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The Kiwi scientists who don’t advertise what they grow – or where they grow it
Drones float, humming, over the lush green field.
The attached cameras capture images of thousands of bushy cannabis plants.
They’re not police cameras gathering evidence for a bust – they belong to Waikato business Cannasouth, which is inspecting its crop.
Cannasouth is the business arm of the University of Waikato’s research into medicinal cannabis.
The university is the only organisation in New Zealand that has been licensed to cultivate cannabis for research into the development of medicinal cannabis products.
Two other licences exist in New Zealand to cultivate cannabis, but they are only for law enforcement purposes.
Cannasouth’s laboratory is located in inner-city Hamilton, right next door to the Chiefs training grounds.
It grows cannabis from seed to harvest-ready in three months, in a half-acre field in the Waikato.
It’s then dried and milled, but it’s back at the lab where the magic happens.
And it’s no tinny house science; it’s sophisticated stuff.
CLANLAB TO FACTORY
Cannasouth is a biopharmaceutical company.
In partnership with the University of Waikato, Cannasouth has extracted and refined cannibadiol (CBD) from New Zealand-grown cannabis.
The University of Waikato, Cannasouth’s research partner, holds New Zealand’s first Ministry of Health Controlled Drugs licence to extract and refine CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for research into the development of medicinal cannabis products.
If legislation goes ahead, Cannasouth will transition into a commercial company.
Medicinal cannabis is a multibillion-dollar global industry, but here in New Zealand the laws are much more restrictive.
Medicinal cannabis is big business in some states in the US: pills, creams and sprays are freely available on prescription.
Here, doctors can now import and prescribe CBD, which was previously a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
That brought New Zealand into line with other countries, including Australia – a move intended to prevent people from purchasing cannabis from the black market.
Although it can be prescribed in New Zealand, it’s expensive. As the Ministry of Health is tasked with looking into medicinal cannabis, one of the priorities of Minister David Clark is that those that need it can access it.
He does not necessarily want to see if it can be made cheaper so more people can get it, he just wants those that need it to be fully funded for it.
That’s all being explored as part of the legislation that allows the commercial use of medicinal cannabis, currently before the Health Select Committee.
After that, the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill has to pass two more readings in Parliament, gaining a majority of votes from MPs, before it becomes legislation.
Clark refused to comment on the subject while legislation was at the select committee stage.
Waikato has the perfect climate for growing some types of cannabis – as more experienced growers might testify. It’s also home to top-grade facilities and experts, such as researchers and scientists.
IT’S CURTAINS FOR HEMP
For Lucas, it began in 1995, with a basketball cap he found in a store in San Francisco.
It was a green, gritty weave of Hungarian hemp, with a warning attached.
“Made from cannabis sativa.”
The cap is faded now, but it’s what triggered a 23-year running fascination of cannabis plants.
The two met after Foreman bowled up to a market stall Lucas was selling hemp products at and promptly became partners. That was 20 years ago.
Foreman and Lucas didn’t set out to build a company in the medicinal cannabis industry. They dreamt of creating a fibre industry out of hemp, to use in soft furnishings such as curtains and couch covers.
Their office is neutral and polished, with marked files lining the shelves and research papers strewn along their desks.
A few years ago, people might have been surprised at the decor and these two clean-cut men’s work with the devil’s lettuce.
But things are changing.
These days everyone has a story about a friend or family member who has used cannabis medicinally.
In decades to come, Lucas believes their research will be strong enough to have CBD supplement lining pharmacy shelves.
At 18, Foreman remembers visiting a museum in Calcutta with a massive section on Indian hemp used for cloth, oil, medicine.
“I just couldn’t believe this was the back story of the much-maligned cannabis.
“Right back then I realised there was a back story to this plant.”
Four years ago, when the pair learnt of the medicinal properties of medicinal cannabis, they were hooked.
Four research papers deep, there was no going back.
No one knew exactly how it worked, the pair says. But it was clear that it was working where other medicines weren’t.
Foreman is the sort of person who pulls toasters apart and puts them back together again for fun, to see how they work.
Knowing how things work drives the world, he says.
“It goes back to the first people to make a flint and working out how to make a better flint.” Ex-pat Kiwi John Lord, a Te Awamutu dairy farmer, has established a $100m business as an integrated marijuana grower and seller in the United States.
Lord believes legalisation is the way forward for New Zealand.
His company LivWell has 14 retail stores throughout Colorado. He also has a 200,000-square-foot cultivation centre, a 22,000-square-foot R&D site, and employs over 600 people.
He moved to the United States back in 1998 to manufacture and sell baby products, but he sold that business in 2008. Cannabis was much more lucrative.
LivWell sells 35 strains of marijuana, topical cannabis creams (typically used for aches and pains) and oils.
Though Foreman and Lucas aren’t interested in supplying recreational cannabis, they are invested in the medicinal benefits of a drug that could compete with big pharma. Like part of Lord’s business does.
“There’s a lot of interest in the subject and a lot of misinformation and a lot of people that know a little bit about it,” Lucas says.
“It’s quite a complex conversation but it started at the earliest phase of people smoking it to get relief when they’re maybe going through chemotherapy, or a bunch of other ailments.
“We’re focused now on the cannabinoid and medical side of this particular plant, so the more advanced side part of the science. People will still smoke it, but there are a lot more avenues of delivering it, more healthier ways, rather than smoking it to consume it.”
New Zealander John Lord, founder of LivWell, Colorado, has numerous stores and staff supplying the recreational and medical drugs he legally grows and processes.
SHOWING THE WAY
Lucas believes New Zealand society was at a turning point with the plant. People have forced politicians to look into medicinal marijuana, which is an important debate, he says.
“What we want to do is make sure the medicines that are available are really high quality and are safe, and effective ultimately.
“Science will show the way – that’s what we’re here to explore.”