The capital has been buzzing this week with talk that a medical marijuana company would soon be setting up shop in Santo. But Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authorities stubbed out the spark of controversy by insisting that not only is the company’s business plan not a pot plantation, they would have their license summarily rescinded if they were to try to grow it.

That could change very soon, though. On September 10, the Council of Ministers agreed “to establish an ethical cannabis industry in Vanuatu.”

In a letter dated October 1 and signed by then-Acting Deputy Prime Minister Ronald Warsal, it was confirmed that the decision had been made, and the government’s intention is to produce the necessary legislative changes in time for the December Parliamentary session.

The letter concluded, “Once the legislation is enacted parties will be invited to apply for the relevant licenses and it is anticipated that the licenses will be able to be granted before the end of December 2018.”

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Post, VIPA CEO Raymond Vuti confirmed that Phoenix Life Sciences International Ltd had been issued with a VIPA certificate to operate a small-scale botanical medicine production facility on land located in south Santo.

The company is based in Colorado, USA. It was founded in 2016, and its primary focus is to produce medical marijuana products in easily ingested formats, including creams, suppositories, gel caps, tablets and thin film strips that dissolve in your mouth, and patches that transfer the medication through the skin.

Phoenix Life CEO Martin Tindall told the Daily Post that he founded the company after losing his father to pancreatic cancer. His search for alternative treatments led him to discover cannabis as a source of treatments, not just for cancer, but for autoimmune disorders, diabetes and other ailments.

He told the Daily Post that his company intends to focus on the production of plant extracts at a facility in Santo, working at first with locally available agricultural products such as tamanu.

But his intention is to use the land to create what he claims will be the largest cannabis plantation in the world, giving it production capacity many time larger than market leader Canopy Growth. The Canadian company is publicly traded, currently valued at US $11.55 billion. Its stock surged recently following the Government of Canada’s announcement that it would allow marijuana for casual use.

To date, the largest legal grow operations are measured in the single digit hectares. Phoenix proposes to begin with 5 hectares, nearly twice as large as the current industry leaders. It has plans to expand that to as much as 200 hectares as demand grows.

While the primary commercial focus of the company is on the grossly underserved Australia and New Zealand markets, Phoenix has promised to provide its diabetes treatments free of charge to Pacific island countries.

In a letter to Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, Medical Superintendent Santus Wari described diabetes in Vanuatu as an “epidemic” and estimated that Vila Central Hospital and the Northern Provincial Hospital were conducting “at least one (1) limb per day”.

Dr Wari concluded the letter by insisting that “we need to act today” to address the threat.

Diabetes UK, a British diabetes advocacy organisation, cites research showing evidence that ingredients in cannabis help to stabilise blood sugar, slow down swelling, and reduce the pain often associated with neuropathy, the most common complication of diabetes.

The Council of Ministers decision insists that none of these products may be distributed or used domestically until such time as they are “scientifically proven to have no harmful side effects”. But once those criteria are met, the medicines should be provided free of charge by those companies licensed to produce the product.

This might have a more desirable side-effect: Bringing ‘treatment tourists’—people seeking medical treatment that is unavailable to them at home due to cost or legal restrictions.

But the government’s new marijuana policy is clear. This is for medical uses only.

Recreational marijuana use is still tabu: “The smoking of Cannabis in any form continues to be illegal throughout Vanuatu.”

Asked for comment about the issues surrounding the necessary legislative and regulatory changes, Internal Affairs Minister Andrew Napuat cautioned that people should make an effort to remain free from prejudice. “If this proposal is blown out of proportion… we could anticipate negative reactions from people.”

In a lengthy statement sent to the Daily Post, he argued that a balanced approach is necessary: “I therefore wish to see that the Ni-Vanuatu citizens be open to the proposal, assist the government especially law enforcement to encourage young people to stay away from substance abuse, work with relevant authorities to ensure we control the anticipated social impacts of this proposal and maximize its benefits for our country.”

He echoed the CoM paper in stating that this would not be a free for all: “cultivation or selling by locals for local consumption would still be illegal” he wrote, “but exemption could be given to this proposal if the cultivation and consumption is done for its positive medicinal purposes”.

The government is willing to nip this project in the bud at the first sign of trouble, however. Mr Napuat concluded by stating that if the situation “is abused or gets out of hand because of the negative social impacts, I see no reason for us to continue but STOP the project if it is not serving its intended purpose.”

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