By Cameron Brooks and Pat Gillett.
After being catapulted from the shadows of illegality last year, medicinal cannabis will find an already-bustling marketplace, with thousands of patients desperate for the help it can offer.
The Sunshine Coast is the home to the Australia’s first cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution company. Medifarm will soon deliver product to patients who have been referred by doctors or pharmacists.
Thousands of people in Australia already use cannabis for medical purposes, albeit illegally. These are those with donditions as diverse as HIV/AIDS, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Medifarm founding director Adam Benjamin is overtly excited to be on the cutting-edge of medicine after being granted Australia’s first medicinal cannabis commercial cultivation and production licence from a field of 7000 initial applications.
“It’s very exciting to be in a business where … your business model intends for Australian patients to receive world-leading medicinal cannabis treatment to get better,” Benjamin says. “We’re very happy that we’ve entered into a … medical industry and that’s what we will deliver.”
The process of growing the plants and producing the medications from them is shrouded in secrecy. The veil is over everything from the location of the farm to measures to ensure only patients will receive the medicine. Benjamin says this level of security is essential.
“The Government did focus around security, ensuring that everything that’s grown – that’s intended to manufacture the medicine – makes its way through pharmacies and through prescribing with doctors to the right patients,” he says.
Australia has watched countries like Israel, Portugal, US, Netherlands, and Uruguay lead global research and application of medicinal cannabis for year, but Australians have had to continue to suffer or resort to illegal means to acquire the products. Benjamin says the advantage in the delay is that Australia has been able to assess world’s best practice and observe what works well to apply the best legal and product quality solutions.
According to Benjamin, the Sunshine Coast is the perfect location for medicinal cannabis.
“Where else in Australia do you find such good climate and agricultural land, right next to one of the largest health precincts and certainly the newest health precinct in Australia? We will make the Sunshine Coast known as being the leading hub of expertise in medicinal cannabis in Australia,” he says.
Supporters of medicinal cannabis say the health-giving properties are almost limitless, with nausea, tremors and pain among symptoms that are relieved. But Benjamin says its application will initially be targeted.
“This is not to suggest it’s a cure-all, but this is just another very good tool for doctors to treat patients… most of [whom] can’t find solutions elsewhere,” he says.
“We are in the first year [and] only focused on Queensland patients. We estimate there will be a hundred thousand patients in Queensland alone that could potentially use medicinal cannabis oil or some product through their doctor. We’ve only selected to service 5000 in the first year,” he says.
Medifarm has an exclusive partnership with an Israeli-company, Tikun Olam, who are global pioneers in the field.
“Between now and the first quarter next year we’ll be looking to bringing some products from overseas from our partner company,” he says. “You’ve got plants from overseas firstly, and then you cultivate them, and then after that you can do everything locally. We’ll be ready to have manufactured products ready for next year.”
Consistency of quality is vital. Medifarm will import a plant strain that can reliably be used to make medicine that is the same from batch to batch.
“These genetic strains have been developed over 10, 20 years and are very stable which means you can produce every single plant to be consistent, so the medicine is a consistent product. We’ve got the best strain that’s currently offered in the world. That’s not just our opinion, that’s backed by the clinical research that’s been done for decades by using these strains.”
In some ways medicinal cannabis – taken in oil form – is similar to its recreational cousin, but there are distinctions. There are hundreds of strains of cannabis, and the types approved for medicinal use have very low amounts of THC, the substance that gets users high.
“About 90 per cent, 95 per cent of our products we produce have no high,” Benjamin says. “There are a handful of conditions that do require that high THC component. We’re not talking about sitting on the couch and eating chips … we’re talking about just enough for a medical level. There’s PTSD patients, people in pain, a chronic pain, and many more who are currently addicted to opiate medicine.”
“This is not recreational marijuana just with the medical hat on it, it’s a very separate and independent and highly researched strain of plant with medical properties.”
Regardless, cannabis use in any form is controversial, partly due to its status of being illegal since 1938 in Australia. Earlier this year, the State Member for Buderim Steve Dickson left the Liberal National Party for One Nation over the issue.
Dickson says he is glad to have helped make medicinal cannabis available to Queenslanders, but wishes it they could have had access a decade ago.
Benjamin is thrilled with the support of politicians and the public.
“When it came time to vote as to whether this would be passed in Queensland, it was unanimous,” he says. “That political support we sense was really because the public, the strength of the public, wanting this to happen, it is so strong. I think it’s very progressive … Queensland has the most progressive legislation.”
“Any doctor, GP or specialist, if they think the medicinal cannabis has benefits for patients … if the evidence is there, it’s not limited to what condition you’ve got, if it works they’ll consider you may be able to access it, and that’s very progressive.”
The medicinal cannabis industry is here to stay now that the scientific evidence and laws are on their side. With operations like Medifarm servicing the region and state at large, patients will benefit tremendously. The long push for legislation has finally resulted in a strong industry that can help.