Bay of Plenty's favourable environment and climate are part of the reasons why a joint Australasian venture is investigating whether Tauranga could be the prime location for its next big thing. Reporter Kiri Gillespie reveals what role medicinal cannabis plays, how much is involved and what the city's other link to the project is.
Tauranga is looking to be the likely location for a joint Australasian venture that plans to set up a cannabis cultivation facility to benefit medicinal research.
The Bay of Plenty is being considered as the base for the Greenfield MC NZ research facility, in conjunction with Tauranga-based firm Wepiha Health.
Greenfield MC chief executive Nicholas Hanna told the Bay of Plenty Times this was because the Bay had favourable environmental and climate conditions, and Wepiha Health was based here. Greenfield MC is an Australian-owned medicinal cannabis company looking to explore the potential health benefits of cannabis in New Zealand.
The project will study the efficiency of growing specific strains of cannabis, with future research projects aimed to ultimately help treat health conditions that disproportionately affect Māori, such as Type 2 diabetes mellitus.
As growing cannabis for commercial purposes is not legal in New Zealand, the facility will be growing the drug for scientific research - for now.
"It will be modest in size due to Ministry of Health New Zealand's requirement that only the minimum number of plants necessary to conduct the research be cultivated," Hanna said.
About 15 to 20 jobs, ranging from full-time to casual, were expected to be created. These will be mostly based in construction, agriculture, facility operations and research.
"However, if and when the laws change to permit commercial cultivation, we will be ready to expand our facility and scale our operations accordingly," Hanna said.
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"Once scaled for commercial purposes, we would estimate that the number of jobs would be around 250, mostly in the same capacities," Hanna said.
If the laws changed regarding commercial operation, Hanna anticipated the facility would "swiftly scale our operations to grow "many thousand kilograms of cannabis per annum".
The team was "aggressively working" towards having the research facility operational by September 2020.
Ministry of Health guidelines state some medicinal cannabis is available on prescription with ministerial approval.
However, cannabis plants, seeds and fruit are considered Class C controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. When growing and producing cannabis for medicinal cannabis products, all kinds of cannabis are treated the same under the Act.
A manufacturer looking to manufacture medicines needs a licence to deal in controlled drugs, a licence to manufacture medicines, licence information or number of supplier of plant material or extract, information on clinical trials or research that product will be supplied for.
However, the Government is reconsidering some of this with its recent Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act.
Tauranga's Dr Anna Rolleston is helping head the project as director of research, offering Māori community engagement and health research using kaupapa Māori methods. Rolleston is also a senior research fellow at both the University of Auckland and the University of Waikato, and a director at The Centre for Health Ltd.
Rolleston said Greenfield MC was community-minded and trying to provide equity for Māori health outcomes was a key priority for any health research in New Zealand.
"Most health data and evidence we use to make health decisions uses research that was conducted in populations that do not reflect our unique New Zealand population," she said.
"Therefore to provide equity in health we need to ensure Māori are partners in research and that projects and outcomes have a direct impact for Māori communities."
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Rolleston said there was little research on the medicinal benefits of cannabis so far.
"Engaging with Māori communities here in New Zealand will ensure equitable representation in research evidence for a people who have been heavily impacted by being absent from health research in the past."
Ngai Te Rangi chief executive Paora Stanley said he supported any efforts to explore medicinal cannabis but noted there were some key challenges.
Stanley spent time in Canada earlier this year visiting medicinal cannabis facilities. He said one of the most important things, as a medicine, was ensuring each plant produced exactly the same product. This included consistent levels of cannabidiol (CBD), which help produce effects without a high, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the main psychoactive compound found in cannabis.
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"For some people, it will be a major challenge. If you want to control the amount of CBD or THC, you can't do it in an open field. It's like vegetables, you are at the will of the elements," Stanley said.
"You've got to have a product that will be consistent. To get the exact replication, it's all controlled by computers."
Regarding the potential benefits to Māori health, Stanley said while medicinal cannabis could only be a good thing, the focus for something such as diabetes should still be on moving more and eating less sugar.
Stanley has previously said Tauranga would be an ideal spot for cannabis production, given it was just on the doorstep of the port and rail transport.