High hopes for medicinal cannabis market

The legalisation of medicinal cannabis is shaping up to become a financial bonanza for many New Zealanders, with lawyers also in line for a slice of the action.

Medicinal1

Sue Grey & Daniel McGuire

Medicinal2

Tania Goatley & Taylor Wood

Their services are increasingly being sought by individuals and organisations intent on becoming players in what is tipped to become a $300 million medicinal cannabis market.

And if recreational use of cannabis is legalised as a result of a promised binding referendum at the 2020 general election, the market could expand to nearly $1 billion.

The catalyst for change is the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018 which legalises the use of cannabis by people with a terminal illness. The legislation gives them a statutory defence to possess and use illicit cannabis.

“Illicit cannabis” means any cannabis product not prescribed by a doctor, and can take the form of dried leaves, oils and balms.

Auckland lawyer Daniel Maguire of Turner Hopkins says the new law is a “compassionate measure” until the government establishes the Medical Cannabis Scheme which will form part of the regulations governing the industry.

“The regulatory framework is to be formulated in the next year and will address issues such as licensing, cultivation, manufacture, production, quality, sale and use of medicinal cannabis,” Maguire says.

“The objective of the scheme is to increase patient access to quality medicinal cannabis products on prescription.”

Public consultation on the proposed regulations and standards for medicinal cannabis is already underway, and is due to wrap up on 7 August.

A consultation document, produced by the Ministry of Health, covers aspects such as aftermarket controls, and product importing and exporting.

Maguire told LawNews he believes educating the public and professionals is “the most important aspect of ensuring a successful medicinal cannabis industry is established and managed.

“And the more education and dissemination of information, the better the public will be able to make an informed decision about legalising recreational cannabis, and whether now is the right time for New Zealand.”

The regulations are due to be finalised by the end of this year with the Medical Cannabis Scheme becoming operational in the first quarter of 2020.

It will pave the way for New Zealand companies to manufacture quality medicinal cannabis products for local and international markets.

About half a dozen companies are vying to become players in the potentially lucrative market, and others are waiting in the wings.

On hand to help them, and other interested parties, through the public consultation process are law firms such as Bell Gully.

In their pitch to the medicinal cannabis sector, partner Tania Goatley and senior solicitor Taylor Wood say the firm already advises private sector clients on how medicines and pharmaceutical regulation applies to them.

This includes licensing, clinical trials, medicine and medical device approvals required by Medsafe, and medicine advertising requirements.

Asked who was seeking their assistance about medicinal cannabis, they said: “We don’t discuss our clients but we have had inquiries in this space.

“Certainly, overseas this is an area which has attracted significant business interest and we are already seeing Canadian companies expanding overseas.”

Nelson lawyer Sue Grey, who has been at the forefront of the medicinal cannabis debate, says she sees the issue as a human rights matter rather than a criminal law issue “especially when you hear some of the stories”.

She describes the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018 as a missed opportunity, preferring the more community-focused Medicinal Cannabis Bill prepared by Green MP Julie Anne Genter and taken over by Chloe Swarbrick.

“Unfortunately, National block-voted against it. The 2018 reform is a step forward but is corporate-focused and raises as many issues as it solves,” Grey says.

“In my view, the barrier for access will be too high if the government tries to force cannabis into a pharmaceutical model.

“It will exclude many of New Zealand’s current growers who have the most experience and have developed the best quality seeds for medicinal use.

“It also risks excluding New Zealand’s most experienced cannabis healers – our “green fairies” who have been helping thousands of sick New Zealanders.

“The new regime will resolve little if a parallel black or green market continues, as has occurred in some US states.”

Grey says New Zealand has “an odd situation” where cannabis and hemp plant extracts, including CBD [cannabidiol], are assumed to be harmful until proven to be safe, even though cannabis and other herbs have been used medicinally for 4000 years or so.

“Meanwhile new technologies such as RFEMR [radio-frequency electromagnetic field] emissions, and chemicals including pesticides and even 1080 poison baits are assumed to be safe until proven to be harmful.

“The challenge is to make laws that are fit for purpose and which promote community wellbeing. We need to find more creative solutions.”

Grey believes the public consultation process is too complex for most sick people, who simply want access to safe, affordable cannabis.

“Its complexity selects well-resourced pharmaceutical interests over smaller-scale, community-focused interests. It’s unfortunate that those with the most resources tend to lobby hardest and force through laws that suit themselves.

“Our system needs to find ways of balancing this to promote community wellbeing.”

Asked to assess the calibre of the players lining up to manufacture and distribute medicinal cannabis and whether they will, as some claim, take control and revenue away from gangs, generate tax revenue and create economic opportunities, Grey said: “There is a wide array of prospective interests, from local green fairies to multinational pharmaceutical companies.

“Overseas it’s typically the corporates who line up to scoop up the smaller growers and it seems likely the same trend will happen here unless active steps are taken to help create a niche for, and then protect, community focused growers.

“It’s very important that there is an opportunity for those who have built up expertise illegally under the old laws to transition into the new regime.”

Another issue concerning Grey is whether New Zealand doctors are sufficiently well informed about cannabis and how to prescribe it.

“Most doctors have no training in the human endocannabinoid system or how plant-sourced cannabinoids can help stabilise the nervous system, autoimmune disorders or help manage an array of other chronic ill health, so I encourage my clients to educate their doctors.”

So, where does Grey stand on the wider issue of legalising recreational cannabis use?

“Many use it for purposes which could be classified as either medicinal or recreational so it’s definitely not a clear line.

“I don’t personally use cannabis but I would like CBD to be readily available in health shops like it is in Scotland where my daughter lives.

“I don’t think people should be punished for making choices about what food, drugs or medicines they choose to use. I’d prefer to see open conversation and education.”

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