As of March 2, right before the UN punted on reclassification of cannabis at the international level for another nine months, the UK government eased import restrictions for people in search of the drug.
Specifically, licensed wholesalers will now be able to import larger quantities of cannabis-based products and hold supplies for future use by patients with prescriptions.
Previous restrictions meant that patients had to wait for weeks or months to obtain the still highly expensive drugs (an import license from Canada can take 8 weeks).
Essentially, while welcome, this also means that every single potential cannabis patient who does not suffer from epilepsy or MS must import, via private means, a drug that is still unbelievably expensive. Those with the means are subjected to high prices and bureaucratic complications (like a regular thirty-day review of the prescription).
Cynical Cannabis Moves
While those who can afford to pay approximately $1,000 a month now have options, this is not exactly cannabis reform that is inclusive. Indeed, the entire conversation appears to be about making sure that private companies make profits rather than scientific advancement.
While the government is planning to engage with patients and to participate in trials to figure out how the NHS can utilize the drug, this is little help for sick patients now. Particularly in the middle of a global pandemic and almost as surely, global recession.
Soundbites by government ministers are also putting a cheery face on a situation that is dire, not just because of access but because of cost.
Per British Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, “We still have a long way to go. We need more research into the quality and safety of these medicines, and to do all we can to cut down the costs and remove barriers so that, when appropriate, patients can access it, including on the NHS.”
As recent events, including not only Brexit and cannabis reform, but indeed the now global pandemic have proven, healthcare systems globally are not up to the kinds of threats now thrown in their direction. Designed mostly after WWII, with a far different tax and economic base to support them, as well as far different demographics, most are also clearly not up to the rigors of the 21st century.
It is not just the supply chains for cannabis or even pharmaceuticals that are in the mix of course. Food security in the UK is now also, according to one international expert, Tim Lang, World Health Organization advisor, “in serious trouble.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, in other words, caught the world with its pants down, despite numerous warnings and even models predicting almost exactly this situation as recently as last year. Just like the AIDS crisis. This time, however, there are options available.
The question is, will governments and international organizations rise to the challenge to meet them?
A New World Drug Order
The British, while behind the Germans, are unfortunately, delaying a decision which has been already extended for too long. Relaxing drug import rules are one thing. But recommendations about the uses of the drug are still very narrow in the UK (even more stringent than in Germany).
Beyond that, overall food and drug security (supply chain) issues are in the room and for drugs far from cannabis. As many have begun to point out, cannabis is now prescribed for patients (and in many countries) and these patients are the most vulnerable to a virus like Covid-19. They are vulnerable not just because their immune systems are weak, but frequently because they are also economically exposed.
As the world battles another retrovirus pandemic, perhaps it is time that the lessons of the past be learned by those with the power to make decisions that will ultimately affect billions of people globally.
HMS Great Britain has now set forth from its European home port for another intriguing and very British escapade on the high seas.
So far the jury is out.
It could be the beginning of the next British Golden Age, Spanish Armada and all that. Or could it could end up (more likely) somewhere up the Khyber Pass (a sordid misadventure of British Imperialism that did not go well in the 19th century with global implications still reverberating to this day). For Netflix fans of The Crown, think “Suez Crisis” as a more recent and apt analogy. Starting with as much as a 6.7% reduction in domestic GDP already on the horizon.
Snarky historical analogies and nostalgia aside, how will Brexit influence and shape a global cannabis industry, starting at home?
The UK Is Not Actually in Regulatory Free Fall
The first thing to realize is that most of the puffery around Brexit was that with the exception of labor conditions, there is little free choice in the world of trade anymore. The players who get export and import licenses, for anything, have to conform to basic equivalency rules, no matter what they are called.
This applies to cannabis in a big way. No matter how the UK market develops domestically in other words, and that is a separate discussion.
Currently, shamefully, the domestic medical guidelines for prescription of cannabis exclude chronic pain patients and a few other obvious groups. The NHS medical market in other words, is a monopoly, set up by the current and previous governments, mainly serving GW Pharmaceutical patients who qualify for Sativex and Epidiolex. Not to mention company shareholders.
Everyone else, including those for whom these drugs do not work well, or work less well than other alternatives, are left in an international trade negotiation in their living rooms as they and or their children suffer.
The import barriers for cannabis – both from Europe and from Canada are absolutely in the room and in a very personal way for the British right now.
How they actually define cannabis, will also clarify. This will be driven now by the UK’s biggest import partners – namely Europe, the United States and Canada (although South Africa and Australia of course, will always be in the picture).
Which regulatory scheme the UK adapts, including for cannabis and of both the THC and CBD variety (not to mention other cannabinoids), in other words, will at minimum have to be broadly equivalent with all of the above. Not the other way around. No matter how much the Food Standards Agency (FSA) wants to fuss and fiddle with “Novel Food.” That alone is a canard.
Cannabis is a plant. It is time to start acting like that. And it is no more “novel” than tomatoes in many, easy-to-understand environments, including commercial ones. Not to mention will increasingly be regulated like commercial food crops – even if those crops are then also bound for dual purpose medical use.
The regulators will eventually get there – but not without a lot of tortuous twists and turns.
A “New” Market? Not So Much…
There is a lot of consultant palaver and baloney in the room right now. There is no more a new market in the UK as there was in Germany (or Canada or Colorado). Local producers are already organizing, and on the hemp front. The big ones are hip to regulations and are getting certified to enter it. Everyone else is being left on the dangerous sharp end of police raids, even with prior local approvals.
That said, foreign producers are of course looking at the UK right now, and in a big way. The lock GW Pharmaceuticals has on the domestic market will not hold long. European producers are absolutely in the room (starting with Tilray in Portugal and Alcaliber in Spain). Not to mention what is going on in other places right now, even if of less well-known corporate branding.
Every big Canadian company is already in the room in the UK, and many Americans are now beginning to show up in the market.
However, for the most part, such ventures are doomed outside of conference sponsorships until the regulatory questions are answered if not met.
And that includes federal certifications that are easy to find – there is no one single authority that handles cannabis internationally. And there never will be. Supply chains are already global.
A Perfect Export Market
One of the biggest, so far widely discussed questions is who in Europe will start exporting to the UK (forget Holland for the moment). Not to mention producers in Spain, Greece, Poland if not Macedonia. That conversation is also on the table now. For the first time, so is Germany, and on the medical side.
Pharmaceutical producers in particular who meet international pharma standards may be the best hope yet – although right now policy makers are still looking at cars rather than cannabis to help keep Germany’s trade export quota where it feels “comfortable” domestically.
That too will change. And fairly quickly. See Greece, if not South Africa.
The political roil of branding and politics afoot in Germany right now makes this new kind of export market idea as a part of economic development, an inevitability.
Not to mention, at least for the present, a reverse trade in regulated British CBD products – if producers are smart about regulations – throughout the continent right now.
Of all countries, outside Switzerland, the UK has the ability to develop a broad and intriguing market in the EU – but only if they are compliant with regulations in Europe.
And this is where the policy makers in Parliament and 10 Downing Street have already misjudged if not broadly misled, not in a regulatory environment of their own, but in fact in a diplomatic “room” where the rules are already set via international standards and certifications, not to mention treaties.
The Italian Supreme Court seemed to take a page from both Israel and Thailand last year (who announced exports and reform legislation on Christmas Day 2018). In the dying days of 2019, on December 19, the court ruled in what is basically a landmark decision for not only the country but the continent, that small-scale domestic cultivation of cannabis (both of the CBD and THC kind) is legal.
Even more intriguingly, the ruling was ignored for several days in Italy before being picked up by news agencies. This in turn has apparently set off a much wider and predictable debate about the use of the plant in the country – either for medical and or recreational purposes. Many are doubtful that any legislation will pass formalizing the inevitable in the near future (one attempt has already been killed), but one can never know these days. This is an issue that perennially takes countries and politicians by surprise as populations warm quickly to the concept of medical reform.
That said, so far efforts to formalize the ruling into law have been slapped down by the center right Forza Italia Party. Further, if a right or center right coalition comes to power in Italy as widely expected, it is likely to try to overturn the court ruling legislatively which has been described at least in such circles as an “absurd verdict.”
It is important also to understand this distinction if not label and how it translates both internationally and domestically.
In Canada, reform was championed by economic liberals (who are basically centrist, globalists if not free traders) and libertarians more than any other label. However initially, reform was driven not by political campaigns but rather a national challenge to prevailing cultivation law at the supreme court. This then became the legal basis for reform legislation of both the medical and recreational kind.
In the U.S., cannabis reform is frequently championed by states’ rights advocates, who are from a European perspective, extreme right wing. Right down to opposing the federal imposition of not only civil rights but other kinds of regulatory law. Including in this space. This also includes absolute hostility to anything resembling “national” if not “single payer” federal healthcare.
The two issues obviously overlap, intersect and create many strange juxtapositions if not outright contradictions and paradoxes. And many strange bedfellows.
This disconnect of course is also what has held back a united front on passing federal reform no matter how much this has allowed recreational to now spread to 11 American states as of January 1 this year. As a result, for now and certainly for several years after the next presidential election, barring a surprise realignment of politics in the U.S., there is unlikely to be any progress on federal reform. But in the U.S., cannabis legalization is a “purple” issue. Trump, for example, still opposes any national change – although if the election is tight, look for a lot of promises from both sides.
Across the Atlantic however, what Italy’s new judicial stance on the subject means for the first time, is that there is potential for a real fight on the ground from a political grass-roots front in a socially conservative European state. This is also intriguing for another reason. Italy’s health ministry also just cancelled one of Aurora’s cultivation licenses. For all the naysayers on the significance of this development, this should not be discounted.
Kind of like a Canada or Mexico moment for the continent indeed.
Not to mention what this discussion does for the CBD discussion. Both in Italy and elsewhere.
Look Homeward Deutsch Angel
Advocates across the continent if not the UK, are of course, also watching closely. Germany in particular, tried to avoid this exact discussion three years ago, but it is unlikely that advocates at least, will let this continental victory rest. Starting with the fact that this is a debate that was firmly shut off in 2017 with the passage of the medical cannabis insurance coverage law to widespread patient frustration and huge patient issues with access ever since. Even though, in fact, Guenther Weiglein, the German patient who brought the suit, took it as far as he could legally. His right to domestic cultivation, along with the few patients who managed to avail themselves of the same right before the law changed, are no longer allowed to do so.
So of course, beyond charging the debate in Italy, this development will also increase pressure in Germany (for starters) as well as other European countries to reconsider what so far at least has been verbotten and largely because of Germany’s lead so far.
Even in places like Holland, Denmark, Portugal, Spain and Greece, the domestic cultivation discussion has been off the table. Luxembourg, and just outside the EU, Switzerland, has not raised this prospect.
That may well change in all of these countries plus others as the clock now starts to tick down to the end of 2021.
Regardless, early predictions about the pace of change as well as the size of the markets have largely been wrong.
So, for all the intriguing possibilities, this is not a slam dunk, but certainly a strong charge down the court in the right direction.
Cannabis as a news story and an industry moved forward again this year, albeit in a rather more halting way than the last few. The volatility of the market in fact was one of the largest stories of the year, particularly after the events of this summer.
It’s Been A Wild Ride Kind Of Year
This time last year, the world was in a tizzy over the literally billions of bucks invested into a few top Canadian cannabis companies. This year, predictions are definitely a little more sober when it comes to the future of cannabis stocks. Most of the industry has taken a major beating this fall.
That said, the current correction was in the cards for just as long. What goes up, dramatically, must come down.
That said, this is not the whole picture of the industry – not by a long shot. Reform ain’t going back. Patient numbers are climbing, albeit slowly.
Here in Europe, the first and so far biggest public tender on cannabis was finally concluded in Germany with Aurora, Aphria and the cannabis company formerly known as Wayland (ICC) winning the bid lots for domestic cultivation this spring.
The British, who waffled around all year on what kind of “animal” cannabis actually is, celebrated that anniversary late in the year with a highly limited scope of coverage by the NHS.
The most interesting discussions right now are clearly emerging on the international front. Cannabis became an internationally mainstreaming commodity this year as patient numbers began to climb on the continent.
This in turn has led to the normalization of the idea at least of an export trade in cannabis not only across Europe but globally as companies target the region. Cross border cannabis companies, in other words, are a “thing” that blossomed this year – and frequently, while sometimes financed by Canadians, called another country home.
The announcement of at least the first German wholesale reference price this year will also do wonders to start to normalize prices across not only the EU but all those hoping to export here.
That in turn will have global impact.
Regulation Is Beginning to Materialize
For those who thought that higher standards were a passing fad, the events of this year, particularly of the latter half of it have confirmed one thing for sure: Regulatory muster is here to stay.
To add to the general confusion, however, international standards on medical products and even food are absolutely in the mix as countries find that standards, measurements and production processes might be similar, but on the ground, still differ. Harmonization is a word many in the cannabis industry are hearing now, and not just in the medical space, but also the food and supplements market.
The initials “GMP” are on the lips of many this year. Not to mention another exciting development the cannabis industry from abroad did not see coming and still broadly does not understand – namely Novel Food.
The War For Reform Is Being Fought On Several Fronts
Inevitably, just as in the United States, the fights in the room right now as well as legislative gridlock are focusing on some strange nitty gritty. For example, cannabidiol (CBD) is just one cannabinoid from the plant. It is a chemical substance. Yet, suddenly, in Europe, this discussion is being bogged down in pseudo-scientific discussions in the name of public policy about whether CBD is a “new kind” of food.
Ultimately this is a discussion about regulation – whether CBD and hemp production should be regulated differently than they are right now – and whether the plant should be put in a different bucket than, say, tomatoes. Or when extracted, tomato juice.
GMP is also a very strange discussion which has still not exited the stage – mostly because of the lack of uniformity internationally between Canada and European states although that is moving in the right direction.
The last issue of course, which has been looming from the Canadian side for several years, including of course all the pesticide scandals, new regulations on the cultivation of all plants for human consumption. Even German farmers are up in arms (with a recent tractor protest in Berlin that paralyzed the city).
Cannabis is in the bullseye on all fronts.
Auld Lang Syne
If there was a theme to the industry as of this summer, it was clearly that things cannot continue as they have. The CannTrust Scandal absolutely encapsulated all that is wrong with the industry.
That said, there is every reason to believe that the most egregious scandals (or at least quite so many of them) are a passing fad. Indeed, many in the industry are in fact committed to turning over a new leaf (for the new year or just because).
The good news? There is every sign of course that it will.
2019 opened with a strange vibe in the air on the cannabis front. Israel and Thailand set the stage with dramatic reform announcements last Christmas. And as the calendar counts down to 2020, the larger players all seem to be licking their wounds (if not stock prices).
But cannabis reform is not just about profits on the public markets. What has gone down and where and ultimately, has the year lived up to its promise?
Reform Marched On In Several Countries
At this point, reform is certainly “too big to fail.” There will be no going back anywhere no matter the laggards still in the room.
From the perspective of opening patient access (and markets beyond that), There were several big stories on the medical front this year – and – in a real first for the EU – of not only the medical, but recreational kind as well.
Germany of course is going, relatively speaking, like “gangbusters” on the medical front although supply, quality and supply chain issues are still in the room. Even more so now because the German government has also announced, for the first time, a public reference wholesale price per gram of floss. That alone is big news, although expect that too to drop (see Aurora’s pricing for Italy, for starters).
In the UK, the NHS finally got down to brass tacks and negotiated a bulk discount for GW Pharmaceuticals cannabis drugs for a very narrow band of patients (mostly child epileptics and MS patients). A tiny minority of the estimated 1.4 million daily British “medical” users including those suffering from chronic pain can afford imports. The rest is all black, or in the case of CBD, gray market.
In France, the country finally got on the reform bandwagon with a “medical trial.” This means that all the major countries in the region are finally on board with some kind of reform. That too is a meaningful move.
Poland is also opening – a good sign for the remaining conservative countries in Europe still on the fence.
And in a real first (although do not get too excited just yet), on the “recreational” front, it is not just Holland that is in the room any more. Both Denmark and Luxembourg announced that they were opening this conversation. In Denmark and Holland’s case, this is in the form of “trials” in places where operational grey markets have already been established. In Holland, this is of course, regulating the “coffee shop” trade in large cities like Amsterdam. In Denmark, the new “trial” will be on the grounds of a revived hippy experiment called Christiana, that morphed predictably into the control of gangs over the last generation.
Luxembourg, however, seems intent on setting the benchmark if not timeline and is moving aggressively in one direction. As a result, as of this year, the strategic “heart” of Europe is now on the schedule to go full monty by 2022. That said, it is a country of about half a million people. Further, no matter the inevitably hype on the way, don’t expect the country to turn into a big cannabis hub- nor encourage pot tourism even from neighboring Europeans.
The end of 2021 is the time to watch for all things recreational. In the meantime, including next year, look for increasing “experiments” in other places. Particularly of the Swiss variety (where both recreational and medical products are sold via pharmacies.)
THC Is Being Accepted As Having Medical Efficacy
No matter the controversy in the room, and the strange inclinations of the British NICE to try to undo forty years of medical knowledge about the impact of THC on chronic pain, medical cannabis and specifically medical cannabis with THC has made its global medical debut as of this year.
That said, the push is on to “pharmacize” the product.
Flower (floss) is in the room, in other words, but the future is looking towards oils and distillates – at least for the medical market long term. And a lot of that will also come increasingly to this market from places like Portugal, Spain, Greece and other European markets now moving into the cultivation space seriously.
Then again, there is still a lot of road to travel. Wags who predicted that German health insurers would never pay for floss cannabis just five years ago were wrong.
CBD Is Not All Its Cracked Up To Be
For all those who sang “Free the CBD” this year, Europe has taken a rather conservative and concerted push back. From Austria to Italy and Sweden to Poland, the path to market for any product containing CBD has been a tough one this year.
That said, perhaps it is a call for more standardization- no matter how painful that might be economically. At a presentation given at this year’s IACM medical conference in Berlin, a medical researcher revealed the results of a study he had conducted on the accuracy of labelling of these products in several European countries. The industry has not standardized, labelling is all over the place in terms of accuracy – and the claims about “medical efficacy” are hard to swallow for substandard over-the-counter product.
If the CBD-based part of the industry is to thrive here, it will have to find a way to establish and certify itself. That appears to be going on in Italy right now. It also impacts every cultivator from Portugal and Spain to Eastern Europe looking at the possibilities right now.
However, with labelling and other EU cross currents in the room, this route to the industry has been fraught this year with all the cross winds and those are not likely to dissipate next year or indeed for the next several.
The Cannabis Winds Of Trade Are In The Air
While it may be a bit ironic, given that international trade has pretty much always been a hallmark of the development of the modern cannabis industry, next year will undoubtedly be the year of “International Cannabis Trade.”
No matter the problems “back home,” as of this year, a German-based manufacturer of GMP-certified product got fully underway (see ICC/Wayland’s success this year). That, along with the final decision on the first German cultivation bid, has clearly shaped a market that is still changing. And that change is driven by the admission, even by authorities, that there is not enough legal cannabis grown in the country.
That means that the strength of the German market will continue to drive policy (see the recent announcements on wholesale pricing) as well as demand that will be met across the continent.
Along the way, cannabis reform is also being driven locally. And that means, no matter the trials and tribulations of the Canadian part of the sector, which perhaps can be considered aptly warned for getting a bit too big for its britches, and no matter how faulting, the winds of reform are still afloat. Just perhaps, on the cards for next year and those to come, blowing from many more points on the globe.
You have to hand it to the Brits right now. There is nothing that seems to be working in a land caught in the gray zone of “Brexit or Not.”
That absolutely can be said for cannabis prescriptions and the subsequent availability of the drug, via the National Health Service (NHS). For all the hand-wringing and drama so far, it has only taken a year between possibility and execution. That said if Brexit were that “fast” who knows what might have already happened to the NHS to begin with?
Regardless of the many deservedly snarky comments in the room (from both the British and elsewhere point of view), here are the basics:
Cannabis-based medicine will be available only to treat two relatively rare forms of childhood epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, or chemo-induced nausea caused by cancer treatment. The drug can also only be prescribed by specialist doctors (not GPs).
Perhaps they should have attended the 10th biannual IACM conference in Berlin at the beginning of the month. There were certainly reform-minded Brits who did.
What Were They Thinking?
When reading the recommendations from NICE, it is hard to imagine how a medical policy body could get most of the cannabis discussion so wrong. While it is nice to know that dying children seem to be highly effective in setting drug policy in the UK, that is hardly comforting to the potentially millions of adult Brits who have absolutely been left out, this time.
This begs the question why an adult in chronic pain or suffering muscular spasticity of a kind not caused by MS (much less adult epileptics) is somehow in a different basket of care? Indeed, the idea of recommending against the use of THC specifically for chronic pain is, at this point, a sign of at minimum gross inability to read even recent medical studies from just about everywhere, not to mention patient evidence and testimony. Those adults who managed to get coverage, at least so far, will be given the right to continue treatment until their doctor decides otherwise. Not a very comforting place to be.
Here Comes The Gray And Black Market
All this will do of course, is push those who do not qualify for NHS coverage into either the private market (if they can afford it), or more likely, the existing gray and black market. The former of which of course, is, like other places, underground.
And while GW Pharmaceuticals has everything to cheer about, the rest of the established industry, at this point, surely should be ready to take a concerted stand.
The ridiculous posture of the NHS beyond that on cannabis in this day and age is hard to understand. Even the Germans are ahead of them. And Deutschland is hardly a country where the use of cannabis is anything like mainstream yet.
But then, welcome again, to the wacky world of cannabis reform where it is possible to take one step forward and then many back.
Is This The Face Of The British Conversation Post Brexit?
If there were a single conversation to unite a country right now, the medical coverage of cannabis for the country’s poorest and sickest might be it.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be a conversation that will progress in the UK until it moves in the United States. Federal reform in America would of course open the doors, and immediately, to a state-like “recreational” market, where, theoretically, patients could buy any kind of cannabis they want.
Just like Colorado. Or California.
But here is the rub. In the United States, federal reform has not come yet. And even then, what health insurers decide to cover or not, and for what condition, is a topic many Brits have never had to really contemplate. And certainly not when it comes to cannabis. This new decision by the health authorities might just be a terrifying glimpse of what is yet on the agenda if and when Britain “divorces” the continent.
Is The Dream Of Medical Coverage For Cannabis Just That?
Here is the good news. Cannabis always makes progress, no matter how long the slog has been. If the Brits are determined to sit this one out while their citizens suffer, the conversation is still alive, if struggling, elsewhere. Notably Germany. And Israel.
These are, to date, the only two countries who have jumped in, seriously, on the issue of insurance coverage of cannabis, and for a broad range of conditions, although even here in both countries, there are still issues and controversies galore.
The terrible reality in the room however, is clearly writ large for all those who are brave enough to grasp it. Most patients are going to be on the hook for the cost of their medical cannabis for a long time to come.
You have read the press releases. You may have heard about such ideas at a recent cannabis conference in and around the EU of late. Or you may have encountered new distributors coming into the game with a German presence and a decidedly interesting ex-im plan that sounds a bit, well, off the map.
No matter how geographically creative some of these plans are, the problem is that many of these ideas literally do not make economic sense. Either for the companies themselves (if not their investors), and certainly not for patients. Not to mention, truth be told, the looming price sensitivity issues in the European market that North Americans, for starters, seem to still just be waking up to.
Some Recent Examples….
Yes, exports from Denmark have been much in the news lately (including into both Germany and Poland). Truth be told, however, this makes about as much sense, economically, as importing ice to eskimos. Why? Denmark, for all its looser regulations and less-uptight approach to the cannabis discussion generally, is one of the most expensive labour markets in Europe. Fully automated production plants are one thing, but you can build those in other places too. Especially warmer climates, with lots of sunshine. German production, as it comes online, will also make this idea increasingly ludicrous.
Who on earth got on this bandwagon? It seems that the enthusiasm in the room began when Denmark began to import to Germany (where the disparities in wages in production are not so noticeable). However, lately, several Canadian companies with a Danish footprint have been eying Poland of late.
And on that particular topic – there are many who are doing the math and trying to figure out, as the alternatives get going, if even Canada makes much sense, or will in a few years.
Low Wage Markets With Sunshine Are Hotspots For European Cannabis Production
Like it or not, the European market is extraordinarily price sensitive – namely because it is not “just” consumers called patients picking up the tab but health insurance companies demanding proof of medical efficacy.
That starts, a bit unfortunately, with understanding wage economics across Europe. The warmer the climate, in other words and the further east on the map, wages drop precipitously. That is “good” for an industry looking to produce ever cheaper (but more compliant) product.
It is also good, at least politically, for countries whose elected leaders are being forced to admit that cannabis works, but are less than copacetic about encouraging local production. See Germany for starters, but places like Austria, Poland and most recently France (which has just embarked on a first of its kind medical cannabis trial).
Here, no matter the temporary buzz about Denmark, are the places that cannabis production makes sense:
Portugal: The country is a newcomer in the cannabis discussion this fall, although in truth, the seeds of this reality were sown several seasons ago when Tilray began to build its production plant in the country in 2017. They are far from the only company who has seen the light, and these days, farmers are getting hip to the possibilities. Especially if they are already exporting crops throughout Europe.
Spain: The industry that can afford GMP certification is getting going, but everyone else is stuck in a limbo between pharmaceutical producers and the strange gray market (see the patient clubs in Barcelona). That said, political groups are beginning to discuss cultivation as an economic development tool, if not sustainable food and medication strategies.
Greece: The weather is warm, and the investment climate welcoming. Of all the countries in the EU, Greece has embraced the economic possibilities that cannabis could bring. How that will play out in the next years to come is an intriguing story.
Italy: The southern part of the country in particular is ripe for cannabis investment and it’s full of sunshine. However, as many have noted, organized crime in this part of the world is a bit fierce and starts with the letter M.
Malta: The island is a comer, but does importing cannabis from here really make economic sense? There are trade routes and economic treaties tying the island both to the apparently Brexiting British and Europe. Why not, right? Just remember that along with labour, transportation costs are in the room here too.
And Just Outside The EU…
The country now (sort of) known as North Macedonia and struggling to get into the EU if France would just get out of the way is also going to be a heavyweight in this discussion for years to come. Wages, of course, will increase as part of EU membership, but in general, this country just north of Greece is going to play a highly strategic role in exports throughout Europe.
In other words, decidedly less colorful (or at least in the North American sense) if not at lower volume than other places.
In the meantime, particularly filtered via American and Canadian coverage and industry success stories, the British are succumbing to the green magic any way they can.
Low-THC, CBD products as a result, are flourishing in a way that seems a bit like the “Colorado of Europe.” The early days. When all sorts of strange stories about processing leaked out of the first legalizing state market in the U.S. It is shocking to European eyes, in particular, of late.
“CBD” is, literally, everywhere.
For those with other kinds of experience in the world of cannabis, however, it is both slightly sad and slightly exhilarating. The Brits have the cannabis bug. But they seem a bit lost on where to go next.
What Is The Deal In The UK?
Regulations are weird here. You cannot use the flower of any cannabis flower (including those with under the requisite amount of THC) – also known as hemp. The novel food discussion is lost.
Regardless, there are clearly plans afoot, particularly on the corporate farming level, to begin a transformation of crops to include cannabis sometime soon. And far beyond the farmers, the boys in the city are getting hot under the collar for this kind of green.
London is also turning into (rather predictably) a center of all things cannabis equity.
There are already more specialty funds planning to list on London exchanges than anywhere else in Europe.
But is this all that surprising?
In the midst of Brexit, a failing NHS, and a society at odds with itself like no time since the 1970’s, the British are facing the cannabis revolution with anything but a stiff upper lip.
When it comes to all things cannabinoids, at least on the CBD side, no matter the odd police raid on a health food store or crunchy vegan experiment on land not protected by the rights of an inherited “country pile”, the cannabis horse, certainly of the broadly stroked CBD variety, is out of the barn.
But What Does this Really Mean?
For the moment? As globally financed companies set up in the UK for all kinds of cannabis trials, the CBD market here is taking on an oddly Bulldog twist.
There is more of a cottage industry of all kinds of CBD products unseen elsewhere in Europe (including from the U.S.). Labeling, testing and sourcing are largely a matter of hit or miss. And just like everywhere else, desperate, sick, depressed people (or those who fear becoming that way) are turning to the CBD miracle to fix a range of conditions.
The problem is that a lot of this is pure snake oil.
Yes, high quality, medical grade CBD does work as a stabilizer (just like THC). But not every oil containing some measure of highly diluted (or worse, contaminated) cannabinoid extract, is the panacea that cannabis offers.
Bottom line? The CBD market in the UK is sort of like Swiss Lite. There are medical trials in the offing, but the country is also in the middle of a constitutional crisis. There are many regulations, and of a bit more fundamentally intrinsic kind, on the line right now. Cannabis is in the room. But so is the Irish Border (the largest if not most existential sticking point in the never-ending Brexit negotiations).
Investing In The UK CBD Market
There are investors who are clearly examining the market, and a few big deals so far, but the vast majority of money flowing into the UK is going into its more flexible (if not frothy) equity market. The British, in other words, may be flailing a bit on domestic implementation, but equity funds in London are in touch with global investors on this issue – even if that money then flows back into Europe.
As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.
The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.
As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?
Who, What, Where?
The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.
Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.
By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.
Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.
What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?
The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.
Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.
Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.
On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.
Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?
Where Does This Get Interesting?
The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.
Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
There have been many significant developments this summer in Europe that will shape the debate about reform and the legal cannabis market that trails it, for at least the next year. Here is Cannabis Industry Journal’sroundup of our biggest events and trends over the summer so far.
Medical Sales Across Europe Are Slow
In Germany, it is easy to maintain a fairly ballpark understanding of patient count. Find the number of prescriptions issued in the trade press and divide by four. Everywhere else, however, the true realization of what is going on across Europe is slowly starting to hit everyone outside producers wanting to know what is going on.Establishing territorial footprint has been what the race in Europe has been all about since mid 2016 for the Canadian LPs so far.
This is going to start to hit stock prices soon beyond the wobbles already evident in the market thanks to this summer’s breaking industry scandals (CannTrust, lawsuits in every direction) to lack of financial performance for investors (Bruce Linton’s firing from Canopy). It is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone that just because a public Canadian company issues a press release about a (cultivation, import, export or processing) “event” does not mean anything other than a slew of social media telling everyone about it. The frustration with “forward looking” statements has hit European investors big time, from the retail to the institutional kind.
Despite a lot of press releases in other words, which clearly show market penetration, there is not much else going on from the sales perspective when it comes to growing those first numbers. Establishing territorial footprint has been what the race in Europe has been all about since mid 2016 for the Canadian LPs so far.
However, from an industry, if not investor and of course, patient perspective, patient numbers are what really count. And unlike Canada, where patients remain the biggest existential threat to the industry, the same industry may not sign them up or ship to them directly in Europe. For several reasons.
Germany is still the only country in Europe with a significant patient count, and while growing, slowly, is still a group where 2/3 of patients obtain dronabinol. It should shock nobody that the most accurate patient count right now in the UK is hovering somewhere under 20. For the whole country, 9 months after the law changed. While the peculiarities of Brexit are also in the room, this is so far, compared to U.S. state markets, Canada, Israel and Germany before it, pathetic.
The Industry Says It Supports Patients…But Does It?
There are several levels to this debate which start with the still appallingly high level of price gouging in the room. 2019 and certainly this summer is a time when the Canadian companies are clearly learning that European governments negotiate for drugs in bulk. Even (and especially in the near future) this one. See the difference between the EU and the US.
The level of industry promotion vs patient access recently reached a new nadir this summer when it emerged that despite a great deal of interest, more people showed up (by far) to the week-long cannabis industry conference (European Cannabis Week in London in June) than there are legitimate patients in the UK right now.
That is about to change, but so far, industry support for trials has not materialized. When the various trials now being planned do get going, look for new battles over a couple of issues, starting with patient access to and control of their medical data.
Novel Food: The Regulation That Keeps On Giving
The issues involved in this discussion are complex, certainly by North American standards. This of course starts with the fact that there is no such regulation on the continent. But also rapidly bleeds into puncturing the amount of hot air entrepreneurialism there is in the room.
The CBD market in Europe that everyone got so excited about in investor releases, in other words, is basically dead for the time being. Yes, there are a few smart niche players weaving around the regs, but it is a full-time job.
Here is the reality: Since Christmas last year when Austria put the kabosh on all products containing the cannabinoid CBD, several major countries have weighed in on the issue. It is not going away. And it is here to stay, even after recreational.
Political Advocacy Is Stirring In Europe
Whether it is the vagaries of Brexit, the discussion across the continent about how the EU will work together, right wing populist screeds about “too much regulation” or national elections, cannabis is in the room from now until the end of at least 2021 as one of the hottest global political issues under the sun. That includes of course, a discussion about global climate change, sourcing, pricing and resource use so far unaddressed but rapidly looming.
Further, patients are still having a voice – whether it is making sure that their children obtain imported CBD, or that they can obtain their own THC prescriptions without going bankrupt or having to solicit in the black market.
Cultivation Bids Looming?
One of the surest signs yet that the German authorities at any rate, are in no mood to solve the cultivation issues still on the ground and the bid itself, is that the government just renegotiated, for the second time since last fall, the amount of medical cannabis to come over the Dutch-German border. Who is going to go next? With the Italian hybrid now done and dusted, Poland is likely to be next. And when that happens, expect a raft of similar initiatives across Europe. But probably not until then.
And in the meantime? Distributors are looking for product. The demand is clearly there. But across Europe this summer there is a clear sense that the hype machine that has been the industry’s mouthpiece is at minimum overenthusiastic about the bottom-line details behind it all.
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