An American company has opted to trial a new experimental cannabis-derived drug on diabetics in Vanuatu as a result of stringent Federal laws preventing the trial in the United States, according to the company’s chief executive.
The company, Phoenix Life Sciences International, was headquartered in the US state of Colorado but relocated their operations to Vanuatu earlier this year to carry out clinical trials. Current laws in Vanuatu prohibit the cultivation of marijuana, but the company is planning to import the pills from a third party in the meantime as it awaits amended legislation to pass.
In a recent opinion piece in the International Business Times, the company’s chief executive, Australian-born Martin Tindall, argued that the global cannabis industry is set to be worth $US31 billion ($43.2 billion) by 2021.
But he believes the US will be excluded from the market because the Federal Government is “clinging to prohibition”.
“As the founder and CEO [of] an adaptive healthcare solutions company developing cannabinoid-based medicines, I have an intimate appreciation for the effects of federal prohibition,” he wrote.
“Unable to carry out research into cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals for diabetics in the US, we were forced to relocate our first production centre to the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.”
The ABC’s Pacific Beat program sought to clarify those comments with Mr Tindall, who previously said he chose Vanuatu as the site for the trials because of the country’s diabetes epidemic.
Mr Tindall backed the comments, saying: “Well you can’t produce [it] in the US and export around the world when it is federally illegal.”
“So that is what I mean by forced.
“There was definitely no force from the [government], we just felt that we couldn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve there,” he said. But there are also other reasons Vanuatu was chosen as the trial site, he said, including Vanuatu’s “pristine” environment for growing marijuana.
“It has the right levels of sunshine, the right levels of overall climatic conditions,” Mr Tindall said.
“For us to produce yields that are similar would require a greenhouse in Australia and North America.”
He said cultivating the marijuana used in the trials in Vanuatu would also help to reduce costs.
Company works with Vanuatu Government on drug laws
On March 5, Martin Tindall and representatives from Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health held a ceremony to open a new Phoenix Life Sciences clinic in the country’s capital, Port Vila.
The clinic currently provides free diabetes checks and health consultations for the local community in Erakor village.
It’s the first of a number of clinics the company plans to open across Vanuatu to eventually provide and trial cannabis-based drugs on diabetics.
“We actually started working with the Government of Vanuatu [to develop trialling policies and legislation] about four years ago,” Mr Tindall told Pacific Beat said in March.
“One of the reasons that attracted us to Vanuatu was the ability to work through the Dangerous Drugs Act framework.”
Vanuatu’s Dangerous Drugs Act currently prohibits the importation, cultivation, sale, supply and possession of cannabis.
However, the Minister of Health is allowed to issue import permits “at the request of any duly qualified medical practitioner or pharmacist,” which has allowed Phoenix Life to begin its operations — importing from a third party — without any changes to Vanuatu’s drug laws.
In January, Vanuatu’s former acting director-general of health Dr Santus Wari was hired as national head of healthcare for Phoenix Life Sciences’ operations in Vanuatu.
He said amendments to Vanuatu’s laws will allow the company to cultivate marijuana in the country.
“When the legislation, or the amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act is passed, it will give us the move to set up a farm,” Dr Wari said.
That legislation is expected to pass Parliament in coming months after Vanuatu’s Cabinet — known as the Council of Ministers — issued a directive last year to amend the Act.
‘No evidence’ cannabis works on diabetes
Phoenix Life Sciences claims that its product, Phoenix Metabolic, uses compounds extracted from the cannabis plant is an effective treatment for diabetes.
“We really see ourselves not as a cannabis company, but a healthcare solutions company,” Mr Tindall said.
Ruth Colagiuri, an associate professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy in Australia, told Pacific Beat there were concerns about the health claims made by Phoenix Life Sciences.
“There is actually no evidence [that] currently [shows] cannabis works in the treatment of diabetes,” Ms Colagiuri said.
“In fact, I think there are very few trials about it so it’s mainly used in palliative care.
“Usually when you start trialling something or start dispensing it, you have some preliminary evidence that it could be [effective].”
In response to this criticism, Phoenix Life Sciences’ Mr Tindall said the lack of research was due to the prohibitive regulation of cannabis in many countries.
“Part of the reason there hasn’t been sufficient clinical studies is because of the restrictions around being able to study cannabis in general,” he explained.
Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health has not responded to requests for comment about the work and products of Phoenix.