Coast at the forefront of medicinal cannabis

Mon, 29th May 2017
PREVIEW

A family’s lack of access to medicine that could have helped ease the suffering of their terminally ill child was the catalyst for Sunshine Coast businessman Adam Benjamin to start Medifarm, the first company in Australia to be permitted to cultivate medicinal cannabis. 

A Sunshine Coast business became the first in the country to be awarded a medicinal cannabis cultivation and production licence from the Federal Government’s Office of Drug Control in April this year.

This came just one month after Queensland laws came into place allowing for the prescription and distribution of the medicine, a pathway that was opened by the Federal Government in 2016.

The licence is a coup not only for the Coast company, Medifarm, but also for our region. The ODC received 7000 applications for cultivation licences and only nine were issued.

Medifarm is one of the two in Queensland and there are four in Victoria, one in Western Australia and New South Wales respectively and one in a yet to be announced location.

Medifarm founder Adam Benjamin says it took several years of work and more than 1200 pages of submissions to secure the licence and his entire journey was inspired by a young Sunshine Coast boy – Sam Martin.

Sam was diagnosed with a stage three carcinoma in his left jaw in October 2013. Doctors had been scrambling to identify the tumour, which was first discovered in July that year, and it wasn’t until the University of Oklahoma in the USA heard about Sam’s case that they pinpointed what it was.

His father, Mark, says this is because it is classed as an “adult kind of cancer.”

“Because of that, the treatment protocol was very rigorous and they were using drugs that wouldn’t normally be used in paediatric oncology as it was a pretty rare cancer for a child to have,” he says.

Due to the advanced nature of the cancer at the time of diagnosis, surgery was not an option for the Yandina youngster, so he underwent an adult course of chemotherapy and radiation for six weeks.

Mark says he and wife Tanya were told up front that Sam was terminal, so they went in search of something that could help alleviate some of his pain.

“Over 15 months, he went from a typical, mischievous eight-year-old boy to just a shell. That was the hardest part. We looked at absolutely everything, natural, overseas, clinics in China and Germany. We spoke to doctors in Italy. We would have done anything, as you would, to change it, to make it better,” Mark says.

 Mark says the thought of obtaining cannabis oil made them “feel like criminals”. As parents they would have liked the alternative option to help their son. 

Seeing what the Martin family went through resonated with Benjamin, who says he never wants families to have to consider breaking the law to help someone they love.

Medifarm is the only licensed medicinal cannabis business poised to offer a ‘turn-key solution’, doing everything from cultivating the cannabis plants through to manufacturing the medicine for patients.

“We have these amazing growing conditions and such a fabulous health infrastructure”

They are also the only ones to secure a coveted partnership with Tikun Olam in Israel, which Benjamin says was touted by the Federal Government’s health department during their roadshow a few years ago as the world leader in medicinal cannabis production and research. 

“We’re excited as a company and this is also a big thing for the region. We have these amazing growing conditions and such a fabulous health infrastructure. The meeting ground of these two things is on a level that you cannot find anywhere else in Australia, so we have a natural advantage,” he says.

“In linking with Tikun Olam, we have access to 20 years’ worth of research and development and so we can continue pushing forward with learning more. It means we don’t have to start from scratch.”

Despite the government recognising the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant and its potential benefits for patients suffering from severe muscular spasms and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and some types of epilepsy, Benjamin says it is still a heated topic.

“Everyone’s got a view, some think it’s great to open up this form of medicine while others think it’s a gateway drug and think ‘I know what you’re trying to do’,” he says.

“But once you explain to people this is very much a black-and-white proposition and 90 per cent of what we will be producing gives no high at all, it is a medicine just like any other medicine, people come on board very quickly. We will have 10 different varieties and one of those would have a high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) component, which treats certain medical conditions particularly well.  

“This is a highly controlled, prescription-only medication that is regulated by the government. Before selling a single bottle to anyone, it’s important that we educate everyone.”

Benjamin conservatively estimates Medifarm will service around 5000 patients in the first year and says the first locally-grown medicinal cannabis will be available in the first quarter of 2018.

In the meantime, they are exploring a stopgap measure of importing medicine to meet the demand that already exists. If patients want to express their interest, they can register on the Medifarm website at medifarm.org.

“We are building a database to find out which conditions the treatments are required for. We would be looking at importing medicine with the exact same active ingredients as what will be locally produced, so patients don’t have to switch around once our product becomes available,” Benjamin says.

“We will bring in the same plants to start off our first crop and if you start off with the best genetics, the less you have to fiddle with extraction and molecules and the better your medicine.”

There are already between 20 and 30 employees at work for Medifarm, busy transforming an existing Sunshine Coast facility and upgrading it with bulletproof security with the advice of military consultants and beginning to implement the strict security protocols.

Although this industry is yet to soar, Benjamin says it will undoubtedly have a ripple effect throughout the region, attracting skilled medical professionals to conduct research, entrepreneurs looking into spin-off industries like upgrading drug testing units, and those who want to work at Medifarm itself.

“This is a highly controlled, prescription-only medication that is regulated by the government”

“We are already talking with the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Thompson Institute to make these innovative medical facilities hubs of expertise,” he says.

Benjamin applauded the Queensland government for having “the most progressive framework” in the country, opening up the availability of medicinal cannabis to a wider range of illnesses and conditions than other states.

Despite its name alluding otherwise, Drug Free Australia secretary Gary Christian says the organisation has “never been against medical cannabis”.

Christian says synthetic forms of marijuana have been available legally within Australia for many years, including Marinol, which has been prescribed to patients with HIV since 1997.

“As long as it measures up as a medicine and passes the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s regulations, we’re fine with it,” he says.

“We really do, however, have a concern about [unregulated] cannabis oils, which can have THC up to 85 per cent, which is a lot higher than the three per cent that used to be in the stuff that was smoked by the hippies back in the ‘70s.”

A Queensland Health spokesperson says State Government legislation requires the use of medicinal cannabis to be overseen by a medical practitioner, for the safety of the patient, and to ensure the right monitoring and controls are in place. 

QH is conducting a compassionate access scheme to prescribe medicinal cannabis to children with intractable epilepsy. “Medicinal cannabis should not be considered a first line therapy for any indication,” the spokesperson says.

“Medical practitioners who apply to the Department of Health to prescribe medicinal cannabis for a range of conditions or symptoms must provide evidence that it is safe and effective. Additionally, before medicinal cannabis can be prescribed, doctors will also need approval from the TGA.

“To date, there have been five applications to prescribe medicinal cannabis in Queensland. No applications have been received from doctors on the Sunshine Coast.”