LOOKING for a new crop to add to your rotation?
With the change in federal and WA legislation earlier this month and a growing demand for cannabis to treat a wide variety of ailments from epilepsy to multiple sclerosis, medicinal cannabis could also be an additional opportunity for WA farmers looking for a different crop.
AusCann is one of several Australian companies looking to grow and manufacture medicinal cannabis in Australia.
Managing director Elaine Darby said while demand for the product will be met through the company's joint venture in Chile, there were long-term opportunities for growers in WA.
"We still need to get the knowledge out there in the medical community - doctors need confidence in the medicine and the science - and that will take some time,"she said.
The varieties, or strains, of medicinal cannabis differ from industrial hemp or illicit marijuana in its cannabinoid content, particularly the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content.
Industrial hemp is used in a wide variety of textiles, fuel, oil and building materials and contains less than 0.35 per cent of THC, the compound that gives the "high" feeling and is the sought-after feature in illicit marijuana.
Where medicinal cannabis differs is these strains are bred to increase various cannabinoids, which works with the body's own endocannabinoid system and can assist in the treatment and management of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Medicinal cannabis strains contain a small percentage of the THC cannabinoid which can help for pain relief in cancer patients and palliative care.
While the size of the market in Australia is still undetermined, Ms Darby said AusCann estimated that within two years about 20,000 patients would access the product, consuming up to a gram per day in dried weight product as a vapour or orally, which is the equivalent of about 300 milligrams of the active ingredient cannabinoid.
The cost per patient is expected to be $8-10 per day.
Australian Medical Association WA president Andrew Miller is cautious.
He said while preliminary findings showed that medicinal cannabis could be quite effective in helping patients suffering from spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, there were other drugs already approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration that were as or more effective.
"Medicinal cannabis products may also help cancer and HIV patients manage nausea and a lack of appetite, however there is a lot of research to be done before doctors can confidently prescribe medicinal cannabis," Dr Miller said.
"There needs to be more robust studies on the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis before it is used in other areas where we already have medicines.
"It is very unlikely it will have wide applications that will sustain a significant industry.
"It must also be stressed that medicinal cannabis in the Australian context is not raw cannabis, rather it is one or two of the hundreds of chemicals that are found in the plant.
"These derivatives are not the all-curing wonder drug that some advocates claim and are only effective in a very limited scope of medicine."
To increase knowledge in the cultivation of cannabis as well as its medicinal properties, AusCann has partnered with Murdoch University as part of a five-year research alliance.
The company also works with Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth Corporation, European cannabis breeding company Phytoplant and recently signed a joint venture with Chilean Fundación Daya to grow product in Chile.
"We are particularly proud to have Murdoch University as a partner, given their research into plant breeding is truly world renowned,'' Ms Darby said.
The company will work with Michael Jones, the foundation director of the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre and professor of agricultural biotechnology at Murdoch University.
Professor Jones is an internationally recognised expert in agricultural biotechnology and has been involved in the development of molecular diagnostic tests for the grains industry, pioneering the use of marker-assisted selection for wheat and barley in WA, and more recently developing gene silencing technology to control crop pests.
"I am really looking forward to working with AusCann and to help build up the knowledge base in developing improved medicinal cannabis lines,'' Professor Jones said.
"The recent changes to the Narcotics Drug Act have provided a pathway to permit cannabis for medicinal product manufacture, to be grown in Australia."
Pending growing and manufacturing approvals from the Office of Drug Control and Therapeutic Goods Administration, AusCann aims to be growing medicinal cannabis in Australia from the second half of next year.
While this will initially be grown in-house by the company, Ms Darby said there could be opportunities for WA growers if and when Australian legislation allows the product to be exported.
The research with Murdoch University could also allow strains to be bred that would increase water and nutrient use efficiency and reduce dependence on daylight.
"The biggest cost in growing cannabis is electricity as the growth is regulated through the length of day," she said.
"We can grow three to four crops per year indoors in a greenhouse, however if growing outdoors you can only grow one crop per year.
"Different strains and plant breeding means that medicinal cannabis could be incorporated into horticulture or broadacre operations, subject to meeting security requirements.
Like the cultivation of alkaloid poppies in Tasmania, farmers growing cannabis must meet stringent requirements, including accountability of plants and seed and farm security.
Pemberton farmer Gary Bendotti trialled industrial hemp last year as part of his potato growing operations.
Looking for ways to rehabilitate soil and reduce chemical costs, Mr Bendotti decided to trial a three hectare crop under centre pivots after obtaining a two year licence which cost him between $2000-2800.
He said the jury was still out on whether it would be a viable option on his farm.
"It is a crop that takes a lot of work - it grows very quick and doesn't grow uniformly which makes it difficult to harvest, getting a good supply of seed can be an issue and the cost of a licence means it needs to be a larger crop to be more profitable," he said.
"We will give it another go this year but we find that growing field peas and tillage radish is less hassle and suits our operation better."