Medicinal cannabis is in the spotlight and the Ministry of Health will decide in December if it can be commercially manufactured. But one Bay of Plenty company is already ahead the game.
A Bay of Plenty company has been given the green light to grow medicinal cannabis for research - and has plans to ultimately sell its pain-relief products on the market.
Eqalis Research has secured two Medsafe licences to grow cannabis in Katikati - and Western Bay's mayor says the company won't be facing any council roadblocks.
The research licences were believed to be the first granted to a medical cannabis firm in the Bay of Plenty, and its outdoor cultivation licence a New Zealand first.
But the Ministry of Health, which is still to approve the commercialisation of medicinal cannabis, would not confirm this.
Eqalis Research ultimately plans to produce a range of plant-based pain-relief products for the New Zealand market in a move business leaders have welcomed.
Managing director Greg Misson said confidence in Eqalis was high and the company had the backing of major investors with strong business nous and experience.
They included Comvita co-founder Alan Bougen, BayGold founder and kiwifruit grower Murray McBride and Southern Produce director and Avocado Growers Association chairman Tony Ponder.
Misson said the main aim was to help improve the health and quality of life of New Zealanders suffering chronic illness and pain - and it also hoped to hit global markets in the future.
Misson would not reveal the total investment to date due to commercial sensitivity but said Eqalis would need staff.
''We have two cultivation sites across the Bay of Plenty and each site will require a number of staff throughout the year.''
A world-class GMP growing facility has been built in Katikati, ''where they control every aspect of the growing, cultivation, extraction, manufacture and distribution process,''
It was also cultivating using three different formats including indoor, greenhouse and outdoor in the field, and the growing activities would be sizable by international standards, he said.
''I think long-term given this plant responds very favourably to the Bay of Plenty climate, this will be another crop we can grow to a very high standard for domestic medical use, but clearly this has significant export potential.''
"We are developing a smart, sustainable industry in our region that will benefit all New Zealanders.''
The Bay of Plenty was renowned for its world-class horticultural industries, he said.
''The soils and climate are amongst the best in the world for the production of cannabis products.''
Comvita co-founder Alan Bougen invested because of his passion for wellness and combining the best in nature with science.
''This business model aligns with my values and I'm excited to be part of an industry that can help so many people."
Lead researcher and pharmacist Elizabeth Plant said, in her view, international research confirmed medicinal cannabis products were a viable and safer alternative to strong pain medications.
''It is important for Kiwis to know that a huge amount of science goes into the growing and cultivating of medical cannabis to ensure it is safe and effective.''
Western Bay of Plenty mayor Garry Webber said it was positive news.
"It just shows that our climate and our soils are really versatile and another horticulture product will bring employment, growth and other things to the community," he said.
Webber said the council would not put up any roadblocks.
"From the council's perspective, it is a legal business," he said. "It is quite positive for our district. It will allow people to earn a wage, which helps to put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food on the table."
Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said building higher-value industries were essential to improving prosperity.
"Medicinal cannabis has the potential to combine scientific research and our existing regional expertise to provide high-quality products to the world.''
Ngai Te Rangi chief executive Paora Stanley said there would be challenges but ''with these types of people involved, how fantastic is that?''
''This should be celebrated. In my view, it is very encouraging ... the only thing we have to be careful of is the impact it has on other drug use.''
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell said medicinal cannabis was a global trend and ''is really effective for those suffering intense pain such as cancer. It is great relief for those suffering''.
Powell said that included the elderly population, who make up a lot of the city's population.
"The more encouragement of investment in the wider Bay of Plenty, the better."
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said it had issued 19 licences to cultivate cannabis for scientific or medical research purposes.
The ministry could not provide details on individual licences or licence holders including location or region.
The ministry was also currently looking at reforms under its Medicinal Cannabis Scheme that has already been out for public consultation.
One of the discussions up for debate is the proposed requirements for domestic cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products.
Regulations are expected to be made by December 18 with the scheme becoming operational in the first quarter of 2020.
Greg Misson said the company would apply for commercial licences when the regulations changed.
In September the Greenfield MC NZ research facility, in conjunction with Tauranga-based firm Wepiha Health was also looking at the possibility of setting up a cannabis cultivation facility to benefit medicinal research in the city.