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Zahra Champion

Biotech sector keen to maximise cannabis potential

Cannabis-based medicines have extraordinary potential to improve people’s quality of life, as well as fuel significant economic opportunity and growth.

That is why BioTechNZ is now taking a strong lead. We want to ensure New Zealand companies are well equipped to maximise potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in export earnings in the fast-growing global medicinal cannabis market.

Representing the biotechnology community, BioTechNZ recently announced it is organising a medicinal cannabis summit next year.

MedCan 2020 will take place on 18 and 19 March at SkyCity Auckland Convention Centre. Involving renowned national and international speakers, the day will bring together a diverse range of medicinal cannabis stakeholders to learn, network, and collaborate with the best.

It will be the country’s most significant medicinal cannabis forum yet, with a focus on Medicine, Industry, Science and Technology. If we’re to make the most of this massive global industry, all stakeholders need to gain a much greater understanding of the extraordinary potential of both the plant and this new industry.

As part of the New Zealand Tech Alliance and a membership-funded NGO, BioTechNZ’s diverse range of members share a passion for the solutions that biotechnology offers for many of the world’s agricultural, environmental and health issues.

Our tech sector can provide a huge benefit to the medicinal cannabis industry, enabling it to deliver more efficiently, quickly, and cost effectively. Afterall, unlocking the potential of medicinal cannabis is fundamentally a biotechnology challenge. What’s more, we believe there is an opening for ‘New Zealand Inc’ to become a medicinal cannabis research centre of excellence.

The key to this emerging industry’s success will be understanding New Zealand’s natural, unique plant genetic varieties, leveraging its highly regarded research expertise and scientific collaboration, as well as our country’s positive brand.

I appreciate that medicinal cannabis is not a panacea or a cure for disease. Rather, patients have reported symptomatic benefit for the likes of chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, nausea, vomiting and appetite stimulation, epilepsy, and anxiety.

What’s more, our focus on cannabis is also solely medicinal. Sure, there is a public referendum next year on whether to legalise recreational cannabis. However, MedCan 2020 is only interested in the therapeutic properties of medicinal cannabis treatments for a range of health conditions.

BioTechNZ is supportive of the country’s SmokeFree ambition. That means we’re also supportive of medicinal cannabis products being available in the form of sprays, capsules, oils and edibles.

With wider availability of medicinal cannabis legislated for last year, the country now awaits the Ministry of Health finalising the many and complex regulations which will come into effect next year.

The intent of the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme is to increase patient access to products and increase supply. It will enable New Zealand made products, while ensuring all products meet quality standards, so medical practitioners can prescribe with confidence.

The timing of Medcan 2020 really marks the start of a new world for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. It will be a significant national effort and a critical meeting of the minds. It will bring together leading experts, scientists, healthcare professionals, entrepreneurs, industry, investors, policymakers, thought leaders, academics, researchers, government representatives, patients and the general public.

As well as all the economic and exporting opportunities, MedCan 2020 will play a significant role in the aggregation of knowledge. International experts will provide learnings from other global medicinal cannabis markets. We need to ensure there is a solid foundation of scientific understanding about cannabis for the advancement of public policy and the nation’s overall public health.

Significant surveys this year have shown healthcare professionals are highly supportive of greater access and affordability around medicinal cannabis. However, they want and need to know more. As the likely gatekeepers, physicians will only prescribe if they know.

In turn, consumers are demanding natural safe products. People want to know that the product has what it says in it, that the dose is accurate, that it is backed by science and that they can take it in different forms.

We’re now working closely with government agencies, universities, research institutes, and industry. A summit advisory group has also been established, including representatives from MBIE andCallaghan Innovation. The country’s largest medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, has been named MedCan 2020’s principal sponsor.

A dedicated website has now been launched, and speakers and other sponsors are coming on board.

The many and varied stakeholders are gearing up. They know the future of medicinal cannabis is a huge opportunity for New Zealand. Not only will it create an exciting new sector, but it will bring investment, create new jobs and skills, and add to our overall health and economic wealth. 

Zahra Champion Zahra is Executive Director of BIOTechNZ and is working to bring together a national community of biotech innovators, investors, researchers, educators and policy makers; and connecting this community to global biotech ecosystems.