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Our medical cannabis research

By Health House

I can hardly believe that it was December 2016 that I sat down with Dr Shaun Holt to discuss New Zealand medical cannabis.

Normally Dr Holt is the one with creative ideas and I am the one who addresses the production issues. It was quite surprising this time to find he was the one saying it would be very difficult and the bureaucracy would drive us crazy.

We needed four things to make it happen, medical standard grow rooms, a doctor with a knowledge of natural products, a research organisation to do a clinical trial and a factory that could manufacture products to pharmaceutical standards.

Dr Holt introduced me to Professor Richard Beasley, the Director of the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, NZ’s leading independent clinical trials organisation.

Our team at Zealand Health Manufacturing (ZHM) had already been working on implementing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Scott our warehouse manager (now grow manager) had 20+ years experience growing export quality flowers. I was confident we had the skills to cultivate and produce pharmaceutical grade medical cannabis.

I asked David Coory (Dad) to research it (refer to his article "My about face on medical cannabis") and then he said go-ahead.

We meet with Government Officials

In January 2017, Dr Holt, Professor Beasley and myself went to Wellington to meet with representatives from the Ministry of Health (MOH).

To our pleasant surprise, the MOH was positive and helpful. They gave us information on licences and we began the first steps in the challenging process to start growing medical cannabis in New Zealand.

In April 2017 we meet with Peter Dunne (yes he was still in Government and the Medical Cannabis regulations had not even been considered). This taught me the first of many valuable lessons. Who would have thought that discussing your medical cannabis plans with the Associate Minister of Health, meant you were in fact disclosing your plans to someone who is now on the advisory board of a competing medical cannabis company.

Then there was a change of government. It is pleasing (and quite fortuitous) that the Labour government then introduced specific medical cannabis legislation and regulations. During this long legislative and regulatory process we continued with our cannabis research project.

I have to admit Dr Holt was right, it has turned out to be a lot more difficult and time consuming than I ever thought.

Our trial at Lincoln University

To grow high quality medical cannabis requires temperature and humidity controlled grow rooms, no germs, no bugs, no pests, no dirt and no pesticides. We began designing suitable rooms and identifying the best equipment and processes.

While doing this research we were introduced to the appropriate staff members at Lincoln University. The University has controlled environment plant growth rooms. We went down to meet the team, to discuss whether they could help us with our research process. They were keen to help and the knowledge and experience in horticulture that they had was impressive (just not in the specific plants we were asking them to grow).

In October 2017 we received the necessary MOH licences so Lincoln University could grow cannabis plants on our behalf. This would provide us with raw material to do testing on, select the strain(s) and develop our manufacturing processes.

We then obtained MOH and Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) licences to import suitable medical seeds from the Netherlands and organised the inspections that would be required as the plants grew. This was also a new challenging process because as far as we know, no-one had legally imported medical cannabis seeds before.

We sent down our cultivation equipment to Lincoln University and the first lot of seeds arrived at the University in April 2018. Craig, a plant inspector from MPI came in every few weeks to inspect the plants.

Staff at the University did a great job managing two full crops of cannabis plants for us. Team members from ZHM went down to help with and learn about seed treatment, cultivation, sampling and harvest.  Our first plants were harvested in August 2018 and the second batch in October 2018.

Testing and inspections

Helen at the ESR performed all the cannabinoid level testing on the many samples from the plants as they grew at the University and later at our site. The ESR (the Institute of Environmental Science and Research) is New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute and their extensive drug analytical services means we could test and then select the most suitable strains of plants.

The testing of the plants is a very important part of the process and we need to ensure that each plant has exactly the level of CBD and THC needed (for more information on why these levels are important refer to page 6).

Our Research cultivation facility

While the cultivation was happening at the University we constructed our own research grow rooms to the same high standard as our existing clean rooms.

We followed industry and international best practice. It is important that the air is filtered and at the correct temperature/humidity. The water is pure and we don’t use pesticides or anything else unnatural on the plants. The plants are fed with minerals and the nutrient formula is a lot like our CAA-Multi formula (but designed for plants) e.g. potassium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, etc.

We do not use soil but use blocks made from 100% natural chalk and rock, free from bugs and any contaminants.

For lighting we wanted to use the latest technology so we choose LED lights. These special lights allow us to programme in a cycle so we can replicate the sun as closely as possible.

With the temperature, humidity, lighting and nutrients all controlled to a preferred level, they are probably the most pampered plants in the country.

Abu, a MPI Technical supervisor comes and inspects our plants every few weeks. We cannot harvest the plants until a final check and sign off is given.

We planted our first crop in our grow rooms in February 2019 and our first harvest was three months later. We are now about to harvest crop number seven and are preparing to apply for a commercial cultivation licence.

As you can see we have taken our responsibility to provide top quality and safe medical cannabis very seriously.