New Zealanders are expected to be able to use medicinal cannabis with a prescription from their doctor from April 1. Katikati company Eqalis Research Ltd is preparing its first crop of medicinal cannabis for harvest. Reporter Esme O'Rafferty and photographer Andrew Warner went to check it out.
The smell hits you as soon as you walk into the building.
Sickly sweet, and it clings.
It's the smell of cannabis, which medical research company Eqalis Research Ltd is growing in a small building just out of Katikati.
While a long-controversial topic in New Zealand, medicinal cannabis could soon become available for those with chronic and terminal illnesses - those for whom conventional medicine no longer works.
Last year, Eqalis Research secured two Medsafe licences to grow cannabis. The research licences were believed to be the first granted to a medical cannabis firm in the Bay of Plenty.
We have been invited by Eqalis' managing director Greg Misson to join him on a tour around their facility, and I'm keen to check it out.
Our tour starts in the lab where they do the testing of the cannabis plants, a gleaming room of shiny surfaces still yet untouched - they won't harvest the plants until next week.
Eqalis grows three different strains, each of which helps the body in a different way, he says.
He says the CBD - cannabidiol - dominant strain can reduce seizures and convulsion, and contains anti-inflammatory and antipsychotic properties.
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On the other hand, the THC - tetrahydrocannabinol - dominant strain reduces nausea and vomiting, as well as suppressing pain from nerve damage and muscle spasms, he says.
It also stimulates the appetite - what is known colloquially as "the munchies".
But the lab isn't just for testing the plants, said Misson.
"This is also a laboratory of discovery," he said.
"Any person in this company can come in here and research and discover any aspect of this business - we encourage that."
Misson is keen to emphasise the company's aim "to help people".
He's clearly the heart behind this operation, telling me about his methodology behind the company.
It's one of trust, he says.
"If a company's working well, it'll have a good operating culture where the people come first," he said.
Mission has obvious pride in his staff who work directly with the crop, two young guys in their twenties.
"They really do know what's going on with this plant," he said.
"They're young guys, you know? They've taken the opportunity and actually made something of it."
He's given the men a "blank canvas", and "in a year, we've done a lot," Misson said.
He said he couldn't have done that himself - despite working and investing in several different companies.
Mission has also been a business consultant, "figuring out the sweet spot" of how to run a company.
"I'm a managing director and investor here, but my job here really is all about enabling people to make their dreams come true."
Misson's keen to problem-solve - mapping out what they're going to do and how to go about it. He wants his staff to know that he's there for them.
"The bottom line is, it's fun - we enjoy it. People ... are secure, and they're happy," he said.
By growing the staff, you grow the company, and you grow yourself, he says - and you grow the plants too, "everything".
"It's a unified push. That's why we're so confident."
This supportive environment shows in the way the plants have grown - while the Bay's horticultural prowess is famous throughout New Zealand, there is clear evidence these plants are well-loved.
As I move into the growing room, I'm asked to put on disposable overalls and booties over my clothes and shoes, as well as a sanitary cap.
These are to keep any outside influences away from the plants, Misson said.
The temperamental cannabis plants are grown in a small room with a strictly controlled environment; with too much light or humidity, they won't grow well, Misson said.
"They respond to all sorts of things ... they're very sensitive to the environment, as we are," Misson said.
"I don't think they'd smell as sweet if it was a toxic environment here ... a toxic culture. They're pretty well-loved."
While the plants are in a "vegetative" cycle - the part of the cycle where they grow taller - the bright lights, which replicate daylight, are kept on for 18 hours a day. It's absolute darkness for the remaining six hours.
Once they decide to let the buds form on the plant - the part they actually use in the pharmaceuticals - the light and darkness are kept equal, at 12 hours per day.
They're kept at around 25 degrees Celsius, a good temperature despite the cooling breeze from the fans throughout the room.
For the best plants, the canopy needs to be even, with none of the plants exceptionally tall or short, Misson said.
They were lucky to get that on their first try, he said - the buds are large, and the smell in the room is almost overpowering,
The plants are being harvested early next week, ready to be turned into pharmaceuticals under the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, which is expected to become operational on April 1.
CBD will no longer be a class B1 controlled drug - instead, it is expected to become a prescription medicine under the Medicines Act 1981.
This means that anyone who wishes to use medicinal cannabis must have a prescription from their doctor. Any other cannabis product requires approval from the Minister of Health before a patient can use it.
However, Misson is concerned about the potential legalisation of recreational cannabis.
He's worried it will "muddy the water" between it and medicinal use of cannabis, and will render Eqalis redundant.
Misson's experiences as an entrepreneur have put him in for the long-haul, though.
"You become more battle-ready, you're not so comfortable ... it forces you to think how you're gonna go about it," he said.
Eqalis' business manager Brendon Ogilvy said they had gone around the world collecting "what little data" there was around medicinal cannabis.
"We're actually sweeping the world for information, making informed decisions," Ogilvy said.
"We're not just navel-gazing in Katikati."
We step back out in the brilliant sunshine, through the final Fort Knox-level security gate, and a wave of fresh air hits.
Misson describes the smell of the cannabis as like that of fine wine - one you take deep sniffs of to appreciate.
While I understand why he says that, it is a relief to back outside with the fresh air, and I breathe in deep.
Another Bay of Plenty company was given the green light to grow medicinal cannabis on Matakana Island last month.
Jason Murray and Aimee Armstrong of Mahana Island Therapies have received a licence to grow medicinal cannabis on the island for research purposes.
• 20 licences have been issued to cultivate cannabis for scientific or medical research purposes as of December 6, 2019.
• All licenses are generally issued for a one-year period.
• The Ministry of Health has received 102 applications as of December 6.
• 25 applications are currently being considered, while the remainder were either unable to be considered or have been declined or withdrawn.
Regarding licences to suppliers of medicinal cannabis products, the Ministry has issued:
• Licence to sell Medicines by Wholesale (for CBD products only) active: 23 licences
• Licence to Deal in Controlled drugs (for products with THC or THC/CBD) active: 17
These numbers are indicative only of active licences, not that sales are actively occurring.
Source: Medsafe - Figures obtained by the Bay of Plenty Times under the Official Information Act