The medicinal cannabis industry is still suffering from erroneous claims that CBD and THC hold the key to a multitude of conditions for which there is no evidence, a senior executive has warned.
Cann Group chief operating officer Shane Duncan said the “cure-all” message pushed by some had alienated GPs and was still causing health organisations to dismiss the medicine.
Speaking at the GCI cannabis summit, Duncan also reiterated the need for imported product to be held to the same standards as local medicine, a view shared by Little Green Pharma chief executive Fleta Solomon.
If the disparity in quality requirements continues, Australian manufacturers could be the victims of a price war that risks “bastardising” the local industry, she said.
In a discussion on the local landscape, Duncan said “robust science” in Australia and overseas was helping to demonstrate where medicinal cannabis can be useful.
But it still has work to do in winning the trust and support of the wider health sector.
“Two years ago, what I found frustrating – and I know it was putting doctors off – was the universal cure-all message that was associated with cannabis,” he said. “It cured and treated everything. That is terrific and a great story if it’s true. But it’s very hard to believe and that alienated a number of prescribers.
“And we still see that in terms of some like the Pain Society who are very reluctant to give any endorsement to cannabis treatment. A more responsible representation of where cannabis can help – and where it possibly can’t – does us a lot of good in terms of doctor credibility.”
While Duncan said progress had been made, with more doctors starting to prescribe cannabis, the industry could do more.
Some GPs have moved from being “curious” to “taking it on” and realising it was not dissimilar to other forms of medicine.
“They realised it wasn’t as complicated or mysterious as they first thought it was going to be,” he said.
“As an industry we could do a better job of collectively pooling our efforts to get more doctors comfortable with the construct of cannabis and how it could fit into their practice,” he said. “But there are some encouraging signs.”
He added that Australian firms were starting to cultivate and manufacturer a full range of products.
“All the money and all the time we’ve spent establishing our businesses and our capability is now translating into medicine that we can provide to Australian doctors and patients.”
Additionally, the high-quality GMP standards demanded by the Therapeutics Goods Administration was, while difficult, “incredibly important for our reputation”.
The standards were not only for the benefit of patients and doctors in Australia but also recognised and welcomed by international markets, he said.
“We are a medicine under a regulatory framework. The controls, the discipline, the framework, the transparency of what is required and the commitment to quality and safety stands us in good stead when we talk to international markets. It’s an important stamp of approval.
“It makes it easier when we go through some of the discussions, particularly with regional regulatory authorities in Germany.
“While we sometimes find it a bit difficult, it’s no different from anyone else who is producing medicine, so we have to shrug our shoulders and get on with it.”
However, the executive said the less stringent standards required for imported product – a major cause of tension in the industry – needed addressing.
“We all know how long it takes to get through the testing and stability to have sufficient shelf life… all we ask for is that we are held up to the same lens (as imported product). We are not asking for a leg up or any preferential treatment. Just one set of rules for everybody.”
Duncan’s comments followed those of Solomon who described the varying standards as a “huge gap” in the regulatory structure.
But she welcomed the TGA’s recent confirmation that it would explore the issue.
“It’s coming to fruition and I’m excited to see where this goes to make sure everybody is on a level playing field,” she told the summit.
A key issue was price competition, with Australian firms struggling to match imported products which don’t have the costs associated with GMP regulations.
“The time, investment, resource and cost associated with all of the requirements adds to the end price for patients,” Solomon said. “Yet we are having to compete with imported products that don’t have any of this.
“Some of them are not even manufactured in GMP facilities so the pricing is very low and we can’t necessarily compete with that in Australia, unless we are looking at a loss. It’s a really important point to recognise.
“There are some groups that have the cost so low, and they can keep going lower and lower. How low do they go before it bastardises the industry?”
Duncan added: “We are all moving towards operations at scale and scale will allow us both in cultivation and manufacturing to gain efficiencies and improve margin and have the ability to move on price and still be able to run profitable businesses.”
Industry commentator and Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen said the long supply chain – four or five stages – in the production of Australian medicine contributed to the cost.
“It quickly adds up and everyone has to make a profit along the way,” he said. “The shorter we have our supply chain, the more locally we can cultivate and manufacture, the better chance we have of affordable products.”
- For more coverage from the GCI cannabis summit, click here.