Key players in New Zealand’s burgeoning medicinal cannabis industry are divided over whether the plant should be legalised.
While none have plans to enter the recreational market, one company says New Zealand’s medical profession isn’t ready for legalisation.
Others say Kiwis are already using illicit cannabis, and the country needs a regulated market because prohibition has caused more societal harm than good.
In October, New Zealanders will vote on the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which has been written to give Kiwis an idea of how the law for recreational cannabis might look.
Greg Mission, Managing director of the fast-growing Bay of Plenty medicinal cannabis company Eqalis, said its stance on legalisation was clear – “not yet”.
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Mission said time was needed for the medical profession to catch up and properly engage in the field “before the floodgates open”.
“We simply need more time to explore the potentially enormous improvements this complex plant and all its compounds can have on the health and well-being of our community,” he said.
“We’ve been so long without the choice, why is it such a hassle to hold off and allow the medical profession to catch up?”
Research by the New Zealand Medical Journal indicated that 79 per cent of General Practitioners in New Zealand had concerns about prescribing medicinal cannabis.
Eqalis “strongly” supported decriminalisation, and across-the-counter sales of medicinal-grade cannabidiol (CBD).
Mission had seen in trials patients using pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products to treat serious health conditions with vast improvements.
But he warned that it could be different for patients opting to self-medicate.
Each person had a different metabolic rate for various cannabis components, such as CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
There was also a “sizeable group of people” who had a genetic predisposition for psychosis from THC.
“There are strains out there that can produce over 30 per cent THC, so if you extract that in your home kitchen using online advice, the extract you get off that is hugely potent. A drop of that could blow you away.”
Mark Lucas, co-founder of Hamilton-based biopharmaceutical company Cannasouth, said the company hadn’t taken a stance on legalisation because it was a “public issue”.
Lucas said the reality was that cannabis was already widely used by many New Zealanders.
“Some people get confused and think [legalisation] is about creating a new marketplace, but it’s not. It’s about harm-reduction and creating the least amount of commercial space possible.”
He said it was “not true that cannabis doesn’t exist and the referendum will turn it on” – but rather it already existed and the new legal framework would regulate it and those controlling that industry.
“Which do we want controlling it – the illicit market or the legislation and government?”
Manu Caddie, of the Gisborne-based medicinal cannabis company, Rua Bioscience, said about 3,000 people were still convicted for cannabis-related offences each year in New Zealand, many of them for cultivation.
The company supported the ‘Yes’ vote because cannabis prohibition had caused significant harm to society.
The bias against Māori in police discretion on these matters was well-documented, Caddie said.
Within a year after legalisation in Canada, cannabis-use by youth dropped significantly. In Colorado, which legalised in 2012, cannabis-related arrests of indigenous youth also reduced.
“These are positive results and one of the strongest arguments for legalisation with strict regulation is that it reduces youth use and access as we have seen happen overseas.”
Caddie said medicinal cannabis products might be slightly more accessible to patients, but the biggest barrier was still the high cost.
“This is the reason many patients support legalisation.”
Paul Manning, chief executive of the country’s largest Auckland-based medicinal cannabis company Helius Therapeutics, said it also supported legalisation.
This was due to the high numbers of people already using cannabis and “obviously doing so entirely through the illicit market”.
“[The illicit market] where there’s no quality standards, no IDs asked, varying degrees of quality and potency – none of those controls exist under the current [prohibition] regime, and there are harms caused by that, without a doubt.”
Prohibition had “failed to reduce harm”, he said.
Controlling cannabis instead, and applying quality standards to the products to sell them through responsible retail vendors, could create jobs and tax revenue.
If legalised, a whole new “cannabis wellness industry”, not produced under the medicinal cannabis scheme, but a recreational one, would likely emerge.
Products from this industry could be beneficial for minor health complaints, which he estimated could be worth around $700 million.
“This might include CBD supplements, lozenges, CBD cosmetics etc. – products you wouldn’t go to a doctor for, as they’re more akin to vitamins and health supplements.”
But Manning cautioned that anyone suffering from a serious medical condition should seek help from a health professional first.
“The thing we don’t want is to create a marketplace where you have lots of patients with serious conditions self-prescribing.”