GOOD NEIGHBOURS: Henare and Katie Gage want their neighbours to know that growing medicinal cannabis will not worsen the region’s drug problem or crime. Photo Troy Baker D7828-09

AN OTAKIRI couple who plan to start a medicinal cannabis operation hope the stigma attached to marijuana won’t affect their relationship with the community.

Henare and Katie Gage began researching the potential of growing medicinal cannabis when Mr Gage’s father was diagnosed with cancer.

“My dad got sick, that’s what brought us back home. He had prostate cancer that developed into bone cancer. We looked at all sorts of avenues because he wasn’t taking too well to the medication he was given,” he said.

“From his radiation therapy, he just went downhill. The doctors said it had spread through his body.”

He said they tried all types of natural healing ideas such as fruit diets to alleviate his father’s cancer and pain but his health continued to decline.

What happened to his father hardened his and his wife’s desire to help those with cancer.

After 10 years of research, they found many people who would benefit from medicinal cannabis but couldn’t gain access.

“We have come across a lot of people through this process who are looking for alternatives to synthetic medication,” he said.

Despite a large amount of science supporting the benefits of medicinal cannabis, the public attitude was still shaped by prohibition laws, he said.

“We’ve been in this process for a few years now. It’s been hard because of the stigma behind it.”

Operating under the name Whakaari Enterprises, they have founded a board of nine investors. The company has received encouragement from individual members of Whakatane and Kawerau district councils to continue forward.

“There are a lot of people from all walks of life who support this,” Mr Gage said.

“It is a very controlled substance. It all has to be medicinal grade. It’s on a corporate level, you have MPs that are supporting this.”

Medicinal grade cannabis is lower in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that causes euphoria, and higher in cannabidiol (CBD) – believed to be the source of the plant’s medicinal component.

“The plants we plan to grow aren’t for the black market. We are looking at strains that are high in CBD,” he said.

If approved, the facility could eventually have up to two hectares of covered land to grow the product. But the amount they can produce will be closely regulated.

“That’s all up to the Government. They are looking at growers having quotas. But I can tell you that the market demand is huge and the supply is small,” he said.

He said New Zealand’s climate was ideal for plant growth, a benefit that some countries lack.

With the legalisation of cannabis in other countries, many growers are concentrating on the recreational rather than the medicinal market. That has worsened issues around supply in what are already marginal growing zones.

“First Nations Indians in Canada are trying to grow cannabis in a subarctic climate. That’s not good for cannabis. A lot of money has gone into these organisations but what they are producing isn’t as good as what New Zealand can. That’s why European companies are looking over here,” he said.

“We’ve been speaking with companies in Europe, Australia, Canada and America. They all know New Zealand is coming up and they’re all following this whole thing here.”

He said guidelines surrounding just the research phase of the process were stringent.

Importing seeds from an authorised supplier requires serious Government scrutiny.

Mr Gage said it was almost ironic that he hoped to grow a crop with such a stigma attached to it as his father was a military man with a no-nonsense attitude. He said he was also hopeful that with an easing of the medicinal cannabis laws, more Kiwis would find the help they needed.

“I had that kind of upbringing and it’s kind of unfortunate that it was my dad’s situation that pulled us into this. But along the way we have met a lot of people who want to see change. We’ve met a lot of people in pain who can’t get this sort of medication through the Ministry of Health, so they are moving away from the country,” he said.

“A friend of ours had a tumour and she moved to Australia. She has picked up so much since she’s been on medicinal cannabis.”