Newtown v Bondi: The race to open Sydney’s first cannabis dispensary

Newtown v Bondi: The race to open Sydney’s first cannabis dispensary

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Eidan Havas is ready to go. His Bondi shop is kitted out with frosted glass to protect patients’ privacy, a warren of doctors’ suites and a heavy safe, still empty, for the medicine. Once pharmacy approval arrives – he expects it any day – Sydney’s first face-to-face cannabis clinic and dispensary will be ready to open its doors.

Havas, who has defended colourful characters such as prison helicopter escapee John Killick and former Auburn deputy mayor Salim Mehajer in his day job as a criminal lawyer, has been waiting for Pharmacy Council approval since January. But as he waits, a rival has emerged.

Eidan Havas is waiting for final approvals before he opens Sydney’s first in-person cannabis dispensaryCredit: Janie Barrett

Better Leaf, which runs a booming shopfront in Melbourne’s Brunswick, on Friday confirmed it will open its own cannabis dispensary on King Street in Newtown.

“[In] no more than two months time, we should be able to open,” said Jack Weisberg, manager of Better Leaf. “Medical cannabis does good for people, and we get huge amount of people happy, and – what’s best – seeing people coming in and leaving with a smile.”

Medicinal cannabis use has been surging in Australia, with prescriptions growing from fewer than 3000 in 2018 to more than 120,000 in 2021. Industry commentator Rhys Cohen said its popularity grew even further in 2022.

“Between the first half of 2022 and the second half of 2022, the volume of medicinal cannabis products that was being accessed by patients grew by over 40 per cent,” said Cohen, an advisor from the Penington Institute, which focuses on reducing drug-related harm.

Patients can choose their own brand of the drug via electronic touch screens.Credit: Janie Barrett

Most users obtain prescriptions during telehealth consultations and order the cannabis online, or ask their local pharmacy to order it on their behalf. Community pharmacies can stock it, too, but many don’t unless there is stable demand for particular products.

That’s where Havas’ Bondi store – he’s also planning to open one in Newcastle, and then perhaps Bankstown – comes in. With a clinic and a pharmacy (which is a separate business, owned by a pharmacist) on site, he wants patients to be able to get a prescription and fill it in one trip.

“The reality is there’s no way you can treat someone at a higher level of standard over a video than in person,” said Havas, who already owns an online dispensary and wholesaler.

He believes medicinal cannabis changed his life after he was treated with it to cope with mental health challenges in 2019.

“Our goal is to open as many of these in NSW as possible. The more of these that I open, the more we as a society probably become socially accepting of this as a form of treatment.”

Better Leaf’s Sydney store will stock some 200 lines of cannabis products and accessories such as vape cartridges. It refers patients to telehealth doctors to facilitate a 24-hour turnaround from prescription to medicine, but is considering an on-site clinic too.

A medicinal cannabis farm at an undisclosed location in NSW that will legally produce large quantities of cannabis oil.Credit: Janie Barrett

Weisberg also thinks an in-person dispensary provides a better service. “From our end, it’s not just dispensing,” he said. “We educate. We know each customer, we make sure they know what to do with the remedy, we’ll do follow up, it’s not just a regular product you want to be sending over.”

While users can be enthusiastic proponents, many doctors are still waiting for clinical trials to prove the effectiveness of cannabis on ailments ranging from anxiety to back pain. Some also worry about conflicts of interest in the emerging medicinal cannabis industry, such as clinics that prescribe products in which they have a financial interest.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has been cracking down on cannabis advertising, which is banned for all types of prescription medication, including those not covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme such as cannabis.

MiDispensary, which is owned by Havas, was one of those fined more than $100,000 by the TGA late last year for eight notices relating to unlawful advertising of medicinal products on websites and social media platforms.

Havas has asked the TGA to withdraw the notices, saying they were based on advertising “that was the subject of incorrect advice given to the company by a regulatory consultant,” he said.

Medical cannabis products contain different combinations of cannabidiol (CBD), which does not cause a high, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which does. It usually comes in oil or flower form. “THC is the gin and CBD is the tonic, and there’s products ranging from Soda Stream to tequila,” said industry consultant Rebecca Doyle.

“A lot of patients use oils, they’re slower acting and more prominent in CBD. THC does have benefit for pain, but you don’t need the amounts that are generally seen in street cannabis. Medical is generally a lot lower doses for symptomatic relief.”

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