Helius Therapeutics made a written and oral submission to the government's Health Select Committee on the Medicinal Cannabis Amendment Bill.
This week, the co-founders of Helius Therapeutics, Paul Manning, JP Schmidt and Gavin Pook, presented to New Zealand's Health Select Committee on the legislative priorities for establishing a strong, professional medicinal cannabis industry.
As you may have seen in the media, Helius is a New Zealand start-up with a very clear purpose: we exist to help people improve their quality of lifethrough access to world-class medicinal cannabis products.
Helius is a very exciting company. In our first stage, we are investing over $15m in a state-of-the-art medical-grade facility to cultivate, research and manufacture medicinal cannabis products. This will be a truly world-class business, based right here in New Zealand.
We already have unique IP for more than a dozen product lines, developed through leading-edge medical R&D in North America. We even have products ready for clinical trials here immediately. Cannabis medicine made by Helius will meet the highest international standards for quality and consistency.
We're kiwi entrepreneurs, we see ourselves as a startup business in a startup industry, converting a black market to a regulated, legitimate, taxable economy.
Legislation allowing, and with our resources, we will build a global brand, capable of taking New Zealand made medicinal cannabis products to the world stage, bolstering our export economy, providing employment for hundreds of people, and generating millions in tax revenue for the country... from what could be a billion-dollar industry.
In the short term, Helius is focused on achieving the fundamental objective of this bill: to make high quality, safe, medicinal cannabis products accessible to New Zealanders who can benefit from their therapeutic properties.
Cannabis and the New Zealand market
There have been over 26,000 studies in the therapeutic benefits of medicinal cannabis. This, combined with consumer demand shift towards nutraceuticals, has seen cannabis legalised for medicinal purposes in dozens of countries and now 30 states in the US.
Not only has medicinal cannabis proven to work for a variety of conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and pain – but for many New Zealanders, it’s the only thing that works.
As you have heard from many constituents, the reality is, medicinal cannabis is a mainstream product, consumed by mainstream people.
In fact, according to the Ministry of Health, there are already 235,000 New Zealanders using cannabis regularly, for medicinal purposes.
That’s 1 in 20 people, almost all of whom are buying unregulated product on the black market. Imagine the potential for kiwi companies like ours to offer safe, legal products with precise compounds, accurate dosages and medical-grade delivery mechanisms like caplets, oils, sprays and topicals.
However, we believe for a local producer industry to thrive, there are five priority outcomes we must address. In turn, these factors are also essential for the intent of this bill to be realised. Because without a local producer industry, medicinal cannabis products will remain expensive and largely inaccessible.
Overview of priority outcomes
I'll take you through our priorities. These will help ensure New Zealand creates a strong, professional medicinal cannabis industry and people here benefit from cannabis products that are effective, accessible and safe.
Set high quality production standards for the producer industry
To give New Zealand patients and doctors the utmost confidence in locally-produced products, Helius is opting for GMP-certification.
That stands for ‘Good Manufacturing Practice’. This is a system for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards. GMP is designed to minimise the risks involved in any pharmaceutical production.
This is the global gold standard for medical-grade production practices. Our suggestion is that all cannabis-based products produced and consumed for medicinal purposes in New Zealand ought to be GMP-certified.
This does set the bar high. But even if government chooses not to mandate GMP for all producers, Helius will invest in meeting this standard voluntarily – because we believe New Zealand made products should be benchmarked against the best in the world.
Outcome: Mandate high, globally-recognised production standards for all products produced and consumed in New Zealand. In our view, the best is GMP certification.
Ensuring product efficacy
By now you’ll be well aware of the two main cannabinoids, CBD and THC. The latter, of course, containing psychoactive properties when consumed at a high ratio. Both, however are extremely therapeutic in supporting a healthy endocannabinoid system – which helps the body maintain homeostasis.
There is much more to the cannabis plant than most people realise. THC and CBD are just two of over 80 cannabinoids in medicinal cannabis, and there are over 200 terpenes. When we produce whole plant medicines – using all compounds – these are referred to as ‘full spectrum’.
All of the available compounds offer their own therapeutic benefits, and together they work synergistically to provide more benefit than any single compound. This is known in the industry as the ‘entourage effect’.
The University of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical School are international leaders in medicinal cannabis research. Their team of scientists recently sought to compare a medicinal cannabis extract containing CBD-only to a full-spectrum cannabis extract – using all compounds. They found that the full-spectrum ‘whole plant’ extract was more efficacious at fighting pain and inflammation than the extract containing CBD alone.
Now to be clear, CBD is indeed effective in fighting pain and inflammation, but full-spectrum extracts containing the benefits of allcannabinoids and terpenes, result in a longer-lasting and more therapeutic treatment. This is very important.
Outcome: Allow full-spectrum, whole plant medicinalcannabis products and do not restrict specific cannabinoids, such as THC, which hold vital therapeutic properties.
Accessibility for everyone
Medicinal cannabis-based products can benefit a wide range of patients and ailments.
Health practitioners are indeed best placed to decide whether a person would benefit from medicinal cannabis. We also agree that a prescription or letter of recommendation from a doctor is suitable for accessing medicinal cannabis-based products.
It is essential that government does not legislate who can and cannot benefit from medicinal cannabis through restricting access to specific qualifying ailments.
With cannabis now legalised in dozens of developed countries, the industry is moving at pace. Like the wider nutraceuticals sector, new products and strains are continually being developed for an array of ailments. Helius believes someone living with HIV, osteoporosis, or chronic plain deserves the same human right to access medicinal cannabis as someone suffering from cancer.
The most common reason that people seek out medicinal cannabis is for chronic pain. That’s because cannabis is extremely good at treating it.
According to a report released in January by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there is now “conclusive and substantial evidence that cannabis can be an effective treatment for chronic pain”.
This is important because we are at risk of an opioid painkiller epidemic in New Zealand. Deaths from opioid abuse rose 33% between 2001 and 2012. Meanwhile opioid use in the US has actually declined by 20% in states with legalised medicinal cannabis, accessible to all people for whom it benefits.
Outcome: Empower health practitioners to decide who can access medicinal cannabis-based products. It is imperative that we do not restrict access to specific ailments.
Accountability of local producers
All entities involved in New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis supply chain should be held accountable for the products they develop, distribute and dispense.
Helius encourages the Health Select Committee to consider the following two measures:
Outcome (i): Implement an industry-wide seed-to-sale tracking system to ensure complete supply chain monitoring and accountability.
Outcome (ii): Install harsh disincentives for licensedmedicinal cannabisproducers who fail to comply with legislation or responsible business practices. Hold us to the highest standards. Make us accountable.
In other developed markets where medicinal cannabis has been legalised, the main barrier to patient access has been the reluctance of doctors to prescribe the products.
In part, this is because doctors seldom prescribe nutraceuticals.
Research has shown that whilst most doctors are open to cannabis-based medicines, more industry education is needed on the therapeutic functions of cannabis and how best to prescribe these products.
To support the acceptance and prescription of medicinal cannabis-based products for patients in New Zealand, this education will be essential. It stands to reason that an education program would be most credible if facilitated by the Ministry of Health.
Outcome: We believe the government should commission a medicinal cannabis training programme for healthcare practitioners, ideally through the Ministry of Health.
Full coverage of the submission by Helius to the Health Select Committee can be viewed below. You'll hear an overview of the company and our five legislative priorities.
With these priorities met, New Zealand will be well on its way to a thriving medicinal cannabis industry, capable of competing on the world stage.