Marijuana is the hottest herb on the planet right now, but while investing in medical cannabis stocks could make you a fortune, it could also risk the house.

After a flurry of activity on the ASX in 2017 as the sector kicked off following legalisation the year before, medical cannabis in Australia began re-emerging towards the end of 2018 from news-hibernation.

Growth strategies began kicking in and companies finally started making revenue. Licences were obtained from the Office of Drug Control (ODC), companies rejigged their business models to better exploit a rapidly growing global sector, and some plans just completely fell over.

In this guide, Stockhead explains the factors that have been driving ASX cannabis stocks, and what will spur demand — and stock prices — into the future.

ASX listed cannabis stocks

There are 14 pot stocks on the ASX that are neck-deep in the cannabis business; for another 14, cannabis makes up a part of the business.

TickerCompanySectorCannabis is whole, part of businessWhat they do in cannabis
AEB AFFINITY ENERGYGrowerPartGrows cannabis via a subsidiary in Uruguay
AC8AUSCANNPharmaWholeDevelops and make medical cannabis products and drugs
BDA BOD AUSTRALIA Biotech and lifestylePartDeveloping asub-lingual wafer to deliver cannabis drugs
BOT BOTANIX PHARMACEUTICALS BiotechWholeDeveloping registered cannabis skin medications
CANCANN GROUPGrowerWholeGrows cannabis in Victoria
CP1CANNPALBiotechWholeDeveloping registered cannabis medications for animals
CPH CRESO PHARMA LifestyleWholeDeveloping a portfolio of products covering animals through neutraceuticals
ESE ESENSE-LABLifestyleWholeSynthetic terpenes for food additives
EXLELIXINOL GLOBALHempWholeHemp grower and product distributor
EVEEVE INVESTMENTSInvestorPartInvestor in hemp honey and a farm leased to THC for growing purposes
THC THC GLOBALGrower and manufacturerWholeGrower and product manufacturer
LSHLIFESPOT HEALTHAncilliaryPartOwns cannabis vaporiser technology
MDC MEDLAB CLINICAL BiotechPartDeveloping a drug delivery platform and two cannabis medications
MXC MGC PHARMACEUTICALS Biotech and lifestyleWholeDeveloping medical cannabis products and medications
MMJ MMJInvestorWholeInvestor in early stage cannabis businesses
QBL QUEENSLAND BAUXITE/CANN GLOBAL Hemp and growerWholeHemp grower, product distributor and medical cannabis products
RGI ROTO-GRO INTERNATIONAL AncilliaryPartGrowing system for cannabis plants
SCUSTEMCELL UNITEDBiotechPartCommercialising cannabis stem cell extraction technology
SUDSUDABiotechPartDeveloping a mouth spray with Zelda
ZLD ZELDA THERAPEUTICSBiotechWholeDeveloping registered medications for a range of illnesses
ROOROOTS SUSTAINABLEAncilliaryPartGrowing system for cannabis plants
AGHALTHEA GROUPDistributorWholePatient access portal and imports medical cannabis products
TPETPI ENTERPRISESGrowerPartLicensed to grow, manufacture
RNORHINOMEDAncilliaryPartSold nasal stents into US cannabis drug delivery market
IDTIDT AUSTRALIAPharmaPartContracted by Cann Group as a medical products manufacturer
YPBYPB GROUPAncilliaryPartSelling anti-counterfeiting technology to cannabis companies
IHLIMPRESSION HEALTHAncilliaryPartLicensed US medical cannabis products for distribution in Australia
CAECANNINDAH RESOURCESHempPartDistributing Czech hemp products in Australia

Why invest in cannabis stocks?

The global market for legal marijuana was estimated to be worth $US9.3 billion in 2016 by Grand View Research, with the two biggest markets being the US and Canada, albeit a distant second.

Future forecasts put the value of the industry anywhere between New Frontier Data’s $US25bn estimate to Grand View Research’s monumental $US146bn.

The US makes up 90 per cent of the global legal marijuana stock trade, even though it’s still federally illegal there (at least seven ASX cannabis stocks are looking to exploit this market).

The Farm Bill, passed in December 2018, legalised hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) in the US.

The other major global market is Canada, where a move to legalise recreational cannabis in October has already had an impact there in terms of a revenue bounce. Cannacord Gennuity analyst Matthijs Smith estimates annual recreational sales could be around 585,000kg.

In Australia, New Frontier Data suggests the total current cannabis market, legal and illegal, is worth between $4.6bn and $6.3bn, with an estimated 2m users who consume about 391,903kg of cannabis a year.

Australia imported 145kg of medical cannabis oil from Canada in 2017, making it the second-largest importer of cannabis products from Canada, although the country plans to be a net exporter of goods.

Currently the sector is split between those like AusCann (ASX:AC8), which believe Australia’s future lies specifically in tapping the country’s existing talents as a drug developer.

And others, like Cann Group (ASX:CAN), THC Global (ASX:THC) or Althea (ASX:AGH) which believe they can corner all parts of the market and succeed as vertically integrated grower-manufacturer-distributors, in the face of cheaper products and greater market power from other countries.

Marijuana, pot, weed, ganja, cannabis, hemp — what even is it?

Understanding the types of cannabis stocks out there can help you make a clear distinction when looking to invest.

Marijuana, the colloquial name for the cannabis variety that’ll get you high, has been used for millennia as both a medicine and a recreational drug.

There are two main cannabis species: cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. Both produce delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the part that gets you stoned — and cannabidiol (CBD) along with about 600 other known compounds.

Hemp is a variety of cannabis sativa grown specially for its fibre. It contains low levels of THC and slightly higher levels of CBD.

The other key compound to know about in cannabis are terpenes.

Terpenes are fragrant oils found in plants that carry flavour and aroma. They carry the pungent odour of cannabis and offer some medicinal properties — but they don’t contain THC or CBD.

About 200 terpenes have been identified which give cannabis its distinct aromas.

Together, cannabinoids and terpenes produce a range of effects known as the “entourage effect” or the type of the feelings the drug or treatment gives. They do this by tapping into the body’s own endocannabinoid system and different cannabinoids and terpenes will influence whether it makes you sleepy, hungry, creative, or acts as a pain reductor.

The most common terpenes found in cannabis. Pic: TotalHealthCBD

Cannabis legalisation: from medical to recreational

But as countries have begun to legalise medical use, and, in the case of Uruguay, Canada and South Africa, fully legalise recreational use, bans on cannabis have begun to fall.

Sixty-seven countries have legalised or decriminalised cannabis use in some form or just don’t care enough to enforce laws, and of those, 35 have fully legalised medical and/or recreational use.

Australia pulled the trigger in 2016, with medical legalisation coming into effect on October 30 of that year.

It led to a rash of new, cannabis-focused companies listing, or backdoor listing, onto the ASX in 2017, and a variety of others changing their business operations to incorporate facets of the new industry.

Australia’s first pot stock was MMJ Phytotech (ASX:MMJ), which has since morphed into a cannabis investor named MMJ, although not one without its problems.

The biggest IPO was Cann Group, which followed that with a mammoth $60m capital raising in November 2017. Strongly supported by institutions, it was the first indication of professional money in Australia becoming interested in cannabis.

The interest from Australian institutional investors is now so high, North American companies are raising money here in order to list in Canada.

While 2018 was a very quiet year for cannabis listings — only Elixinol Global (ASX:EXL) and Althea (ASX:AGH) joined the ASX that year — 2019 is shaping up to be slightly more healthy, with Ecofibre listing in March and Emerald Clinics and CannVaLate promising IPOs later in the year.

Efforts to legalise recreational cannabis in Australia have started, with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for it, citing a Parliamentary Budget Office estimate that it could yield almost $2bn for the economy annually. Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition are very much against it.

Experts agree that Australia is probably five years away from recreational legalisation.

The World Health Organisation recommended the UN reschedule all parts of the plant so it is no longer categorised alongside cocaine and heroin, but the Commission on Narcotic Drugs has delayed a number of the decisions they will be taking on the cannabis submissions until after the March meeting.

Licensing: what you need to know

Licences and permits are needed to grow, manufacture and research cannabis in Australia.

The federal government’s Office of Drug Control (ODC) has issued an ever-increasing number of licences that allow companies to grow cannabis for commercial purposes, grow cannabis for research, and manufacture cannabis-based products.

In October 2018 the ODC gained Cabinet-level approval to hire more staff after being swamped by licence applications: they expected 18 a year but at one point were trying to wade through about 190. It takes between 18 months and two years to go from application made to permitted site.

Scroll down to find out which ASX cannabis companies have licences.

The government will not reveal which companies hold the one-year licences — or even which States they are based in. We only know about listed licence holders because of ASX disclosure requirements.

We also know the number of companies actually growing cannabis locally is small: only Cann Group, THC Global, unlisted companies Little Green Pharma in West Australia and MediFarm have permits to grow.

That’s because federal (and state) licences are only the first step. Growers also need a permit which involves a facility inspection and specifies things like which strains a licence holder can grow and the number and weight of its plants.

The ODC website lists 19 authorised suppliers of medical cannabis, which include Bod Australia (ASX:BDA), Cann Group, and Medlab Clinical (ASX:MDC). The list does not include CannPal (ASX:CP1) or Althea which also have the appropriate import licences.

Creso Pharma (ASX:CPH), MGC Pharma (ASX:MXC) and Cann Global (ASX:CGB) all piggyback off other companies’ import and supply licences.

Who can use it in Australia

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) controls who can use medical cannabis in Australia, under two ‘special access schemes’ (SAS): SAS B is for unapproved products and SAS A is for people in palliative care.

As there are only two registered cannabis medicines in the world, Epidiolex for epilepsy and the nose spray Sativex, both owned by UK company GW Pharma, the TGA has also allowed the import of unregistered products that can be used in for medical purposes — that is, products that haven’t been tested in clinical trials.

The end of February 2019 the TGA had approved 4200 SAS B applications.

However, this is not the total number of people in Australia approved to use medical cannabis.

Applications are per product so if one person is using multiple products, they have to apply separately for each; some people are approved, but are turned off at the final hurdle by the high price of medical cannabis products, which can range from $300 for a month’s supply of cannabis oil to $1200 for a 10ml vial of Sativex.

While Australian authorities say there is no predetermined list of conditions that cannabis can be prescribed for, guidance documents by the TGA endorse chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic non-cancer pain and palliative care.

Patient access is looking to be big business for ASX marijuana stocks.

Althea is currently the only listed company to operate in patient access.

MMJ has an investment in Sydney-based Cannabis Access Clinics, while Medlab Clinical (ASX:MDB) and Cann Group own Medicinal Cannabis Medicines Portal and CannaTrac has the CannaHealth portal. Emerald has opened its Sydney and Perth clinics, and is now looking at Melbourne.

Finding the proof: the biotech route to market

The difficulty is, however, that while “everybody knows” cannabis causes drowsiness or increases appetite, there are vanishingly few completed clinical trials that can back that information up and give doctors a basis on which to prescribe.

Currently in Australia five companies are taking treatments through clinical trials or have imminent plans to do so.

Clinical trials are generally divided into three phases. Phase 1 focuses on safety, Phase 2 tests for effectiveness and Phase 3 examines whether the new drug is an improvement on existing treatment. Sometimes trials are further divided into parts A and B, where a B stage is generally more rigorous.

Marijuana stocks to watch

Stockhead monitors 28 small caps that have all or part of their operations in cannabis or, increasingly, hemp.

Three companies, Atlas Pearls (ASX:ATP) and Blackmores (ASX:BKL) were on the list but Stockhead has confirmed they no longer have current cannabis operations.

Thirteen companies are neck deep in cannabis. These can be split broadly into six categories.

Biotechs: These are companies that are focused on creating drugs and taking them through clinical trials, a risky business with a 9.6 per cent success rate.

MGC Pharma has approval to trial CogniCann on dementia patients to treat anxiety and it’s now approved to trial an Alzheimer’s drug. The company has also begun importing its epilepsy medication, much to the relief of Australian sufferers.

Another is Creso Pharma (ASX:CPH) although they also fit into the lifestyle category, thanks to their animal health products and grower category via their Canadian subsidiary, which received a growing licence in 2019.

Botanix Pharmaceuticals (ASX:BOT) is testing a treatment for severe acne and dermatitis, Zelda (ASX:ZLD) is famously trialing a drug to cure insomnia and may have found a cancer treatment, and Auscann wants to trial its capsules next year but hasn’t said for which indication yet.

Medlab Clinical is experimenting with its own cannabis mouth spray, while CannPal  is working out whether cannabis offers pain relief in dogs.

Patient access: Althea is currently the only listed patient access play on the ASX.

While they have plans to get into growing their own pot, Althea’s main play is importing product made by its 25 per cent shareholder, Canadian giant Aphria, and selling them in Australia.

Growers: Cann Group is the dominant grower in Australia right now. It has a base in Victoria, with two current facilities and is building a third at Melbourne airport, designed by a subsidiary of its major shareholder Aurora Cannabis.

THC Global is the other main listed grower, although they are yet to secure a permit to grow.

Hemp: Elixinol is a major US hemp grower and one of the biggest hemp companies in the world. It makes the majority of its income from hemp-derived CBD oils and foods, although it is seeking to expand in Australian into medical cannabis.

Queensland Bauxite is also heavy in local hemp.

Investor: MMJ switched from being a lifestyle-cum-medical cannabis company to a pure-play investor, after a series of deals didn’t pan out.

Lifestyle: The last group are those with fingers in a range of pies.

An example is Esense-Lab (ASX:ESE) which makes synthetic cannabis terpenes (it doesn’t extract them directly from the plant).

MGC Pharma and Creso Pharma currently also fit into this bracket.

Australian cannabis stocks underwent a lull in 2018 as plans changed and companies geared up to exploit the changing global opportunities.

The medical cannabis and hemp markets grew off a very low base and by the end of the year, began to show signs of commercial viability.

In 2019, the ASX’s marijuana stocks are expecting patient numbers to grow, more locally produced medical cannabis raw material and products to start hitting the market, and generally more pot stocks hitting the market.