lambert in a hemp plantation in Tasmania: “Hemp is as safe – and natural – as broccoli or orange juice,” he says.

Cannabis is a flowering plant of the family Cannabaceae. It was among the earliest plants cultivated by humans: its medicinal history in India dates back 10,000 years, and the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described its recreational qualities in 440BC: on the release of its vapours, “delighted, [people] shout for joy”.

This historic division between medicinal and recreational cannabis still exists today. Though usually described as a single species, over centuries Cannabis sativa has been selectively bred into hundreds of different varieties. Hemp, for instance – the raw product of Ecofibre’s business – is a cannabis variety grown for its fibres, used to make textiles, rope and paper. (The word “canvas” comes from the Greek kannabis.) Modern hemp is also grown for medicinal use: specifically, for the chemical cannabidiol, or CBD, whose claimed health benefits range from addressing seizures to treating irritable bowel syndrome.

Another group of cannabis cultivars, collectively called marijuana, are bred specifically for human consumption. They also contain CBD, but their most important component is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Once heated, THC is the principal psychoactive component of cannabis: when you smoke a joint, THC is what gets you high. (Hemp also contains THC, but only in trace amounts. Ecofibre does not grow marijuana; as for getting high on hemp, as Barry Lambert puts it, “You might as well be smoking lawn clippings.”)

THC also has medicinal qualities, but its fame lies not so much in curing the body as altering the mind. As Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta wrote in 1534, “[It lets people] rest from their work, be without care, and be able to sleep.”

My first meeting with Barry Lambert is at the GPO building in Sydney’s CBD. In a cab en route, I get a text. To my surprise, he’s on the bus. As I walk down Martin Place I get another text.

I am here. Standing.”

I walk faster.

Seated.”

I run into the cafe and recognise him straight away, despite the multitude of middle-class white men drinking coffee as far as the eye can see. “Wow,” I say, “your bus service must be good.”

“I always catch the bus,” he says calmly.

This is true, say friends. “He thinks his gold Opal card is fantastic,” says Matthew Rowe, CEO of CountPlus (a company Lambert founded as a spin-off from Count in 2006, and which, like his third business, a self-managed superannuation fund software product called Class, has been a strong commercial success). “He loves bragging that it costs him $2 to get to the city.”

Growing up on a dairy farm near Taree on NSW’s mid-north coast, Lambert learnt the lessons of economy early. He had a tough childhood – his father lost the farm to the bank during his childhood; his much-loved mother died when he was only 10.

“She died on a hospital train to Newcastle,” explains Barry’s son Michael. “She was coughing up blood, and she said to him, ‘Barry, you’re the smartest one, you’re going to be a great success.’ He’s spent his whole life proving her right.”

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“I’m not sure about that,” says Lambert steadily. But whatever was driving him, he was the only one of five brothers to go to high school, and at 17 he got a job as a Commonwealth Bank teller. At 20 he married Joy, whom he’d met at 16, and they had two girls. They lost their second daughter Nadene when she was still a toddler, after an operation to treat her hydrocephalus. Michael was a baby when she died; Barry and Joy later adopted a third daughter. Despite his air of imperturbability, Nadene’s death has left its mark on Lambert. The thought of children suffering, he says, “makes me want to cry”.

Lambert established Count Financial in 1980. Based on the idea that accountants could become effective financial advisers, it was incredibly successful, as its sale price proved. (In June, after the royal commission into the financial services industry, CommBank offloaded Count for the fire-sale price of $2.5 million. Ironically enough, its purchaser was CountPlus.)

As part of CommBank, Count was involved in the fees-for-no-service scandal, but Lambert himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing. “He’s a statesman-like figure,” says Daniel Toohey, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. “Not in a pretentious way: he doesn’t care about getting his Order of Australia. He sort of sits there and he’s just a likeable bloke, very unassuming. But underneath he’s highly intelligent, with very sharp business instincts. If he believes in something, he goes for it.”

After millennia of untroubled use, cannabis’s reputation changed early in the 20th century. Increasingly classed alongside drugs like opium and cocaine, in the late 1930s Australian tabloid Smith’s Weekly ran a startling campaign labelling it “an evil sex drug that causes its victims to behave like raving sex maniacs”. (Extensive research by Good Weekend failed to find a single instance of cannabis’s sex-maniac-inducing properties. Falling asleep on the job, yes. Priapic frenzy, no.) It was eventually outlawed for human use in Australia in 1938.

Outlawing cannabis created three issues. First, it accelerated marijuana breeding to increase THC – some varieties today contain more than 25 per cent, compared to low single digits historically – because the black market required a product powerful enough to justify high risk and cost. Second, it muddied the waters between hemp and marijuana. Despite the fact that by law in Australia, hemp can contain only 0.5 per cent THC by dry weight, its consumption was outlawed alongside that of marijuana. And third, illegality made scientific research into its use in humans almost impossible. So for almost a century, those who’ve wanted to use cannabis medicinally have had to do so without any high-quality scientific evidence, and outside the law.

None of this has stopped Barry Lambert. In Australia, Ecofibre owns Thompson’s, our largest producer of edible hemp seeds (legalised here in 2017). In America, Ecofibre owns textile, food and medicinal businesses. (Hemp, and all products coming from hemp, were federally legalised in America last year.) Ecofibre’s company Ananda Hemp supplies hemp oils, extracts and capsules to more than 3000 US pharmacies. Launched at $1 a share, Ecofibre has tripled in value, and in July its market capitalisation reached the $1 billion mark, with shares trading as high as $3.60.

But in 2015, recalls Ecofibre CEO Eric Wang, the whole idea of a cannabis company seemed “immensely crazy”. He laughs. “Our first trip to the States, we go to Paris, Kentucky, and see literally one acre of straggly hemp and a few messy plants in a greenhouse. Cannabis was barely legal in the US, and I’m thinking, ‘There is no way this is going to work.’ And that night, Barry committed $4.5 million to the business. He really, really wanted to have a go.”

Until 2014, Barry Lambert had never even seen cannabis, let alone grown or consumed it. “Dad lived in Coffs Harbour and Bellingen and never smoked a joint,” says Michael Lambert. “That’s a miracle.”

Yet now, nursing his GPO coffee, it’s clear that Lambert is not only a cannabis businessman, but a true believer. “We’ve got to fully legalise hemp,” he says baldly. “It’s legal in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany – but not here. It’s bloody ridiculous.” His focus, however, is medicinal, not recreational. “I am not interested in marijuana legalisation,” he says. “I don’t really care what happens there. It’s hemp we need to sort out.”

Katelyn Lambert, at centre, with (from left), sister Laura, father Michael and grandparents Joy and Barry.

Katelyn Lambert, at centre, with (from left), sister Laura, father Michael and grandparents Joy and Barry. Credit:Louie Douvis

My second meeting with Barry includes his wife Joy – a warm, talkative woman who often holds your arm as she speaks – at the Long Reef Golf Club cafe in Sydney’s northern beaches region. It’s a grey day, and the sea behind the Lamberts looks silver. Later, we walk to their house, a modernist oblong of angled light and large windows right on the seafront, with sand blowing over the lawn. It’s clearly an expensive spot, and a big house, but it’s not flashy – the rooms are filled with family photos, and Joy’s ironing board is set up firmly in the office. Joy, a retired textiles teacher, shows me a half-made dress – an explosion of net and satin – she’s making for the youngest Lambert granddaughter, Katelyn.

It’s Katelyn Lambert, now nearly eight, who is the unlikely linchpin to this story. The youngest of Michael’s five children, she was born to him and his wife Nui in November 2011. She was the archetypal fat, happy, healthy baby. But at six months, she had her first terrible seizure, and just after she turned two, she was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome. This rare condition is the result of a spontaneous genetic mutation, and causes frequent “catastrophic” seizures that lead to permanent brain damage. Dravet children are subject to worsening sleep, behaviour and health problems. Up to 20 per cent die before adulthood, and there is no cure.

“It’s just terrible,” says Lambert. “She was having multiple seizures every day. Some were quite small – you’d see her sort of nodding, her eyes twitching – and some were full-blown ones. They tried her on all the medicines; we went to all the experts, and nothing worked. And then Michael read on the internet about Charlotte Figi.”

Figi is a Dravet Syndrome child based in Colorado, where the medical use of cannabis was legalised in 2000. After all conventional treatments failed, she was treated by her parents with high-CBD, low-THC cannabis in 2011. Almost immediately, her seizures dramatically reduced. To the Lamberts, dealing with the daily horror of Katelyn’s Dravet syndrome, Figi’s story sounded too good to be true. And so it proved: in NSW in 2014, cannabis treatments like Figi’s were illegal. For a year, Michael Lambert attempted to obtain it on compassionate grounds. “I rang up NSW Health and asked for an approval,” he tells me later. “I wrote to Border Force, I wrote to the government, I wrote to everyone. And everyone said no.”

Katelyn, now nearly three, grew steadily worse. She was admitted to hospital more than 20 times. One of her doctors, Dr John Lawson, a paediatric neurologist specialising in childhood epilepsy at the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick, recalls her “arriving regularly at emergency in status epilepticus – literally in the middle of a life-threatening seizure – that didn’t stop by itself, and required heavy medical intervention every time. Her outlook was terrible.”

He also acknowledges that no conventional medicines had worked. “These families are understandably desperate,” he says. “And so sometimes they find, or try, things that doctors don’t.” Enter illegal cannabis.

“We’d always been very law-abiding,” says Barry. “But you just think …” He stops.

“We had already lost a child,” says Joy, taking over. “And I just thought, ‘Michael is not going through what we went through.’” She lifts both hands, eyes bright with tears. “I just kept thinking, ‘Joy, you’re allowed to be civilly disobedient for a good cause.’ Sometimes life takes you further than the law.”

And so the Lamberts took the plunge. Joy gave Michael money for an illegal narcotic, whose importation was punishable by fine and imprisonment. And Michael took the money and illegally purchased a CBD hemp-extract paste called Endoca from Denmark.

I just kept thinking, ‘You’re allowed to be civilly disobedient for a good cause.’ Sometimes life takes you further than the law.

Joy Lambert

When I first met Michael Lambert – a stocky bald man with a beard and a checked shirt – at the Ecofibre launch, he spoke without drawing breath for five minutes about cannabis legalisation and, at even greater length and intensity, about his own sperm. When I reach him on the phone at his NSW Central Coast property a few weeks later, he’s much calmer.

The sperm thing, it becomes clear, is about Katelyn. “I blame myself for her having Dravet,” he says, voice rising. “Nobody told me that alcohol mutates your sperm.” Then his tone softens. “Anyway, you’ve heard my rant about that.”

The cause of the Dravet gene mutation, in fact, is almost always unknown, but Michael has no doubt cannabis rescued Katelyn from the condition. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I gave her a little bit the afternoon it arrived, and that night: three or four millimetres from the tube on a corn chip.”

Katelyn usually suffered seizures each night. But that night, she slept soundly. “The next morning, I was sitting on the couch and she got out of bed and walked over to me. No shivering or lurching or losing her balance – she just walked. And I said, ‘Holy f… It works.’”

For the four years since, Katelyn has been largely seizure-free. Michael still gives her cannabis paste (these days a specially concentrated Ecofibre product made by her grandfather) and a small amount of THCA – the unheated form of THC – each day.

John Lawson, for one, had never seen a child improve as significantly as Katelyn Lambert did after beginning the CBD paste. “Never,” he laughs. “At the time, I was a complete sceptic. But I saw her a few months later, and there was clearly a very beneficial effect on the seizures. She still had an occasional bad one; she had more frequent smaller events, but she really stopped being hospitalised, stopped having the life-threatening events. That was the major change – and that’s very significant.”

Could something else have caused the improvement? Her conventional medicine, perhaps? (She has remained on her prescription drugs.) “Well, it’s possible she was going to improve a bit on her own,” says Lawson. “But even taking that into account, I would say no. The cannabis really did have a major impact.”

Dr John Lawson ran a cannabis trial last year.

Dr John Lawson ran a cannabis trial last year.Credit:Marco Del Grande

Internationally, cannabis legality has changed more in the past two years than the past century: we are, literally, on the crest of a cannabis wave. Thirty-three American states have enacted medicinal cannabis legislation; Canada made medicinal and recreational cannabis fully legal last year. Britain also legalised medicinal cannabis last year, following Germany in 2017.

In Australia, details vary from state to state, but essentially, recreational cannabis is federally illegal and medicinal cannabis is legal. The average GP, however, must apply on a patient-by-patient basis to state and federal authorities via the Special Access Scheme run by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and none of the 50-odd products available is eligible for government subsidy. “So people find a doctor who – hallelujah – is prepared to do the paperwork, but the product costs them $1000 a month,” says Professor Iain McGregor, a cannabis researcher at the University of Sydney. “That’s often totally out of reach – even more so if you can go to the pub and get a bag of weed, or grow your own in the backyard.”

Obtaining cannabis products does appear, slowly, to be getting easier: Rhys Cohen, director of Cannabis Consulting Australia, points out that “the TGA has never outright rejected any application”, and approved providers (specialist doctors) can theoretically access products within days. But the number of actual applications remains extremely low. “There have been about 5000 applications made in the past two-and-a-half years,” explains McGregor. “Germany introduced medicinal cannabis at the same time as Australia, and in 2018 alone they had 180,000 prescriptions.”

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To Lambert, Australia’s lag is a basic “denial of human rights” – especially given that Katelyn’s treatment could be bought over the counter in the US. But Australian opponents argue legalisation could create a non-evidence-based market targeting the genuinely ill and vulnerable. In the US, thousands of companies market “wellness” cannabis products – everything from gummy bears to vaping pens – by implying benefits in conditions ranging from anxiety to cancer. The global legal cannabis market was worth in excess of $US24 billion ($35.3 billion) last year, and experts estimate the market will almost triple by 2024. All, historically, with zero high-quality scientific proof that in humans, cannabis actually works.

In 2017, a 16-member expert panel of the American National Academy of Medicine produced a 468-page report, concluding that there was “insufficient evidence” of cannabis’s efficacy in treating Tourette’s, motor neurone disease, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, pain, dementia, glaucoma, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, or nausea during chemotherapy. Only one health impact, in fact, was certain: that “cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses.” The higher the use, the greater the risk.

Hardly encouraging news. And yet, alongside such scientific uncertainty, there’s an immense bank of anecdotal knowledge about cannabis usage, much of it positive. But that, say scientists, is no justification for legalisation. “When it comes to asking doctors to prescribe it, they’re looking for that paper in The Lancet that has that properly controlled, double-blind trial,” concludes McGregor. “And up to now, that’s what cannabis hasn’t had.”

Unsurprisingly, all the cannabis products Katelyn Lambert has ever taken are illegal in Australia. This has taken its toll on the Lambert family. In 2015, Michael Lambert turned up a couple of times at Gosford police station and taunted police with Katelyn’s CBD extract; on one occasion CCTV footage shows him bursting into tears. He also wrote to Pru Goward, then NSW minister responsible for medical research, pleading for help and attaching a tiny sample of cannabis to his letter. She reported him to police, who searched his property, confiscated Katelyn’s medicine, and arrested him. In 2016, he appeared in the Gosford court supported by Barry and Joy; no convictions were recorded and he was released on a good behaviour bond.

Nonetheless, for Barry Lambert, all this was simply unacceptable. “Michael is still scared that Katelyn’s medicine will be confiscated, he’ll be arrested, and she’ll be considered ‘at risk’ and put in a home,” he says now. “That won’t happen, but if you’re a parent it’s a huge fear. Imagine your sick kid being taken away, and you losing your job or going to jail. No wonder kids never get treated.”

And so Barry began his one-man crusade. Ecofibre is one arm of his battle. And indeed earlier this month, Ecofibre announced it would be applying for a licence to import its full-spectrum hemp CBD oil into Australia, and offer it for prescription via the TGA’s Special Access Scheme. How long this process will take, and how much the product will cost are both unknown, but the ultimate goal is to make Katelyn’s medicine available to other Australian children.

The other aspect of Barry’s fight actually predates the business. It began just months after Katelyn started taking cannabis. In November 2014, Michael Lambert attended a cannabis symposium. There he met cannabis researcher Iain McGregor. A few weeks after their meeting, Michael called him.

“He said his mum and dad were high-net-worth individuals, and would we like to meet them to talk about funding?” recalls McGregor. “Even then, as impoverished scientists, we thought we might get $100,000 – which would have been amazing. We had no idea who Barry Lambert was. Then we looked him up, and realised, ‘They’re for real, and this guy’s minted, and we need to take it very seriously.’ ” McGregor laughs at the memory. “And so then of course, we were terrified, because you don’t often get a chance to meet someone who can give you that sort of funding, and you’re very worried about the impression that you’ll make. But straightaway, meeting Barry and Joy, you realise just how normal they are. We went to their posh house in Collaroy, and Joy’s there making a sandwich and offering us a cup of tea.”

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In the end, Barry and Joy Lambert donated $33.7 million to found the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at the University of Sydney. It aims to develop cannabinoid products for mainstream medical use in conditions including paediatric epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain, obesity, neurological conditions and mental health disorders. It’s the first such organisation in Australia, and one of only a handful worldwide. But Barry Lambert’s relationship to it is not without tension. “When we first met Barry, he couldn’t even spell cannabis,” says McGregor. “It was just this strange, illegal thing transforming the health of his granddaughter. And he has a strong sense of morality around that, connected to her. He wants other kids like her to have the same benefits.” He laughs, slightly ruefully. “And that means that for him, the slow pace of scientific research is quite frustrating.”

Barry Lambert doesn’t dispute this, especially when he compares his own granddaughter’s treatment – with a simple whole-plant extract from a hemp flowerhead – with the conventional pathway of bringing a drug to market. He argues that lengthy patent applications, clinical trials and regulatory clearances are unnecessary. “Hemp’s as natural – and safe – as broccoli or orange juice,” he says. The conventional process, he adds, also focuses on testing single molecules, one at a time, which ignores the value of the “entourage effect”, the combined value of all of cannabis’s 500-odd bioactive molecules. In Barry’s view: “Whatever your body doesn’t need, it just washes away.”

Doctors and researchers disagree. “There’s always a problem in calling things ‘natural’,” says John Lawson. “It’s not natural to give a concentrated chemical to a child. And nor are all natural products safe. You can kill yourself with water and oxygen if you treat them incorrectly. So to say that CBD – or any product – is natural and therefore safe – it’s a nonsense, really. One great result is one great result. But that is not then generalisable to the average child with epilepsy. It’s a risk-benefit analysis. In Katelyn’s case, her outlook was terrible, so it was worth the risk. But in a broader sense, we have to do the science, because we have to know.” Barry Lambert, to give him his due, is willing to accept this view: he wouldn’t be funding the Lambert Initiative if he didn’t. Indeed, he’s actually increased his university philanthropy: he’s donated $US5 million to the Lambert Centre at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia – America’s largest medical university.

But nor is he prepared to simply sit back and accept medicine’s sceptical, incremental advance. Which is why, as well as his identities as businessman and philanthropist, he’s taken up one more role: as a septuagenarian political agitator.

Lambert and granddaughter Katelyn with former PM Tony Abbott.

Lambert and granddaughter Katelyn with former PM Tony Abbott.

As a legislative vigilante, Lambert is, as usual, taking his own path. During a 2017 meeting with a senior bureaucrat (who has since left the office) at the NSW Health Minister’s department, he claims he was told there were two problems legalising hemp in Australia. First, the protection of the poppy industry in Tasmania; and second, the influence of Big Pharma within the political system.

The reasoning runs like this: cannabis is thought by many to be a potential replacement for opiates in pain-relief medications. The raw material for opiates is the opium poppy. And Australia – Tasmania, in fact – produces approximately half the world’s legal opium poppy supply. Could Big Pharma be exerting pressure on the government via Tasmania’s poppy farmers?

At a meeting in 2018, brokered by former prime minister Tony Abbott (a Lambert supporter) at Parliament House, Lambert met the head of the TGA, Dr John Skerritt, to discuss temporarily easing the restrictions around growing and using medicinal cannabis (hemp). According to Lambert, Skerritt told him: “‘I am not going to destroy the poppy industry in Tasmania for medicinal cannabis.’ He said it three times. Why?”

According to the TGA, Skerritt’s comments were made “in relation to Australia’s obligations … to cultivate and manufacture medicinal cannabis in accordance with [internationally agreed principles]. [Non-compliance] could have a detrimental effect on Australia’s reputation as a reliable producer of narcotics drugs, including medicinal cannabis.”

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Given the easing of restrictions in so many countries, Lambert isn’t so sure about this. And elsewhere in the corridors of power, he claims that before the last election, Catherine King, then federal shadow minister for health, told Iain McGregor that Labor was reluctant to legalise hemp for fear media mogul Rupert Murdoch would label them “soft on marijuana”. “We had meetings with Catherine King,” confirms McGregor, “and I think [Labor’s] a little bit sensitive about being pilloried by certain newspapers if they’re seen to be ‘soft on cannabis’. I think they’re worried about being portrayed as Greenie pot-smokers.” Catherine King’s office did not respond to a request for comment by Good Weekend.

It’s clear that the possibility of this kind of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring totally infuriates Lambert. “This is what we’re up against!” he exclaims. Perhaps that’s why he’s upped the ante: recently he brought back some Ecofibre CBD capsules from overseas and declared them at Australian Customs. “Under the law, that’s a criminal offence,” points out Michael Lambert. “The federal police were called to the airport, but they never charged him. I was charged for 2.5 grams, he has 500 cannabis tablets in his bag; he gets let off.”

Michael’s theory about this? “He wants to be arrested! He could bring back a bag of buds and they wouldn’t arrest him! They knew he’d take it all the way to the High Court, and win!”

Lambert, however, takes a different – and characteristically prosaic – view. “It was 15 capsules, not 500,” he says calmly. “Maybe 13. But it was close to the IPO, and I just thought, ‘It’d be embarrassing if the Ecofibre chairman got arrested for cannabis smuggling,’ so I declared them. The police did come, and they said, ‘We’ll have to take these,’ and they might have said ‘We’ll be in touch,’ – I don’t really remember. Anyhow, I went home, and nobody ever called.”

For the first time in history, scientific evidence is starting to prove the medicinal value of cannabis.

Despite Barry Lambert’s scepticism – and whatever business and political agendas may be in play – it may well be the long slog of conventional research that finally wins his battle for him. In the past two years, for the first time in history, scientific evidence is starting to prove the medicinal value of cannabis.

Last year, John Lawson ran the NSW arm of a landmark international trial, sponsored by British company GW Pharmaceuticals, testing the cannabis molecule CBD as a treatment for Dravet syndrome. “It was a very standard, high-quality clinical trial,” explains Lawson. And along with four other epilepsy trials within the past two years, it definitively showed “that in these difficult epilepsies [such as Dravet], CBD is an anti-epilepsy drug. It’s generally well tolerated, and – importantly – it has a very low rate of serious side effects.”

The importance of this trial for the future of medicinal cannabis can’t be overstated, says Lawson. And nor can Barry Lambert and his family’s contribution. “It’s the first real evidence to scientifically back up the experience of the Lamberts, and families like them,” he says. “The Lamberts are trailblazers in that way. Faced with a desperate situation, they took the risk. It’s very unusual to find laypeople in Australia driving medical research. But that is what’s happened here, and the truth is, without people like the Lamberts, we wouldn’t be here now.”

I meet Katelyn Lambert at the Ecofibre launch. She’s the small child with the brown eyes and lovely open face, running, jumping, smiling for photos. Watching her, I remark that her family reputation as “the happiest Lambert” seems entirely deserved.

Barry Lambert and Katelyn, who is known as "the happiest Lambert".

Barry Lambert and Katelyn, who is known as "the happiest Lambert".Credit:Louie Douvis

“She’s beautiful,” says Barry Lambert. “She’s counting to 10; using bigger words. She’s in a special class at school, but she actually goes across to the regular kindergarten class three days a week.”

Because the Dravet gene mutation is permanent, she’ll have to keep taking medication for life. “She’ll always be the slowest kid in the class, but Michael thinks she might be able to go to a normal high school, if she makes huge progress,” Lambert says.

How does that compare with the typical prediction for Dravet children?

“Well, they’re usually dead by then,” he says evenly.

Later at the launch, during the speeches, I see Barry Lambert across the room. He’s absorbed in his phone. Katelyn is hanging off his arm, being ignored. Bad granddad, I think, craning forward to see his screen. It’s playing Peppa Pig. He hands it down to Katelyn, who grasps it, fingers tight. Lambert returns his attention to the speaker.

As a rule, it’s almost impossible to tell what Barry Lambert is thinking by looking at his face. But I’d be willing to bet, at this moment, that it’s some version of what every grown-up who loves a kid thinks in such a situation. ‘Problem solved.’

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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