AUSTRALIA is about to see an explosion of capital investment in a product that, up until recently, has been the domain of the criminal underworld.
Article by News com au Story by Dana McCauley
After years of lobbying by doctors, cancer patients and parents of sick children, medical cannabis has finally been legalised.
And with the ink still drying on the Federal Government’s laws, key players are ready to pounce on what is tipped to become a billion-dollar industry (once state laws catch up, and a national regulator is established).
But for Australians already buying cannabis under murky legal conditions, the impact of the new legal industry remains uncertain.
Canadian company Tilray is about to embark on the world’s biggest clinical trial of marijuana’s impact on chemotherapy patients in partnership with the NSW Government and the University of Sydney.
If all goes well, the company is looking to import cannabis products from its state-of-the-art facility on Vancouver Island, where it grows and extracts the product that has spawned a $250 billion global industry, and establish a plantation on Australian soil.
“In Australia, we think that medical cannabis has potential to be a billion-dollar industry, and can create thousands of skilled jobs and generate tens of millions of dollars in foreign investment,” the company’s global president Brendan Kennedy told news.com.au.
“We hope to invest significant capital in Australia in coming years … We intend to break ground on an Australian facility in the next 12 months.”
Tilray’s hi-tech Canadian greenhouse has 100,000 plants and 50 different strains of cannabis, which its team of botanists and biochemists cultivate for their different medicinal properties.
But for Bendigo mum Cheri O’Connell, the medicine she needs for 10-year-old Tara is closer to home — and a hell of a lot cheaper.
Tara, who has a life-threatening form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, used to have up to 200 seizures a day and was expected to die before her ninth birthday.
“Now she’s walking, talking, running, reading — all those things that we just never thought possible,” Ms O’Connell said.
Her recovery began in 2013 when she started taking a tincture made from THCA, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid extracted through a process developed by Nimbin identity Tony Bower through years of trial and error.
Ms O’Connell does not pay for the product, but believes when it is available in the retail market it would sell for between $30 and $100, depending on the bottle size and strength. She has looked at the prices of medical cannabis products available in the United States and found they cost up to $2000 a month.
She fears regulation will push up the price of the product that has allowed her family a normal life — or worse.
Mr Bower, who has been distributing his products to the ill and infirm for more than a decade through his business Mullaways Medical Cannabis, argues he can make the pain-relieving tinctures more cheaply than big pharma.
“We have something in Australia that we know works,” he told news.com.au.
While Mr Bower’s products have not been chosen for a clinical trial, his customers swear by it — and, without an affordable option, “will just keep getting it illegally”, he said.
Aside from the cost, parents live with the ever-present fear of an education department crackdown.
Tara has to take her medicine several times during the school day, and this has already seen her excluded from a special needs school.
“We have the knowledge that, at any time, if the education department or anyone up the chain says ‘sorry we can’t do it at school anymore’, then she’ll be home schooled,” Ms O’Connell said.
Mr Bower, who has raised $10 million from private investors to set up five shade houses with 600 plants, said he was considering a move to Victoria, where he believes the approval process may be quicker.
Cardiologist Dr Ross Walker, who recently became a director of mining-turned-cannabis company MGC Pharmaceuticals, said getting cannabis products onto the PBS could take years.
Dr Walker, who describes cannabinoids as “the next big thing in medicine”, said he hoped the process could be expedited in order to get the medicine to those who need it.
“I’ve seen three patients in the last two days who I think would be highly suitable for medical cannabis,” he said.
“One girl with very serious breast cancer, and another person with severe pain where they’re just not getting any relief from the current therapy available. And another person with pain. I just think it’s dreadful that we can’t offer these things to people.”
MGC, an Israeli company that relisted on the Australian Stock Exchange last week after being bought out by Erin Resources, operates a cannabis growing and extraction facility in Slovenia where it makes skin care products and cosmetics containing a non-psychoactive extract called Cannabidoil (CBD).
The company plans to grow cannabis locally once the regulatory system has been set up.
Both MGC and Tilray will offer cannabis products on a compassionate use basis, through the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s special access scheme. This will allow a small number of seriously ill patients to access the drugs at a lower cost.
The Federal Health Department says in a statement on its website: “The Government wants to ensure that Australians get access to the most effective medical treatments that are available, but it is important to ensure we follow the principles of evidence-based medicine.
“The Government has a duty to ensure that any therapeutic product, including medicinal cannabis, is a safe and effective treatment for public use, and also meets the manufacturing standards that the Australian public expect.”
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