Foundation work at Shepparton’s $160 million medicinal cannabis, which will employ upwards of 400 people, and produce 160 tonnes of medicinal cannabis each year, is expected to start early in the new year.
But what else will it mean for the people of Shepparton and those it will help? SHARON WRIGHT reports.
Construction of Cannatrek’s $160 million medicinal cannabis facility near Shepparton — tipped to be one of the world’s largest — is expected to help ease the financial burden for end users.
Company chief executive Tommy Huppert said due to the fledgling status of the Australian industry the medicinal cannabis dispensed here was mostly imported, and expensive.
Cannatrek estimated that by the end of 2019 about 20 000 approvals would have been issued by Australian authorities for the legal use of the product, and with imported medicinal cannabis products selling for between $100 and $500, depending on the strength, some people were paying up to $20 000 a year for their daily treatment.
“That’s really hard for families, that’s why the (Shepparton) project needs to be at scale — to make it affordable,” Mr Huppert said.
“Our aim is to cultivate, process and manufacture affordable medicinal cannabis as a clean, green, therapeutic product of choice for hundreds of thousands of patients in Australia and overseas.”
He said the Goulburn Valley location was integral to the company’s operations and would be the prime cultivation site for its global enterprise and expansion plans.
At full production the site will employ upwards of 400 people, and produce 160 tonnes of medicinal cannabis a year, to help provide relief for those experiencing chronic pain, insomnia and various mental health conditions.
Foundation work at the Lemnos property is expected to commence early in the new year.
Already its Brisbane facility is in full research and development production, and will soon commence commercial production under permit, with clinical trials to follow in 2020.
The Cannatrek model is based on economies of scale and a seed-to-patient philosophy that allows every step in the supply chain to be monitored and controlled.
By managing potential disruption to the supply chain, all economic benefits will be funnelled to patients, Mr Huppert said, with the assurance that industry experts are involved in every stage of the production process.
“The 2016 Narcotic Drugs Amendment Act stipulates strict product controls ensuring safety for consumers,” Mr Huppert said.
“Cannatrek’s social licence objective is to provide affordable therapeutic medicine to Australian patients to enable a better quality of life.
“The new facility in Shepparton has the ability to deliver on these objectives by the unique glasshouse design and scaled production capabilities of the project and the seed-to-patient system Cannatrek is deploying."
To be developed in five stages, the project could generate up to 100 jobs during the construction phase and where possible the expertise of local trades and services will be utilised.
The 160 000 sqm growing area is under a high-tech glasshouse. Additional infrastructure at the site will include car parking, office and staff amenities, and access for deliveries, logistics and transport.
“We are also very concerned about the environmental impact of our project and have developed long-term strategies to ensure Cannatrek is a complementary partner to our natural resources,” Mr Huppert said.
One of those strategies involves a sustainable irrigation program, with plants to be watered by a combination of water collected from the glasshouse roof, recycled water and channel water.
A reliable water source was just one factor in choosing this region to grow the valuable medicinal resource; others were the climate, the long hours of sunlight and the rich history of horticulture and agricultural-related technology.
There is also the potential to tap into the region’s manufacturing capability in the future.
“We will be a major employer and there will be significant and positive knock-on effects in the region,” Mr Huppert said.
“We are planning for approximately 400 full-time equivalents at full deployment of the 160 000 sqm facility, which will include the full scope of skills sets required at an intensive horticultural site, such as agronomy, labourers, harvest, administration and research personal.
“We are confident that we can be a major low-cost producer of medicinal cannabis for Australian patients, as well as for world markets."
The St Kilda-based businessman was inspired to research medicinal cannabis after watching a friend suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder.
When traditional medicine proved unsuccessful, his friend was faced with an ethical dilemma about the legalities of sourcing and using cannabis to help treat his depression.
Mr Huppert’s friend was not alone — Cannatrek estimates 300 000 to 500 000 Australians are resorting to buying cannabis on the black market to self-medicate for a variety of medical conditions.
He said world-leading human clinical trials around mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia were in the planning stages at the Brisbane facility.
The Shepparton development fits with the Victorian Government’s Medicinal Cannabis Industry Development Plan, which aims to attract major investment into the new industry.
The plan seeks to have Victoria supply at least half of the country’s medicinal cannabis needs and contribute to a major new export industry.
Mr Huppert said the project had been well supported by company stakeholders as well as the Shepparton community and local, state and federal governments.