Zoë Reece

Zoë Reece is the founder and CEO of Ora Pharm, a Waikato-based company growing sustainably produced medicinal cannabis. She is also deputy chair of the New Zealand Medicinal Cannabis Council.

New Zealand company Ora Pharm has a potted history of medicinal cannabis on its website that reveals some surprising facts.

By growing cannabis in its state-of-the-art Waikato greenhouse, the business founded and led by University of Auckland civil engineering graduate Zoë Reece is catering to a demand that dates back thousands of years.

The people of ancient China, India and Egypt used cannabis to treat pain, inflammation and insomnia.

And in the West sufferers of muscle spasms, epilepsy and anxiety could get relief from cannabis-based products supplied by pharmacies until as recently as the middle of last century.

It was when getting high on cannabis caught on that many countries introduced laws making it illegal. Now laws are changing again to legalise medicinal use and giving rise to companies such as Ora Pharm.

Wellington-born Zoë, formerly engineering director and project manager at US cannabis company Curaleaf, says a new high is being hit as consumption of remedies made from the plant goes through the roof.

Over the course of its four-year existence, Ora Pharm has witnessed a remarkable expansion in the local market. The annual units sold to New Zealand patients have surged by approximately 25 times. Looking ahead to 2023, the forecast indicates a distribution of at least 150,000 units to over 15,000 patients.

“The trajectory is undoubtedly upward,” says Zoë, “with the potential to generate employment, foster innovation within pharmaceuticals and contribute to the country’s economy.

“Licensed producers and associated businesses are investing in cultivation facilities, manufacturing infrastructure and research, further stimulating economic growth.”

Zoë’s entrée into the industry in New Zealand followed her time at Boston-based start-up Curaleaf. She oversaw its facility expansion plans, helping the company grow from 220 to 3500 employees and to become the biggest cannabis producer in the US.

“Working at Curaleaf allowed me to witness first-hand the transformative effect of medicinal cannabis,” says Zoë. “Hearing the stories of patients regaining a higher quality of life ignited a passion in me.”

She realised how regulatory measures could benefit communities and enhance patient well-being, ultimately leading her to establish Ora Pharm in 2019 with its focus on producing cannabis-derived medicines by isolating individual cannabinoids to target specific health conditions.

In addition to running Ora Pharm, she is the deputy chair of the New Zealand Medicinal Cannabis Council. That allows her to collaborate with industry professionals and regulators, contributing to the advancement and responsible development of the medicinal-cannabis sector.

A breakthrough for producers came in April 2020 when New Zealand implemented the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Regulations. That created a framework for the domestic cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medicinal-cannabis products, making it easier for patients to access these treatments.

If setting up the business ahead of the law change might have been seen as putting the cart before the horse, Zoë was merely doing what comes naturally to her.

“Throughout my career I’ve encountered instances where others advised me to follow a certain career trajectory or discouraged me from pursuing unconventional paths. However, in those moments I chose to listen to my instincts and forge my own path.”

Zoë says that urge has never let her down.

“Every time I followed my gut I discovered extraordinary experiences and a level of fulfilment that I wouldn't have attained otherwise. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt is to trust my intuition.”

In the New Zealand medicinal-cannabis sector, all indicators are pointing upwards, in line with the trend in other countries.

The legislative changes, increased patient access, emerging market players, research and development efforts, shifting public perception and economic opportunities all contribute to the overall positive trajectory, Zoë says.

“My goals revolve around making a positive impact through my work, expanding access to medicinal cannabis and advancing the industry's understanding and acceptance,” she says.