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Two medicinal marijuana companies have fast-tracked plans to build a large cannabis farm in the conservative heartland of Queensland.
Construction of the facility on the outskirts of Toowoomba is set to begin within six months and will produce 500 tonnes of marijuana a year with an export value of more than $1 billion.
A merger of Australian-owned Australian Natural Therapeutics Group (ANTG) and Canadian-owned Asterion Cannabis Inc has hastened construction plans by up to two years, according to ANTG chief executive Matt Cantelo.
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"We see Australia becoming the global leader in medicinal cannabis production," Mr Cantelo said.
European export opportunity
The $400-million facility will focus on the growth, manufacturing and research of medicinal products.
Situation near Toowoomba's Wellcamp Airport, the facility will be able to export products overseas.
The Australian Government gave Asterion's facility "major project status" in 2019, and the Canadian cannabis company has already gained a medicinal cannabis license, a cannabis research license, and a manufacturing license from the Australian Office of Drug Control.
Stephen Van Deventer, CEO of Asterion, said the merger with ANTG fitted its short and long term strategies.
"This provides early revenue for Asterion and scalability to ANTG," he said.
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ANTG has an existing supply chain and facility in regional NSW, and access to European export markets.
"It gives the Australian patient market and also the overseas market the ability for accessibility and it gives us the ability to scale up and meet the growing demand for cannabinoid medicines," Mr Cantelo said.
Earlier this year ANTG signed a $92 million, nine-year deal with German company Cannamedical Pharma to export commercially-grown Australian medical cannabis to Europe.
Rapidly rising domestic demand
Low-dose medicinal cannabis is now legal to sell in Australia in chemists without a prescription because of new rules introduced by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in February.
No product has the regulatory approvals yet, so stock is unlikely to reach pharmacy shelves until at least the second half of this year.
At the same time, Mr Cantelo said the TGA's approvals through its special access scheme were on the rise.
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The scheme allows any GP to apply to TGA to prescribe patients cannabinoid medicines.
Last month, there were just under 10,000 TGA approvals under the scheme, compared to 3,500 at the same time last year, according to Mr Cantelo.
"We're seeing significant 10-20 per cent increases [in demand] month on month," Mr Cantelo said.
He said ANTG's existing facility in NSW would soon struggle to meet domestic market demand, hence its new interest in a mega farm in Toowoomba.
Mr Cantelo said the build would be staged depending on the demand, with the first stage only producing a quarter of the facility's potential.
Conservative town welcomes marijuana
The Toowoomba region is a rich agricultural region, politically conservative community and centre of a safe Liberal seat.
That has not deterred the community from supporting plans for a local medicinal cannabis industry.
"It has been proven to many people, regardless of their political views, the benefits of medicinal cannabis," Toowoomba Regional Council mayor Paul Antonio said.
Mr Antonio said the project would be a boon for local businesses and the community was "delighted".
"This new investment will be amazing for Toowoomba," he said.
"In the next 30 years, we'll have an extra 55,000 residents and there'll be expanding industrial and commercial sectors and new ventures like this in our Toowoomba Trade Gateway will mean a lot."
In full production, the cannabis farm will employ roughly 1,000 staff.
Australian company Medibis is also planning to develop a $180-million cannabis facility near Tooowoomba in the future.
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Wondering what to get mum this Mother's Day? From beauty buys to jewellery pieces she'll wear every day, here, ELLE's 2021 Mother's Day gift guide.But what to gift? In the rising tide of consumer consciousness about excessive packaging, waste and the disposable nature of so much stuff we'd suggest setting some ground rules. In our opinion a good gift is either useful, experiential or something that's maybe less functional, but that will still be treasured for a long time to come.