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Time To Harness Economic Potential Of Medicinal Cannabis

By Paul Manning

With the immediate health crisis largely behind us, New Zealanders are now being encouraged to unite for the recovery.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, we’ve heard a lot about resetting the economy and the need to focus on sunrise, not sunset, industries. At the same time, during the Alert Level Four lockdown in April, the Ministry of Health pushed play on New Zealand’s Medicinal Cannabis Scheme.

The regulations are now in effect, enabling local commercial cultivation of cannabis and the manufacturing of THC and CBD products. New Zealand GPs can now apply their professional discretion to prescribe medicinal cannabis.

Despite years of advocacy, and Parliament passing the legislation with wide celebration in 2018, the Scheme’s arrival was met with little fanfare. This was not surprising given the country’s attention was squarely elsewhere, and at any rate getting locally manufactured products into the hands of Kiwi patients is still months away.

However, with debate over New Zealand’s economic future gathering momentum, the success of our newest industry is more important than ever, and of course we’re not alone.

Estimated to reach $55 billion by 2025, medicinal cannabis is one of the fastest growing industries in the world.

Here in New Zealand, MBIE forecasts a strong market opportunity in the next 10 years. The pharmaceutical cannabis segment is expected to reach $320 million - $50m from within New Zealand and $250m in export sales. While the broader cannabis health product segment could represent a $1 billion market opportunity per annum.

Medicinal cannabis reforms took effect in Australia back in 2016, with its success relatively slow, hindered by higher hurdles for patient access. However, in recent months, their government has awoken to the potential of medicinal cannabis to lift GDP and aid in Australia’s economic recovery.

This month the Federal Government pushed through legislation that would cut red tape and make it easier to export medicinal cannabis and hemp products, with the aim to grow those important new industries.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told Parliament: “For the Australian economy, it means more jobs, more exports, and higher incomes… For Australians, it means stronger regional communities and a more prosperous and productive Australia."

Here in New Zealand, our Government’s commentary on the medicinal cannabis sector has largely been assigned to the Heath Minister and Ministry. That needs to change.

Our country, with its team of five million, has the potential to become a global centre of excellence for medicinal cannabis innovation, but we now need to harness that opportunity with broader oversight required.

The primary motivation to ensure medicinal cannabis is more accessible and affordable for thousands of suffering Kiwi patients remains. However, with growth going backwards and unemployment forecast to increase by 120,000 people, medicinal cannabis needs to also be viewed through an economic lens.

Our newest industry already possesses all the hallmarks needed to contribute to our export-led country’s post Covid-19 recovery.

It involves jobs for horticulturists to PhDs, and everyone in between. It will create jobs in the regions, utilise our famously innovative agribusiness sector, and deliver value-added exports. If we’re looking at exciting sunrise industries for New Zealand, this is certainly one.

With legalised medicinal markets including 30 countries in Europe, and burgeoning opportunities in Asia, the export opportunities for high-quality certified New Zealand Grown cannabis are enormous.

Our Scheme allows exporting from the get-go. What’s more, the country’s quality standards for medicinal cannabis are the highest in the world, helping ensure global confidence in our products from the outset - already enhanced by New Zealand’s clean, green image.

BioTechNZ firmly agrees. It believes New Zealand is strongly placed to leverage its favourable growing conditions, unique genetic varieties, highly regarded research expertise and scientific collaboration, strong clinical trials sector, and respected regulatory regime to create what it calls the ‘Sauvignon Blanc of cannabis’.

Subsequently, BiotechNZ is leading New Zealand’s first medicinal cannabis summit in November at the Aotea Centre. With over 500 delegates set to attend, MedCan 2020 will connect medicine, science, industry, and technology. Helping us all to unlock and maximise an array of opportunities, the two-day event will perfectly cap off what has been a watershed year for medicinal cannabis.

It’s well established that cannabis-based medicines have the extraordinary potential to improve an individual’s quality of life, as well as a nation's overall public health.

Exports too will deliver individually and nationally. Establishing overseas markets will enable a few Kiwi producers to achieve real scale, supported by a network of regional growers. That in turn keeps prices down for local patients, increases employment opportunities, enriches communities, and ultimately boosts New Zealand’s overall wealth.

With the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme now in place, our Government’s next task is to lead the successful enablement of our new industry, and we’ll do the rest.

If indeed we do it well, there’s every reason medicinal cannabis will prove extremely lucrative for our country this century.

Paul Manning is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics - the country’s largest medicinal cannabis company.

-- ENDS --

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