Cannabizness

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

The distinctive shape of the marijuana leaf is one of the most recognisable pieces of botanic anatomy in the world. But the emerald-green, universal iconography goes way beyond the image itself as a symbol of rebellion, activism, peace, and solidarity within a non-liberal society. When the ‘60s counterculture and Rastafari movements embraced the ‘free-loving-flowering-weed’, the power of the symbol increased to mega status, outdoing even the anti-nuclear emblem of the ‘50s, and resonating equally with one of the most instantly recognisable symbols in the world: Coca-Cola.

Cannabis is the most-used illicit drug worldwide (Statista, 2021), outstripping 62 million opioid users by almost 200,000 in 2019. However, the traditional face of cannabis changed when in 1996 the US legalised marijuana for medicinal purposes with the enactment of the Compassionate Use Act. Retail sales of medical marijuana shot up, while anecdotally, opioid use and abuse products fell by 20%.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

The distinctive shape of the marijuana leaf is one of the most recognisable pieces of botanic anatomy in the world. But the emerald-green, universal iconography goes way beyond the image itself as a symbol of rebellion, activism, peace, and solidarity within a non-liberal society. When the ‘60s counterculture and Rastafari movements embraced the ‘free-loving-flowering-weed’, the power of the symbol increased to mega status, outdoing even the anti-nuclear emblem of the ‘50s, and resonating equally with one of the most instantly recognisable symbols in the world: Coca-Cola.

Cannabis is the most-used illicit drug worldwide (Statista, 2021), outstripping 62 million opioid users by almost 200,000 in 2019. However, the traditional face of cannabis changed when in 1996 the US legalised marijuana for medicinal purposes with the enactment of the Compassionate Use Act. Retail sales of medical marijuana shot up, while anecdotally, opioid use and abuse products fell by 20%.

By 2019, the US had planted 511,442 licenced acres of industrial hemp across 34 states and were surfing a new wave of taxable revenue. Suddenly, the cannabidiol properties of the plant had become big business.

By 2024, it’s estimated that medicinal marijuana may generate up to nearly 12 billion US dollars in sales, and the global cannabidiol (CBD) market size is expected to reach USD$55 billion by 2028 (Market Data Forecast, 2021).

Movers, shakers, supporters, and users of the plant probably already had a strong inkling of its potential for positivity. And those in the know – who, according to the United Nations are more than 3.8% of the world’s population (or 200 million people) – might need no convincing of the fact that marijuana has maintained its position as a cure-all since the Neolithic era (10,000-3,000 BC).

Marijuana has its roots firmly planted in thousands of years of human cultivation. There’s no irony in the fact that the highest number of cannabis users (61.46 million, Statista, 2021) can be found in Asia because this is its country of origin.

In 2008, nearly two pounds of cannabis were found in the Yanghai Tombs near Turpan, Xinjiang-Uighur, China. They date back 2,700 years and provide the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent, contributing to the medical and archaeological record of pre-Silk Road culture. Etched in ancient history, its use as both a medicine and psychopharmaceutical has continued to reign without wavering.

In 440 BC, ancient Greek writer Herodotus included an account of ritualistic and mind-altering cannabis use in Book IV of his acclaimed Histories: “The Scythians, … take some of this hemp-seed, and … throw it upon the red hot stones.” When the hemp began to smoke and release a vapour, the “Scyths, delighted, shout[ed] for joy.”

Leaping forward in history to 1840, Queen Victoria reportedly used cannabis for menstrual cramps and early colonists were encouraged to grow hemp to be used in the production of rope, paper, and cloth. Today, there are over 51,000 products derived from the hemp plant: from textiles, papers and paints, to energy, protein and building materials, in addition to medicinal use (Wikibooks, 2018).

In the US, cannabis was widely utilised as a patent medicine during the 19th and early 20th centuries and was described in the United States Pharmacopoeia for the first time in 1850.

In 1889, an article in world-leading medical journal The Lancet by Dr E. A. Birch outlined the application of cannabis for the treatment of opium and chloral hydrate withdrawal symptoms: the mixture reduced the opium craving and acted as an anti-emetic.

Hemp, in all its various guises, was everywhere.

When in 1906 President Roosevelt signed the Food and Drugs Act (the Wiley Act), the liberal nature of cannabis started to change. Over-the-counter drugs containing cannabis had to be labelled and became regulated legally and by 1927, ten US states had passed marijuana prohibition laws.

In the 1930s, as demand for marijuana-based medications accelerated, pharmaceutical firms attempted to produce consistently potent and reliable drugs from hemp. At least two American companies – Parke-Davis and Eli Lily – were selling standardised extracts of marijuana for use as an analgesic, antispasmodic and sedative. Another manufacturer, Grimault & Company, marketed marijuana cigarettes as a remedy for asthma.

Then the downfall: By the end of 1936, all 48 US states had enacted laws to regulate marijuana. Its decline as a medicine was hastened by the development of aspirin, morphine, and other opium-derived drugs, all of which helped to replace marijuana in the treatment of pain and other medical conditions in Western medicine.

In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act (strongly opposed by the American Medical Association) to “impose an excise tax upon certain dealers in marihuana, to pose a transfer tax upon certain dealings in marihuana, and to safeguard the revenue therefrom by registry and recording” (now scrapped). After the passage of the Act, prescriptions of marijuana declined because doctors decided it was easier not to prescribe marijuana than to deal with the extra work imposed by the new law.

In 1942, marijuana was removed from the United States Pharmacopeia, thus losing its remaining mantle of therapeutic legitimacy.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana — like heroin and LSD — as a Schedule I drug, meaning it had no currently accepted medical use and had a high potential for abuse. Marijuana became illegal under US federal law. The 1971 UK Misuse of Drugs Act introduced a drug classification system and sentencing guidelines. Cannabis was put in Class B, the middle of three classes. New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 followed suit.

Nándor Tánczos and Russell

The resultant social action drove the supply and purchase of marijuana further underground. Non-profit group NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) was the first of its kind to attempt to end marijuana prohibition and continues to do so worldwide.

Marijuana’s position as a drug offering a recreational ‘high’ has always existed alongside its valid purpose as a health product and medicinal aid. But calling industrial hemp ‘medicinal’ is a bugbear to Taranaki Green Fairy Russell, a cannabis activist for 30 years. (Green Fairy is a term used to describe cannabis growers and suppliers who network to help patients on compassionate grounds.)

Although the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2019 meant the approval of prescription medicinal psychoactive cannabis products and also the licensing of commercial cultivation of cannabis plants for medicinal use, Russell finds the fact that the government removed CBD from the Misuse of Drugs Act and into the Medicines Act 1981 frustrating.

“It’s something that should be health-based. The only reason it’s now described as medicinal is because people have made medicinal claims out of it, so now the Ministry of Health has made it into a prescription medicine,” Russell claims.

Government-approved cannabis-based pharmaceuticals can be prescribed by a specialist doctor but require patients to meet strict criteria. In New Zealand, CBD is not subsidised either, so patients must pay the full retail cost. That cost is prohibitive to the majority and as of October 2021, all imported or locally manufactured cannabis products must be verified under Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) quality control, reducing their availability, and effectively doubling their price. So far, seven products have passed muster; four are from Canadian company Tilray; Auckland’s Helius Therapeutics now has two approved products available – a CBD25 Isolate and a CBD100 Isolate, and Ruatōria’s Rua Bioscience has a CBD100 isolate ready now. Exciting times ahead!

Like the opportunist panners who rushed to gold-rich regions decades before, cannabis pioneers are looking to strike it lucky. Most companies are still at the concept stage of development, but there are many keen to climb on the bandwagon – all mostly crowd, or private investor funded. And the race is on towards Medsafe GMP certification.

Rua Bioscience and Auckland’s Zeacann were first to be licenced to grow under New Zealand’s Medicinal Cannabis Scheme 2020, with Cannasouth, Eqalis, Medleaf Therapeutics, Setek (ex-MP Peter Dunn is advisory board chairman), Nubu Pharma, Pure Heart Aotearoa, and Taranaki’s Greenfern Industries following hot on their heels. Some have gone a few steps further by listing their company on the New Zealand stock exchange. All told there are now some 25 medicinal cannabis licence holders New Zealand-wide with many more pending.

Growing licenced (government approved) medicinal cannabis in New Zealand is big business, then – and supported by many citizens. A recent poll carried out by the research company UMR surveyed 1750 New Zealanders concluded that 71% of the people surveyed supported the idea of a medicinal marijuana regime in New Zealand.

It’s certainly big business to the government. Keeping an invested interest in cannabis makes for a very healthy contribution to its coffers. Work by the NZ Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) shows a legal (licenced) cannabis industry could raise about $490 million a year in tax, including GST. Removal of the word ‘medicinal’ from the law defining the use of CBD as a health product would remove the product from governmental control and excise tax applications – so it makes sense that they’d rather not.

According to Russell, “All aspects of industrial hemp will be a growth industry, as long as the red tape is removed.” That hasn’t happened yet, and so with increased regulation, strict and inflexible standard requirements, a maximum allowance of 0.3% THC content per product, reduced supply and subsequent price hikes, the Green Fairy cohort has blossomed.

Aotearoa 1 licence holder Donald McIntosh’s words: “It is criminally negligent to deny cannabis to all who may need it,” are fighting words. Equally vehement Fairies Maki Herbert and Rose Renton echo them; Rose’s cannabis recipe book Rose’s Remedies was inspired by the death of her son from epilepsy. The following year she presented a 15,000-signature petition to Parliament, urging the Government to make medicinal cannabis more available.

In 2018 when his father was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, Green Fairy Russell sought palliative relief for him through THC and CBD. Russell was already a long-time advocate of the benefits of cannabis products after successfully treating his personal psychosis, anxiety, insulin dependency and chronic pain. He’s one of thousands of sufferers who have gained relief and the reasons are well documented.

In 1990, scientists discovered that the THC in marijuana binds with the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Some of the disorders allegedly alleviated by that process include seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet Syndrome (LGS and DS).

Several studies give CBD a high potential for therapeutic use, antiepileptic, anxiolytic, antipsychotic, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects.

Specific applications of CBD have recently emerged in pain management (conditions included neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and mixed chronic pain), diabetes, insomnia, neurodevelopmental disorders like Tourette’s, PTSD, social anxiety disorder, cancer, chemotherapy-associated nausea, and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington’s disease.

With such strong evidence, the Green Fairy ‘underground’ market has continued to burgeon with health and beauty products; cannabis cafes and interactive museums are proposed. Pop-up shops can be seen, and Cannabis Clinics have also flourished, allowing consumers to purchase products online via a simple phone call or video chat.

Sister of Compassion Saint Suzanne Mary Joseph Aubert – the first person known to grow cannabis in New Zealand to fund her welfare work in the late 1800s – features in the Whakamana Cannabis Museum of Aotearoa (now closed). As the political debate continues to hamstring non-government approved business development and hinders the relief of those suffering, perhaps now is the time to revisit the compassionate mission of Saint Mother Aubert and advocate cannabis as solace and health therapy for the unwell.

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