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Increased demand and regulation reform allows domestic cannabis industry to blossom
In a secret greenhouse in southern Tasmania 3,000 cannabis plants sit bathed in golden light, ready for harvest.
Workers wearing HAZMATs and hairnets methodically snip their way through the crop, sending piles of pungent flower heads trundling down fluorescent hallways to the drying room.
This is an industry on the precipice of major expansion, where consumer demand is rising and regulation is being streamlined on both the farm and in the pharmacy.
Overseeing the harvest is Grace Lamont, a genetic research assistant at Tasmanian Botanics.
"Every one of these plants is a clone and that is how we're controlling the consistency of the output, so they should all have a very close range of cannabinoid content," she says.
"They're getting daily watering with a nutrient mix … and they have light for 12 hours a day."
With 40 staff and plans to hire 60 more, this is no backyard operation.
Confidence in the future of Australia's domestic cannabis market has companies spending big.
Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into the facilities at Tasmanian Botanics, which will soon begin production in a greenhouse that's two stories high and about the size of a soccer field.
Growing medicinal cannabis in Australia involves a lot of paperwork.
However, many of these rules and regulations are being streamlined according to Josie Hamlett, the compliance and logistics officer at Tasmanian Botanics.
"We definitely have a lot of hoops to jump through, working in the industry that we do … particularly in some cases when federal and state legislation doesn't align," she says.
"But there's been a lot of reforms. It makes our life easier, but it definitely makes the patient's life easier too.
"It feels like the government is definitely on board."
Peter Fielding knows all about jumping through hoops.
He was diagnosed with oesophagus cancer in 2019 and struggled to get access to medicinal cannabis.
"Try finding a practitioner who can prescribe it legally. It's still a problem," he says.
"All I can describe it as is a miracle relief of pain. It's so much less invasive than the opiates.
"I was given four months. I'm now up to 23 months and about 5 days, not that I'm counting!"
Almost all cannabinoid products are unapproved therapeutic goods.
This means the government body in charge of medicines in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, can't vouch for their safety, quality or efficacy.
This helps explain why many doctors and pharmacists are hesitant to prescribe medicinal cannabis, according to Dr Yvonne Bonomo, a physician and researcher at the Australian Centre for Cannabinoid Clinical and Research Excellence.
"[Medical professionals] haven't gone through that usual path of learning about how cannabinoids work, what you prescribe them for, how you prescribe them, what you should be monitoring for in terms of adverse events and side effects," she says.
"We have to allow time for healthcare professionals to understand the field."
However, Dr Bonomo says change is coming.
"With time, where they are shown to become effective, [cannabinoids] will become more available," she says.
Tasmanian Botanics CEO Dan Howard is used to the sight and smell of cannabis. He has recently moved from Canada where you can legally buy the product for medicinal and recreational purposes.
"From the medical market evolved the adult-use market and that has now proliferated across [Canada] with thousands and thousands of stores and hundreds of producers," he says.
Mr Howard believes Australia is heading in a similar direction.
"If you think back to 10 years ago, globally it wasn't legal anywhere. It was a narcotic drug viewed like heroin or cocaine in a lot of countries," he says.
"And now legalisation is proliferating around the world.
"It's not an if, it's a when."
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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