New Zealand: Time to harness economic benefits of medicinal cannabis

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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 4 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.

Paul Manning is the co-founder and chief executive of Helius Therapeutics - the country’s largest medicinal cannabis company.
Paul Manning is the co-founder and chief executive of Helius Therapeutics - the country’s largest medicinal cannabis company.

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

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment 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. The broader cannabis health product segment could represent a $1b market opportunity per annum.

Medicinal cannabis reforms took effect in Australia in 2016, with its success hindered by higher hurdles for patient access. But, in recent months, its government has awoken to the potential of medicinal cannabis to lift GDP and aid 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.

Here, the Government’s commentary on the medicinal cannabis sector has largely been assigned to the health minister and ministry. That needs to change.

This country, 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.

A billboard for Helius Therapeutics in Auckland during the campaign to legalise medicinal cannabis.
A billboard for Helius Therapeutics in Auckland during the campaign to legalise medicinal cannabis.

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.

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.

The 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 products from the outset - already enhanced by New Zealand’s clean, green image.

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In 100 days time, New Zealanders will wake up on a Saturday and be asked to choose the next government, whether to legalise cannabis and also whether to allow assisted dying.

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, this 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.

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