Fingerprint scanners, motion sensor laser alarms, security teams and top secret locations sound like the stuff of spy movies, not Australian farms.
But that is the reality for a new breed of farmers trying their hand at medicinal cannabis, who have to make sure the crop is secure from paddock to processor.
“Imagine having all kinds of questions thrown at you like ‘What happens if someone shows up with a gun, what are you going to do?'” said Adam Benjamin from Medifarm, a Sunshine Coast-based company and the first in Queensland to be given the green light to grow the controversial crop under strict licence.
Industry regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has now approved 12 businesses in Australia to grow or manufacture medicinal cannabis.
However, farmers wanting to do so first have to prove their crop will not fall into the hands of thieves and end up on the black market.
“Some of these conversations are exciting when you have senior police who have come to the facility to look at what you’re doing,” Mr Benjamin said.
“We have also had military advisors come in. When even they are quite impressed by what we’re doing, we know we are doing the job right.”
Tough security requirements
So secret is the location of Medifarm, ABC Rural had to meet Mr Benjamin at a local café rather than on-site.
Mr Benjamin asked that the name of the town not be mentioned.
He was even hesitant to discuss security measures installed at the site, so as not to educate potential thieves.
The Department of Health has received more than 75 applications to grow or manufacture medicinal cannabis in Australia, since legalising the practice in October.
Only 12 have been approved, and while no applications have been rejected, some applicants have withdrawn their proposal due to the difficult security requirements.
“Depending on the size of your facility it moves into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, so you need money in the bank,” Mr Benjamin said.
“But if you can [invest] then it is well worth it.
“This is a product the medical authorities deem to be the strictest category product and it is at risk of unsafe use or criminal diversion,” he said.
“So you can’t have anything other than high safety and security requirements. It would be utterly negligent and irresponsible for us not to do that.”
Vehicles must be safe from hijackers
Growers and manufacturers of medicinal cannabis also have to demonstrate the vehicles they use to transport cannabis on the roads are safe from hijackers.
Mr Hunt argues the tough standards are not holding the industry back, or deterring future farmers.
“There are some who would say let’s have no restrictions. I disagree, the medical authorities disagree,” he said.
“But the proof is in the pudding because the farmers are still applying.
“The significant number of applications is evidence that the farming and growing community has embraced this opportunity and will deliver on it.”
A crop as precious as gold
Keeping cannabis grown for medicinal purposes from the black market is not just a health and safety issue, it is also a cost one for farmers and manufacturers.
The crop is too valuable to risk it being stolen.
“Medicinal cannabis oils in their pure forms [cost] around the same as gold, around about $US30,000 per kilo or litre, which sounds like a lot but that is a pure form,” Mr Benjamin said.
Only one of the 12 companies approved to grow medicinal cannabis currently has crop in the ground, and is nearing cultivation.
This means the first lot of Australian-grown medicinal cannabis products could be on the domestic market towards the end of the year.
Mr Hunt said the Australian industry had even bigger potential.
“I would like to see it expand from domestic growth and consumption, on a very safe regulated basis, for the potential to be an export crop,” he said.
“It is important that Australia becomes a natural global supplier of medicinal cannabis for the genuine therapeutic market.”
While the domestic cannabis industry gains momentum the Australian Medical Association (AMA) is cautioning against crop falling into the hands of drug users or the black market trade.
Medicinal cannabis usually comes in the form of oils or sprays, however a spokesperson for the TGA said approvals for raw cannabis products have also been granted under a special access scheme.
“Our position is very clear, in terms of there is no role for recreational use of medicinal cannabis,” vice president Tony Bartone said.
“It is not something we want to see or see it get into the wrong hands.”
The AMA is also waiting to see if Australian-grown and made medicinal cannabis drugs are on par with their overseas counterparts.
Most of the existing research into the health claims of medicinal cannabis relied on crop grown overseas, so medical professionals in Australia are waiting to see the outcomes of studies into locally made cannabis drugs.
That research will help to develop guidelines for Australian medical professionals wanting to prescribe the drug.
“Because of the peculiarities of the plant it varies in consistency and component nature from one [growing] area to another,” Dr Bartone said.
“These [local studies] are also occurring to ensure that what the guidelines and evidence show is based on locally produced and sourced products as well.”
The clinical trials are currently being run by academics from the Universities of New South Wales, Sydney and Queensland, with support from the TGA and state and territory health departments.
The AMA said there is some overseas evidence to show medicinal cannabis has a role to play in reducing the symptoms of epilepsy, as well as easing the nausea experienced by anorexia sufferers or people taking HIV medication.
“There is also some preliminary evidence pointing to a role [medicinal cannabis plays] in other neurological disorders,” Dr Bartone said.
However, despite the surge in public support for medicinal cannabis and the issuing of licences for companies to grow or process medicinal cannabis, the TGA said there is only limited evidence from clinical trials and in medical literature to back its health claims.
“The incompleteness of evidence is due to few trials being possible around the world due to medicinal cannabis products being generally prohibited or heavily controlled in research in countries such as the US until fairly recently,” a TGA spokesperson said.
If the local studies amount to more support of Australian-grown medicinal cannabis it will give local farmers, and not just pharmaceutical companies, more confidence to spend big and invest in the industry.
Source: 420Intel – Medical Cannabis