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Medicinal Cannabis Scheme takes effect, despite Covid-19

Medicinal Cannabis Scheme takes effect, despite Covid-19

By Paul Manning

Paul Manning

Given the extraordinary circumstances that Covid-19 presents, it admirable the Ministry of Health has forged ahead with the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, which came into effect as planned on 1 April.

Since the final regulations were announced late last year, the Ministry has been working closely with the country’s newest industry. Officials have been keen to ensure research and development licence-holders are well equipped to take the next steps. These include applying for the likes of commercial cultivation and manufacturing licences, so Kiwi companies like Helius can shift into production.

Despite the impacts of Covid-19, the Medicinal Cannabis Agency has delivered the Scheme’s guidance and licensing material. Applications are now underway and expected to attract plenty of interest from businesses big and small.

The new agency expects it will take a minimum of three months, possibly longer, for them to assess, inspect, and grant applications.

Covid-19 has disrupted the country’s first medicinal cannabis conference, MedCan Summit 2020, although we’re optimistic it will take place later this year. The two-day SkyCity event was almost a complete sell-out, but it had to be postponed last month. As foundation sponsor, we’ve since committed further funding to ensure BiotechNZ can still host the summit, with a new date soon to be announced.

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After years of anticipation, the Scheme’s 1 April commencement kicked off rather quietly. Nonetheless, it marks a significant new dawn for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. A staggering number of suffering Kiwis, including 740,000 living with chronic pain, will potentially benefit from greater access to more affordable medicinal cannabis products.

As well as legalising local cultivation and manufacturing to increase supply and continuity of products, the Scheme will enable significant economic and exporting opportunities, with new GDP-adding industries like ours more important than ever before.

The scheme also imposes GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards which will ensure quality and consistency of cannabinoid-based medicines, giving more medical practitioners the confidence to prescribe and only further enhancing patient access.

Just on that, the Ministry of Health deserves to be commended for its work on finetuning its draft regulations last year. One key aspect Helius strongly advocated for was giving all GPs the professional discretion to prescribe medicinal cannabis, without specialist sign-off. In the end the Ministry agreed, and that’s great news for patients.

Currently, only CBD products and Sativex may be prescribed to patients without approval from the Minister of Health. The range of medicinal cannabis products available for patients will increase over time, including options with THC, as local medicinal cannabis producers, like Helius, enter the market. New products must be assessed by the agency and meet quality standards.

With building disruptions across the industry, new locally-made cannabis products are unlikely to appear in 2020. For Helius, it's a marathon not a sprint, with our strategy focused on developing novel medicinal cannabis preparations and taking products through clinical trials.

In the meantime, foreign medicinal cannabis products will increasingly be imported, with overseas brands already claiming first-mover advantage in New Zealand. In fact, there are several products now available here – none of them local.

International players will continue to benefit in the short-term over local manufacturers. While we can expect more to apply to sell their products here, few are capable of meeting New Zealand’s quality standards. Another reality is that in recent months the world’s largest cannabis firms have had to endure a significant market correction, forcing many to retrench.

The delays associated with Covid-19 will undoubtedly dampen FY20/21 financial results from the nascent industry, but as New Zealand’s largest medicinal cannabis company we’re uniquely positioned to weather the storm. Late last year, we raised a further $20 million in capital taking our market capitalisation to $105 million. All our investors are Kiwis and share our vision of unlocking the extraordinary potential of cannabis to improve quality of life.

Despite any challenges or frustrations for New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis industry, we’re not losing sight of our fundamental belief that every New Zealander deserves the right to a pain-free existence.

It is the needless suffering of thousands of Kiwis that saw the public and our Parliament support greater access to medicinal cannabis in 2018. Those same patients, and their families, continue to motivate us to deliver world-class New Zealand-made cannabis medicines, as soon as we possibly can.

Paul Manning is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics.

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