By Carmen Doran - Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics
This month marks three years since Parliament unanimously passed the legislation to enable a New Zealand medicinal cannabis industry. With overseas products limited and expensive, finally, Kiwi patients would have legal access to quality local products at affordable prices.
After a myriad of industry regulations was finalised, New Zealand’s scheme and new Medicinal Cannabis Agency took effect in April last year.
Yes, it has been a complicated process and a long wait for patients. However, when it comes to pharmaceutical standards and people’s healthcare, it has been critical for the Ministry of Health to implement and oversee a rigorous regulatory regime.
This year concerns were raised that patients were set to go without. That’s because, under New Zealand’s Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, most overseas products no longer met the new minimum standards.
From 1 October, doctors could no longer prescribe those imported products. From 4 October, however, the Medicinal Cannabis Agency announced that two local products had been verified. Finally, locally manufactured products were available.
Next year patients will see more cost-effective local products. Helius became New Zealand’s first medicinal cannabis business to gain a GMP Licence to Manufacture Medicines in July. Rua Bioscience then received its GMP licence with a product recently verified for release in 2022, and other businesses will follow.
Some people may have quite a rudimentary image as to how cannabis products are made. In reality, a successful cultivation and manufacturing facility relies on an internationally experienced team. Complying with some of the world’s highest quality standards requires deep pharmaceutical expertise.
At Helius, we place our trust in science and the standards – both of which will give New Zealand a competitive edge. As the old adage goes, it’s quality, not quantity. Where our country’s newest industry will succeed is in research and development and delivering new and novel products boasting greater efficacy and safety.
As the only local medicinal cannabis business that has road-tested our production and distribution processes here in New Zealand, we’re excited to scale up and export the first Kiwi-manufactured products to Europe from next year.
New Zealand has achieved a notable slice of the international wine market. Through smart innovation and collaboration, there’s no reason why we can’t do the same with medicinal cannabis. News like Puro NZ being granted BioGro Organic status for its expansive outdoor cultivation only adds an edge.
Post pandemic we need sunrise industries to succeed and our national export earnings to lift. With the global cannabis market expected to grow from $18.7b in 2020 to $61.3b in 2025, even a sliver of this pie will be well worth getting. It will mean more businesses and more jobs here at home.
The priority, for now, is Kiwi patients. After all they, and their advocates, have fought long and hard for better access to these natural medicines.
Affordability is starting to be achieved, but better access also means more doctors willing to prescribe. As it stands, every GP in New Zealand can prescribe medicinal cannabis for any condition. However, as recent patient stories in the media suggest, many still lack the knowledge or confidence to do so.
With our doctors effectively the gatekeepers, prescriber education is a key component to patient access. In fact, surveys show, doctors themselves are the first to acknowledge they need to be better informed about medicinal cannabis and what and how it can effectively treat.
The good news for New Zealand patients is that many more healthcare professionals are now genuinely curious and actively educating themselves. We know this not only through encouraging prescription data, but registrations to educational resources and events.
Two good examples are MCInfo and MedCan. Over 1,300 doctors and pharmacists have now registered on MCinfo – which is a dedicated medicinal cannabis online information service for both Kiwi prescribers and patients. Tellingly, February’s MedCan Summit 2022, in Auckland, has also received many more registrations from doctors than the inaugural industry summit in 2020.
As the country’s largest medicinal cannabis company, we are thrilled to sponsor such opportunities for doctors to be better informed. We also know that with more local products set to be verified in 2022, GPs will receive more enquiries and questions from patients.
Interestingly, we’re not just talking about delivering next-generation local products for humans. There’s also a massive opportunity for New Zealand to treat companion animals from all around the world with cannabis. In fact, globally, the pet category is incredibly fast-growing.
Helius’ subsidiary company, Hale Animal Health, is now developing clinically trialled non-psychoactive CBD products for pets. Together, we may be the first in the world to officially register cannabis medicines for veterinarians to prescribe.
Medicinal cannabis is an exciting opportunity for New Zealand – and probably bigger than what MPs imagined three years ago when they gave it the green light. Yes, its establishment has been a long and hard haul, but thankfully the industry has now moved into the most important phase – delivery.