Of all the recreational drugs available cannabis is one of the most prolific in terms of its descriptors – wacky baccy, electric puha and dope to name a few, with Wikipedia crediting more than 1000 terms to one of the planet’s most popular drugs.
But an Auckland company is intent on taking cannabis from the illegal to the legitimate as a drug of choice, not for recreation, but for medicinal use. Richard Rennie spoke to Paul Manning, one of the men behind the move.
The likelihood of cannabis becoming a crop that can legitimately be grown in New Zealand has improved after the passing of the first reading earlier this year of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act.
With that comes the chance for NZ to be a world leader in the development of plants, their intellectual property and treatments, creating a pharmaceutical industry that is experiencing rapid growth globally.
Ex advertising mogul Paul Manning is one of four entrepreneurs leading the charge in what he describes as the riskiest start-up to be in, establishing Helius, a pharmaceutical company producing products based on cannabis extracts.
“We are looking at a start-up business in a start-up industry currently working as a black market so it could really be described as the ultimate entrepreneurial challenge and all a bit wild west.
“There is little experience in NZ in this industry, except for around hemp production, and only some academic work has been done and even the law itself is still an unknown. We believe it will become legalised for medicinal uses but the question is when will that happen?”
But Manning is no fool.
Having established, at the tender age of 22, a full-service ad agency, Metro Media, he went on to build it into the country’s largest privately owned agency worth about $15 million at its peak, which he ultimately sold.
As an ad man he admits he is conscious for the pharmaceutical cannabis industry to succeed in NZ it needs something of a rebrand.
Repositioning the crop as a valued, horticulturally grown input for a burgeoning therapeutic market dispelling the wacky-baccy sniggers is vital to attract the skill sets spanning horticulture, pharmaceuticals, marketing and science the industry will demand.
Despite being a marketing whiz Manning has come up to speed quickly with the components and science that make cannabis a legitimate drug component, equalling and even exceeding other grown crops like poppies for its effectiveness in certain treatments.
“And when we consider the opioid sector, with 63,000 people a year dying in the United States from addiction, and its effects starting to be felt here, it makes you question why it is that cannabis is so stigmitised compared to opioids.”
As a treatment cannabis is difficult to overdose on and while having additive characteristics it sits lower on that scale than society’s other addictive options.
“In a population you will get 8-9% of people addicted to cannabis, that rises to 14-16% for alcohol and 30% for tobacco so cannabis sits low on the scale.”
As a pharmaceutical ingredient cannabis contains two main therapeutic compounds, THC and CBD, which, when mixed in varying ratios, are effective for epilepsy treatment, burns, pain management, arthritis and sleeplessness.
“There is what is known as the entourage effect where the combination of the parts can be greater in therapeutic effect than each individual component.”
There is also a strong interest by Helius’ founders around horticulture and growing productive crops.
Manning grew up on the outskirts of Auckland around market gardens and his father Mike Manning is one of the Plant and Food research team recently awarded $500,000 for their work on Psa diagnosis and testing.
“Dad has just retired so he is proving a valuable source of information when it comes to growing processes.”
With 15,000 strains of cannabis in existence globally, Helius aims to start up growing 12 strains hydroponically once the legal green light is given.
The selected strains are to be sourced from Helius’ US partner that has so far established six medicinal cannabis growing facilities and the company already has a portfolio of products with brand names and packaging all set to go.
Funding such an excercise is not for the faint-hearted but the venture has managed to raise $15 million in only four months. A significant portion has come from low profile local rich-listers keen to be involved in an industry they view as ultimately about improving people’s quality of life.
“We have proven we have the ability to sell a high-grade therapeutic cannabis based product at almost one fifth the cost of the equivalent product brought in from the United Kingdom and about the same price as what people may buy illegally here on the black market, of unknown origins.”
The value of the market in NZ is estimated at over $1 billion, based on Department of Health estimates that 250,000 people a year access medicinal cannabis.
But beyond NZ is where the serious money lies with estimates the market will ultimately be worth $200b, more than double today’s value.
Production will initially come from a 6500 square metres facility in Auckland, under 24-hour, three-man security guard with state of the art security and hydroponic growing capacity geared around the 10-week growing cycle cannabis requires.
The facility will start with Good Manufacturing Practice certification, the Rolls Royce ticket for manufacturing standards, sitting even higher than Food Grade standard.
Manning expects the site to employ about 60 people and is excited about the opportunities the business opens up for young horticulturalists who want to work in a cutting-edge industry, turning their growing skills to a crop previously shoved to remote forests and farm corners.
“This is an opportunity for people who may have shown their skills growing tomatoes or capsicums hydroponically and for people out of university, all who want to be part of an exciting sunrise industry that NZ has the skills to lead the world in.”