Analyzing the Australian Cannabis Industry With Rhys Cohen

We sat down with FreshLeaf Analytics' Principal Consultant, Rhys Cohen, about his thoughts on Australia's cannabis industry and the future of cannabis.

Australia's medical cannabis industry is quickly finding its feet as legislation continues to evolve and the sector develops rapidly toward higher patient prescriptions and greater accessibility for patients. For example, the Queensland Government recently revised it's cannabis legislation, allowing for "any registered medical practitioner" to now prescribe medicinal cannabis products if they feel it is a "clinically appropriate" treatment method. This means that many of the barriers which previously prevented health professionals from prescribing the plant have been removed, and waiting periods to receive medical cannabis products will be massively reduced.

Moreover, the June Special Access Scheme Category B (SAS-B) approval numbers were recently released by FreshLeaf Analytics, showing that SAS-B approvals reached an all-time high of 4,630 approvals despite ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Freshleaf

Evidently the industry is headed in the right direction, but to find out precisely where it's headed, we decided to sit down with an expert at the epicentre of Australia's cannabis industry.

That expert is none other than Rhys Cohen, the Principal Consultant at FreshLeaf Analytics. Rhys carved a name for himself through his Honours thesis, in which he focused upon cannabis markets in the U.S., particularly in the case of Colorado.

Rhys's academic work on cannabis then served as a launchpad, helping to propel him into influential roles within Australia's cannabis space, directing cannabis programs for Sydney University and Cann10, becoming the Director of Cannabis Consulting Australia, and finally, becoming the Principal Consultant for FreshLeaf Analytics.

Having written the first White Paper on cannabis in Australia, Rhys is uniquely positioned to understand the ever-changing legislative landscape of the plant, however, his initial interest in researching the plant was much broader than simply cannabis itself.

"We can use what people think and feel about cannabis as a lens to better understand societies. That's what is really interesting to me about cannabis – it's the most widely-used illicit drug in the world, as well as being an emerging (and historical) therapeutic. So it's possible to use cannabis to look at economics; race; inequality; health; power; crime; commerce; agronomy; politics; regulation; you name it."

The Australian Cannabis Industry

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Australia's medical cannabis industry proved to be rather resilient in the face of the novel COVID-19 virus, with SAS-B approvals reaching an all-time high last month. Rhys expects that we can continue seeing this growth among patient numbers carry through to the end of this year.

"June's figures were really encouraging. It's been a bloody tough year in basically every way you could imagine, but seeing patient access continuing to expand despite all the 2020 craziness gives me a lot of hope. FreshLeaf estimates there are currently >15,000 active patients in the Australian market today. And that's likely to grow to >25,000 by the end of the year."

Additionally, the current trajectory of cannabis in Australia gives Rhys confidence that one day, we will eventually see recreational cannabis legalization occur in Australia. As it stands, Australia has only medicinally legalized the plant, with the exception of the country's Capital Territory, the ACT, which decriminalised possession and cultivation of cannabis last year.

"Given enough time, I believe it's likely we'll see recreational legalization in Australia. But we shouldn't assume this will happen automatically. And how we legalize cannabis may look quite different from how other countries have managed that process. I'd encourage people to keep their minds open to preferable regulatory structures that are better placed to reduce harm and protect public health."

When asked what steps need to be taken in order to move Australia toward recreational legalization, Rhys answered that the approach would need to be multifaceted, and must involve Australian communities in the decision-making process.

"Firstly, people need to believe that a legal cannabis access system will be better than prohibition. That requires us to clearly communicate how prohibition (which is its own form of regulation) functions, what it's intended to achieve, and the results it actually produces. That's one part. We then need to develop realistic and better alternative regulatory options that are practical and socially and politically acceptable. And lastly, we need to engage the whole community in the conversation about how we can make Australia a safer and healthier and fairer place through better regulation."

How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Cannabis Industry

Despite the positive achievements felt by the industry, and the current movement toward eventual, recreational legalization, we may still be in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, predicts Rhys, and the worst may be yet to come.

"The coronavirus has brought significant impacts to both industry and patients. The world is likely heading into a long and deep economic depression, which will reduce people's ability to afford medical cannabis products."

Companies have found it increasingly difficult to raise new funds due to COVID, compounded by the ongoing fallout of the Canadian cannabis bubble bursting. These effects may be non-permanent, but they will also be long-lasting, and we'll be feeling their effects for many years to come.Rhys Cohen, Principal Consultant for Freshleaf Analytics

Not only has COVID-19 brought about economic damage, as well as the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe, but within the cannabis industry specifically, largely unfounded claims are arising, suggesting that the plant can cure COVID-19. This is an issue that isn't limited to COVID-19, but rather, touches upon the broader issue that cannabis enthusiasts can over-exaggerate the plant's benefits. This was such a prevalent issue in 2019 that the United States' FDA had to send letters to 15 companies for "illegally selling CBD products in interstate commerce that claimed to prevent, diagnose, mitigate, treat or cure serious diseases, such as cancer."

This can have much more serious impacts, warns Rhys, and the benefits of cannabis use need to be carefully reviewed with factual evidence.

"Cannabis is generally pretty safe, but it saddens me to see people who have chosen to treat very serious medical conditions with cannabis alone, rejecting proven treatments, and sometimes losing their life as a result. I fully support people's use of medical cannabis as an adjunct therapy, and maybe in time we will be able to confidently prescribe cannabis instead of some existing treatments, but that's not the world we currently live in."

A Drug-Positive Future

While the benefits of cannabis use can certainly be overstated at times, in recent history the opposite issue has been prevalent. As we're now seeing cannabinoid medicines approved by the FDA to treat epilepsy, and strong clinical data is emerging supporting the use of cannabis to treat chronic pain, it's become abundantly clear that the current categorization of cannabis in the U.S., that suggests cannabis has "no accepted medical benefits" is completely wrong.

As cannabis becomes more acceptable in the mainstream, we may also see a renewed perspective toward other currently illicit substances, which may also have medicinal benefits.

"The recent medical legalization of cannabis is a good indication that societies around the world are slowly growing out of their 20th Century obsession with demonizing drug use. MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, and cannabis were all being investigated for their therapeutic potential before being banned. Cannabis, as the most widely used and researched of those drugs, has been the first to properly re-emerge into medical scientific research. I'm not surprised the others are now following."

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will see a re-introduction of these substances back into society, demonstrating once-and-for-all that the War on Drugs has come to an end. Until then, however, the next change in legislation that Australians can enjoy is the potential down-scheduling of CBD products, which may see them available over the counter in pharmacies sometime over the next year.

Meanwhile, Rhys remains solely focused upon Australia's cannabis industry and is currently working on FreshLeaf Analytics' Q3 Patient, Product and Pricing Analysis report, which diagnoses in great detail the current state of Australia's medicinal cannabis industry. You can find his work on the FreshLeaf website, as well as on his Twitter account, @Rhyscohen, and at his LinkedIn.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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