CSIRO looks to get into medicinal cannabis to take advantage of US$44bn market
Store manager Ruby Amsden, left, attends to medical marijuana customer and retired nurse Jan Stewart, who uses cannabis to relieve pain associated with her recovery from bone cancer and help with sleeping, at the Minerva medical cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe, USA. Credit: Morgan Lee/AP
Cannabis cough lollies and a variety of products harnessing the medicinal properties of marijuana could soon be produced by Australia’s national science agency as it looks to position the country at the forefront of what could be a US$44 billion global industry by 2024.
CSIRO is currently the only independent research institute in Australia able to develop drug manufacturing protocols in the medicinal cannabis space, and the agency has been granted a new licence to partner with local manufacturers to produce therapeutics.
CSIRO scientist Professor Peter Duggan told The West Live the new licence would bridge the gap between growing the cannabis plants and turning the plants into medicines.
“There’s already more than 20 (medicinal cannabis companies) on the stock exchange, and a number of private companies as well, so there is a huge amount of interest on the Australian scene,” Professor Duggan said.
“But one of the issues is a lot of these companies have been focused on growing the plants, getting the right genetics, learning how to dry them, and there hasn’t been a lot of work on the next stage, which is producing actual medicines.”
Professor Duggan said smoking a joint wasn’t an acceptable way to absorb medicinal cannabis in Australia, so the simplest vehicle for the delivery of such medicine is putting the cannabis extract in an oil, such as coconut oil.
“That’s already been prescribed around Australia, but that’s pretty low technology,” Professor Duggan said.
“Capsules or tablets are a slight extension on that, but there are a lot of other formats we’re expecting to be quite efficacious, like lozenges or wafers ... beverages, but there’s a lot of interest in trans-dermal delivery through the skin with creams and patches.”
Researchers are exploring the potential for medicinal cannabis to help with conditions such as epilepsy and the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy treatment, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.
The leaves of a marijuana plant inside Ultra Health's cultivation greenhouse in Bernalillo, New Mexico. Credit: Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
Olivia Newton-John, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2017, revealed last year that she and husband John Easterling, a plant medicine specialist, grow their own cannabis in a greenhouse on their property in California.
“I know Australia is a bit behind the rest of the world with cannabis but I’m hoping eventually Australia will realise that cannabis is a medicine and it can help people,” she said at the time.
The use of cannabis for medicinal purposes is highly regulated in Australia.
However, in December, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved over-the-counter pharmacy sales of a low-dose form of cannabidiol (commonly abbreviated to “CBD”), one of the key components of cannabis that can help with a range of medical conditions.
Olivia Newton John. Credit: MARK SULLIVAN-BRADLEY/News Corp Australia
Professor Duggan said it was possible some people might try to exploit the system to obtain medicinal cannabis products for recreational purposes, as has been observed in America.
“There are potential side-effects and potential drug interactions that can lead to unfortunate consequences, so it’s really important people who take these drugs do it through a physician,” he said.
However, the CSIRO scientist said he couldn’t see Australia following in the footsteps of America, where CBD can now be found in beer, chocolate and a variety of readily available products.
“There’s obviously a push for that in some parts of Australian society, but many medicinal cannabis companies are not keen on that because it complicates the whole thing and makes it difficult for the proper control and care of patients,” Professor Duggan said.