medicinal cannabis
(Image: Unsplash/Rick Proctor)

A recently dismissed SA Trade Department executive, now working for a local medicinal cannabis company, had access to secret information on its competitors, one of them has warned.

Martyn England led the Office of Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis from its inception in April 2017 — among other roles at the Department of Trade, Tourism and Investment — until he was made redundant in July this year.

England was recently appointed executive manager of regulatory affairs for medicinal cannabis company LeafCann, which is setting up operations in South Australia.

The appointment is raising serious concerns in the local industry.

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“He has had high-level access to every interested party’s plans in South Australia for a few years, and had access to business plans, and had access to concepts and ideas,” said Ben Fitzsimons, shareholder in SA-based medicinal cannabis company WeCann.

Fitzsimons told InDaily England was in possession of commercial-in-confidence information on many, if not all, current, former and prospective medicinal cannabis companies in South Australia through his former role in the department.

“There will be a number of people watching LeafCann very closely … to ensure that other people’s intellectual property isn’t being used by them,” Fitzsimons said. “Commercially, it’s concerning that someone has been privy to all plans, hopes and dreams of (hemp and medicinal cannabis) proponents in South Australia has now got that information inside a privately-held company.

“The government needs to ensure that that IP (intellectual property) is protected.”

The Office of Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis is described on the department’s website as: “A single point of contact (that) will work with industry and across government to provide ongoing support and advice, particularly for new ventures in the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp or medicinal cannabis.”

The founder of an Australian hemp clothing company, who declined to be named for this story, told InDaily they had also discussed “sensitive information about our business” with England during his time in the public service.

A screenshot of Martyn England’s LinkedIn page.

A department spokesperson told InDaily that England had been “employed as director, case management and regions, which had responsibility for the Office for Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis”.

“The (office) was formally set up in April 2017 to act as a single point of contact for industry to provide support and advice to companies and new ventures in cultivation and processing of the plant,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that England had responsibility for the office since its inception.

England’s LinkedIn page does not refer to his role at the Office of Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis, but says he was a director of case management and regions for the Department of Trade, Tourism and Investment between April and June this year.

It also says he has been a director of case management coordination at the Department of State Development, from August 2016 to “present”.

LeafCann CEO Elisabetta Faenza told InDaily her company would never ask England to divulge competitors’ commercial secrets, nor would he volunteer to do so, because the Public Service Code of Ethics prohibits it.

The department spokesperson told InDaily: “The Code of Ethics for the South Australian Public Sector outlines the expectations when an employee leaves the sector. At this point in time the Department is not aware of any conflict of interest or breach of Mr England’s contract has occurred.”

Faenza said England was an “amazing get” for her company, but that he was mainly being used to work on a LeafCann project in the United Kingdom, and that she would never ask him to reveal knowledge about other companies that he gained from his time in the public service, or to breach the code of ethics. She said medicinal cannabis was a small industry, and it was hard to find people qualified in its regulation.

“He’s a professional,” she said. “We were only asking him about what we’re doing.”

Asked for her understanding of England’s former role in the department, Faenza told InDaily: “He managed a number of different areas for, I think, the Department of Industry and one of those areas was hemp and medicinal cannabis — but it was just a virtual office. It wasn’t an office that was full-time dedicated to hemp and medicinal cannabis.”

She said LeafCann first approached England after reading about his redundancy in the media; he then took some time to think about it, and finally accepted.

State Ombudsman Wayne Lines declined to comment, other than to explain that in principle, the conduct of any former public servant can be scrutinised if a complaint is made.

Fitzsimons told InDaily this week that England had been the “go-to guy” for the government’s stakeholder engagement on medicinal cannabis industry since the Weatherill Government announced its support for the industry and established the Office of Industrial Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis.

Although the federal government assesses licence applications for cultivating, manufacturing and researching cannabis products, state governments can object to particular applications.

Fitzsimons said England had a role in the process that eventually rejected WeCann’s application for federal licences in early 2017, but “that was two years ago”.

InDaily repeatedly approached England by phone for comment, but he did not responded.

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment David Ridgway referred us to his department.

This an edited version of a story originally published at InDaily.