This week Down Under

Hemp pioneer downbeat over Australian cannabis legalisation proposal

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Related tags Cannabis

An Australian hemp pioneer has reacted with caution to a government proposal to allow the cultivation of cannabis in Australia for medical and scientific purposes.

Paul Benhaim, chief executive of Elixinol, a medical marijuana company, said the proposal looked good on the surface, but in reality Australians might still be years away from having access to real medicinal marijuana products.

Under the proposed Canberra legislation, a permit scheme would be established for the supply of medical cannabis to patients with painful and chronic conditions. It is expected to become law by the end of March after the main opposition party immediately pledged support for it

Health Minister, Ms Sussan Ley, said last week that amendments to the Narcotics Drugs Act 1967 would allow the controlled cultivation of cannabis for medicinal or scientific purposes through one single national licensing scheme—an Australian first.

Ley said the conservative Liberal government under Malcolm Turnbull had worked closely with the states and territories, law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders over the past eight weeks to ensure this legislation was “robust​” before bringing it to parliament to give it the best chance of a smooth passage.

However, Benhaim’s says that his scepticism stems from over 25 years as an early pioneer in the hemp food and cannabis industries both in Australia and overseas. In 2013, he set up the Elixinol medical cannabis company in the America, rather than his home state of New South Wales, where the manufacture of whole-plant cannabis tinctures and medical pastes would be deemed illegal even though the products contained insignificant amounts of the psychoactive compound THC, the source of the marijuana high.

The only way you can access our products here right now is through our website in the United States, but we would like to grow and manufacture our products here in Australia​,” he said.

With this new proposed legislation, in reality we are no closer to where we want to be, and that is here in Australia​.”

While the new legislation allows for cultivation of medical-grade cannabis under a federally controlled licensing system, it will be left up to the individual states to decide how the product is consumed, if at all.

The use of synthetic cannabis medicines has dominated recent trials—ahead of natural, whole-plant cannabis extracts—to the bewilderment of Benhaim, who cites peer-reviewed clinical studies that show that synthetic cannabis has side-effects and is not as safe as whole-plant medicine. 

"Companies like ours exist, with Australian teams, and the government knows we exist. Our products are safe, predictable and contain no synthetic chemicals, unlike some of the synthetic 'cannabis'  products that are currently being trialled in this country​,” said Benhaim.

Indeed, there has not been a single recorded death attributed to the consumption of cannabis in more than 6,000 years, he claims.

The human endo-cannabinoid system is a complex system. Naturally occurring phyto-cannabinoids present in cannabis can be easily and readily utilised by the human body correctly. As soon as you begin to isolate any one particular cannabinoid or synthesise it, you may start running into serious problems​,” explained Benhaim. 

His comments follow a recently reported French drug study which saw the death of one person and caused permanent brain damaged to another five. This was the result of a reaction to a drug that was targeting the human endocannabinoid system, the very same receptors that natural cannabis targets in mammals. 

Initially the world’s media reported that the deaths where attributed to a cannabis-based drug, though it was later revealed that the trial involved no real cannabis at all.

Benhaim said: “What I’m most concerned about is that this legislation may stifle this emerging industry rather than promote it, as most state governments are already leaning heavily towards the pharmaceutical industry over experienced manufactures of naturally derived products​. 

We approached the Queensland Department of Agriculture to allow us to grow medical cannabis after the federal announcement. Yet we were bluntly told by a staff member that 'there is no way you you’re going to be allowed to grow medical cannabis in Queensland—ever​.’ "  

So far Victoria is leading the way in Australian natural medical cannabis, says Benhaim. The government there has already drafted its own legislation surrounding the use of plant-derived products.

They seem to understand and recognise the benefits of using whole-plant products and want to support the people that can benefit most from them​,” said Benhaim.

The hemp entrepreneur stresses that he doesn’t want Canberra to miss the point of allowing access to medical cannabis. 

"This entire movement was started from the grass roots: mums and dads who have had no option but to break the law to treat their kids with real cannabis from the black market. Will this new legislation leave them wanting​?

Not allowing or severely restricting access to this medicine really defeats the purpose of the Bill. I really hope the other states follow the lead of Victoria and allow access to those who need it. We have the ability to grow and manufacture in any state through our investment and know-how. We will just have to wait and see which state wants us​.” 

Elsewhere, listed nutritional pharmaceutical company Medlab Clinical, which last year became one of the first commercial entities in New South Wales to receive state government approval for use of cannabis in medical research, voiced its approval of the proposal.

Sean Hall, Medlab’s clinical chief executive, said developing Medlab’s pain management therapy in an environment of government support for the medical use of cannabis could reduce clinical trial time, and thus accelerate the delivery of cannabis products in controlled doses for targeted treatment into the community.

Yet, although he is cautious about the direction of the medical cannabis industry in Australia, Benhaim is still upbeat about where Elixinol is headed as a company. 

We are one of the largest, most respected medical cannabis companies in the world. We have helped many thousands of people with our products globally and we will do our best to make sure Australian patients have access to the same​,” he said.

More stories from Down Under…

Kiwi meat-free movement sees 27% growth in four years

Vegetarianism is growing in popularity in New Zealand, where the proportion of Kiwis who say the food they eat is completely, or almost all, vegetarian has grown by 27% since 2011, a survey has found.


In research conducted in 2015 and published this week, 10.3% of New Zealanders over the age of 14 said they were always or mostly vegetarian—a figure up from 8.1% four years earlier. 

While the incidence of vegetarianism has increased across all major demographic segments, growth has been sharpest within the 14-34 age group (up 63%), on the North Island (up 32%), and among men (up 63%), Roy Morgan Research found.

The rate of vegetarianism drops sharply among 35-49 year-olds, however, perhaps because it is harder to maintain a non-meat diet when there are kids to feed. 

Women remain slightly more likely than men to try to abstain from meat (11.3%), while just 7.8% of South Islanders eat only or almost only vegetarian food. 

As more and more Kiwis at least attempt to live a vegetarian lifestyle, it will become increasingly important for a range of businesses—from supermarkets and their suppliers, to takeaway and fast food outlets—to understand this group​,” said John La Rosa of Roy Morgan Research, adding that New Zealanders was still meat-lovers.

In fact, almost half of New Zealand’s vegetarian grocery buyers purchase some form of fresh meat during the week. Supermarkets in particular will need to ensure they can cater to these vegetarian meat-buyers, providing organic, humanely sourced and trustworthy options​.”

Yet the research also shows that vegetarians are well over twice as likely as the average Kiwi to avoid dairy foods whenever possible—perhaps as part of a stricter vegan diet—or to try to buy only organic food. 

However they also are big consumers of frozen or chilled ready-prepared meals and takeaway foods who say they don’t have time to spend cooking​,” La Rosa added.  

Recent months have seen some highs and lows for New Zealand’s growing vegetarian population. Late last year, a petition called for Countdown to introduce a vegan aisle, though the supermarket chain refused.

Meanwhile, Z Energy’s new vegan pie had become a big hit—until it came out in the new year that its pastry contained just a pinch of ground-up poultry feathers.

Fsanz invites public submissions on use of dairy processing aid

The antipodean food regulator has called for public evidence in a bid to allow the use of an agarose ion exchange resin to extract lactoferrin from milk. 


This processing aid is already used elsewhere in the world to extract the lactoferrin from milk for use as an ingredient in other products​,” Steve McCutcheon, chief executive of Fsanz, said.

Welcoming comments from government agencies, public health professionals, the food industry and the community, McCutcheon added that the regulator had assessed the application and determined no public health and safety concerns were associated with its use.

The closing date for submissions is March 29.

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