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Biotech Sector Enabling The Full Potential Of Medicinal Cannabis

By Dr Zahra Champion

The arrival of a local medicinal cannabis industry is good news for New Zealand, and our country’s biotech sector will play a critical innovation role in its success. Cannabis-based medicines have the extraordinary potential to improve people’s quality of life, as well as create economic opportunity and fuel growth.

BioTechNZ is now taking a major lead to make the most of this massive worldwide movement to ensure New Zealand companies and organisations understand the extraordinary potential of both the plant and this fast-growing sector.

BioTechNZ is busy organising the country’s first educational medicinal cannabis forum. MedCan Summit 2020 will take place on 18-19 March in Auckland – just before New Zealand’s new medicinal cannabis regulations come into effect on 1 April.

According to researchers, the worldwide global medicinal cannabis market will only continue to flourish. In fact, by 2025 medicinal cannabis is forecast to be a US$55 billion global industry. For New Zealand, it could deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in extra export earnings.

Our focus on cannabis is solely medicinal - we’re only interested in the therapeutic properties of medicinal cannabis treatments for a range of health conditions.

I believe going niche is where New Zealand can succeed in medicinal cannabis globally - like we already do so well with manuka honey and our wine industry. Our medicinal cannabis companies need to establish their point of difference.

We cannot compete on the world stage as commodity sellers, churning out raw product at scale. We can, however, develop and deliver high-quality products backed by science, technology and clinical trials.

There’s some really exciting work to be done examining the different plant variations, as well as understanding the effects of THC and CBD and other compounds on different clinical conditions.

The New Zealand tech sector is poised to add considerable value to the emerging medicinal cannabis industry, enabling it to deliver better products more efficiently, quickly, and cost effectively.

The strength of New Zealand’s medical science, research and development, and biotech ecosystems provides the perfect base from which to grow this new sector. Successful medicinal cannabis production will need to leverage medical and technical knowhow including biotechnology and the latest digital production processes. Further, we believe there is an opening for ‘New Zealand Inc’ to become a medicinal cannabis research centre of excellence.

The key to this emerging industry’s success will be understanding New Zealand’s natural, unique plant genetic varieties, leveraging its highly regarded research expertise and scientific collaboration, as well as our country’s positive brand.

I appreciate that medicinal cannabis is not a panacea or a cure for disease. However, patients everyday report symptomatic benefit for the likes of anxiety, multiple sclerosis, nausea, vomiting and appetite stimulation, epilepsy, and chronic pain.

It is estimated that one in six New Zealand adults suffers from chronic pain, and unrelieved chronic pain may produce functional impairment, social isolation and emotional distress. The good news is medicinal cannabis can be incorporated as an adjunct for chronic pain therapy, positively impacting on patients’ health and quality of life.

The final Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, released last December, sets quality standards for medicinal cannabis products to be quality tested, label accurately, and backed by science to enable medical practitioners to prescribe product with confidence.

The overall intent of the scheme was always to increase supply and patient access to products. It’s great then that the Ministry of Health has listened, ensuring GPs alone can make the call, removing a key barrier to patient access.

However, considerable barriers to entry remain for industry, namely cost. Those contemplating producing medicinal cannabis face licence fees and significant production set-up costs, not to mention relentless operational ones. It’s a very capital heavy business. While the Government’s requirement for GMP standards is welcomed, it means considerable cost to construct or lease a GMP-compliant facility.

New Zealand’s task now is how to best manage the horticultural, manufacturing, and global market aspects of the industry. If done correctly, trade could prove to be extremely lucrative with more than 60 countries legalising medicinal cannabis.

As well as maximising the economic and exporting opportunities, the likes of MedCan Summit 2020 will help ensure there is a solid foundation for greater scientific understanding of cannabis. In turn this will advance public policy and the nation's overall public health.

New Zealand’s many and varied medicinal cannabis stakeholders are gearing up. They know the future of medicinal cannabis presents a huge opportunity. This is one exciting industry!

Dr Zahra Champion, Spokesperson for MedCan Summit 2020.

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