New frontiers in protected cropping

Cannabis as a medicine is nothing new – its use spans several thousands of years. However, the global ‘war on drugs’, prohibition and blatant mis-information over the past century has certainly set us back in terms of research, cultivation and acceptance of what is now re-emerging as a highly beneficial and therapeutic medicinal plant says EMILY RIGBY.

costa-conference

Thankfully there is currently a rapid global shift de-stigmatising the cannabis plant, making it available as a ‘new’ medicine across the world, including Australia. Increasing research is demonstrating the growing evidence to support medical cannabis as a valuable option for treating a range of symptoms.Earlier this year, the World Health Organization recommended that the United Nations re-schedule cannabis. Today countries around the world are racing to become leading global suppliers of medical cannabis.

Meet the cannabis plant

The cannabis plant and its interactions with our own endocannabinoid system are nothing short of remarkable. The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia monograph on cannabis suggests there are more than 700 unique chemical compounds in the cannabis plant. Those compounds include at least 144 different cannabinoids and more than 100 different terpenes that have been identified within different cannabis varieties, known as ‘chemovars’ (that is, chemical varieties).

What’s happening in Australia

In February 2016 the Australian government established a licensing and permit scheme for the lawful research, cultivation and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products. Australian doctors and specialists can already legally apply to prescribe a range of (predominantly imported) cannabis medicines for certain conditions under patient special access schemes.

But the Australian medical cannabis industry is still in its infancy. The regulatory process to obtain licences and permits to cultivate, research and manufacture cannabis is a lengthy and somewhat frustrating and painful process. The government body in charge, the Office of Drug Control (ODC), is scrambling to process and regulate this new industry while being significantly understaffed. The ODC is unfortunately currently overwhelmed by the number of applications from companies wanting to get into the industry, as analysts have repeatedly underestimated the market for cannabis, not only in Australia, but around the globe.

Future directions

We know Australia is well positioned to lead the world in this new and emerging industry thanks to its innovative and adaptive agricultural and biomedical industries, international trade relationships, quality branding and favourable climatic conditions.

As the use of medical cannabis increases worldwide, the domestic and global medical cannabis market represents a new opportunity for Australian protected cropping and biomedical industries.

We need to work together to remove the regulatory burden and assist companies to gain access to licences while providing education on industry best practice to create a leading Australian supply of medical cannabis to patients globally.

Emily Rigby (rigby.research@gmail.com) is a member of the Protect Cropping Australia Board and a researcher on medicinal cannabis. She is based in Queensland and is session convenor, MC and speaker at the Costa PCA Conference 2019 on July 8.