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From CannTrust To Canopy: Is There A Connection To Current Cannabis Scandals?

By Marguerite Arnold
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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.Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

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?

What Went Down At Canopy?

Last year, Canopy announced its listing on the NYSE in May. To put this in context, this was two months after the first German cultivation bid went down to legal challenge. By August 15, 2018 with a new bid in the offing, the company had closed the second of its multi-billion dollar investments from Constellation.

Bruce Linton, former CEO of Canopy Growth
Photo: Youtube, TSX

Yet by late October, after Bruce Linton skipped a public markets conference in Frankfurt where many of the leading Canadian cannabis company execs showed up to lobby Jens Spahn (the health minister of Germany) about the bid if not matters relating to the Deutsche Börse, there were two ugly rumours afoot.

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.

Common Territories

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.

And of course by April, the company unveiled plans to buy Acreage in the U.S.

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. 

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European Cannabis Summer Roundup

By Marguerite Arnold
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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.

UKflagThe 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 structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

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.

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Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

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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UK Non-Profit Launches Project TWENTY21 To Register 20K Cannabis Patients

By Marguerite Arnold
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In late June, as more than a thousand people descended on the South Bank Center to attend the largest cannabis conference held so far in the UK, another development was taking place away from the headlines.

Drug Science, a non-profit research group founded to reform drug policies based on scientific evidence rather than politics or even economic considerations, launched an ambitious trial project in the UK.

The goal? To get medical cannabis to 20,000 British patients suffering from a range of conditions that the drug is well known to help treat.

Who Is Drug Science?

Founded by Professor David Nutt, the former chief drug advisor to the British government who was fired in 2009 for stating that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol, the group itself is clearly not afraid to tackle controversy. The Project TWENTY21 initiative is an ambitious if not desperately needed undertaking.

Targeted patient groups include those suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, MS, Tourette’s and addiction.

Several cannabis companies have already signed up to support the effort which also includes the United Patients Alliance ,and academic researchers.

According to Abby Hughes, Head of Outreach for UPA, “Whilst a change in UK law has given clinicians the green light to prescribe medical cannabis, the majority of patients are denied access, some even being criminalised, whilst corporations are profiting from the same plant.”

UKflagHughes also noted that the goal of the project is to begin to ground patient demand in research and hard data. “We hope that by having a dataset that proves the efficacy of medical cannabis, thousands of patients will be able to access legal, affordable medicine, which may improve their quality of life,” she said.

What Is The Scope of Project TWENTY21?

It is the first-of-its-kind project in the UK where, 9 months after the law changed to allow prescription of cannabinoids as well as the medical importation of the same, there are less than 20 (legal) patients in the country. And all of the successful candidates so far have fought for the right and still do.

While important in its own right, the concept if not forward motion on the same, is also poised to create similar trials all over Europe. This is especially true in countries (like France) where the issue of reform has not moved at all. Or even in Germany (with well over 50,000 patients two and a half years after similar reform was passed by the Bundestag) where problems with access and questions about medical efficacy still frustrate the close to a million Germans who cannot access the drug. Switzerland and Luxembourg may yet prove to be similiarly interesting.

Why Is This Timely?

There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe as the cannabis industry has really begun to establish itself since mid-2016. This is the only way to help forward medical understanding of cannabinoids at a level that leads to mainstream acceptance. And more importantly, medical and payer mainstream approvals. Until that happens, despite all the press releases, overall sales across the continent remain low.

One of the most important issues beyond this – the extraordinarily high pricing seen in Europe until late last year – has also played a role of course. Payers (see the German “statutory” health insurers) on the front lines of uncertain medical efficacy are still reluctant to pay for a drug, in any form, they do not understand, do not have evidence for, and are still highly suspicious of.

There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe With cannabis companies agreeing to provide product (in this case potentially from Australia), a research organization with national chops and brave leaders is likely to take the conversation far. And not just in the UK.

While Drug Science is of course not the only British entity planning canna trials and in part supported by the Canadian industry (see The Beckley Foundation for starters), Project 2021 is also certainly likely to be a study with both local as well as regional and global implications.

In Europe, there are other regional trials now in the offing (see Switzerland, Germany and France). Only Germany of course, has a patient population that is starting to be large enough to be effectively studied, and of course, the majority of these patients are still receiving dronabinol.

It is also clearly a steady state march, rather than a discussion that is likely to see significant boosts in patient numbers any time soon. Unless of course, there are other contributing factors.

Regardless, unlike the U.S. and even Canada, the strict medical focus of Europe (including the UK) is finally moving the conversation to the next level. Large, regional and/or national medical trials – and further for conditions the drug is well-known to treat but are so far considered “off-label” for most Europeans will be the watchword here for the next several years.

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The Face Of Cannabis Education In Europe

By Marguerite Arnold
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More than a few cannabis “education companies” – mostly from Canada and the U.S. but some with Israeli ties, plus German and British efforts have targeted Europe as the next logical expansion plan in their global roadmap.

These include most recently Cannvas Medtech Inc., and several initiatives funded by Canopy Growth, including teaching children about the drug. It also includes training programs for frontline staff, launched by Organigram (although in this case it appears to be geared towards “brand education.”)

There are also doctor training programs launching in the UK.

In Germany, there are several efforts underway, helmed by both doctors and cannabis advocates generally, in several cities around the country.

But how effective is all of this “education” in both preventing illegal use, and promoting legitimate sales?

Particularly if such “education” platforms are exported from a foreign market for use in Europe?Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

Education Is Desperately Needed, But So Is Channel Penetration

Nobody is arguing that “education,” as well as trials and more information for payers and doctors are not required. The problem is that some education is more effective than other campaigns. And most of the talk in most places is more a discussion of the need for further regulatory reform, more trials and more investigation.

That has to get paid for somewhere.

That, at least in Europe is also tricky, as both early educational movers Weedmaps and Leafly have both found out, especially in medical only markets in the EU. Why? There are also highly limited opportunities for advertising either a drug, or to doctors.

Different Regulatory Environments Cause Bigger Issues

Even in Canada and the United States, there is an ecosystem of supplying the demand that has very much grown up customized by the strange paths to reform if not the first mover discussion.

That is not going to be the case in Europe, which in effect creates a brand-new ecosystem to educate, with new players, and every ecosystem participant group has a different kind of educational needs.

Here is one example of where this shows up. So far, in most countries, doctors are still highly resistant to prescribing the drug. Nurses, on the other hand, in both the United States and Canada at least, have proven to be a much more reliable source of converts for the cannabis cause. That approach of course is not possible in places like Germany where only doctors may issue prescriptions, including of the cannabis (and narcotic) kind.

european union statesAccess issues also play a big role in just about every country- from cost to privacy. And on the privacy front, it is not just foreigners who are getting used to new rules. So are German doctors.

The pharmacy discussion is also very much in the room – and this is not “just like” approaching a “dispensary” from North America. They are regulated chemists. Which causes a whole new set of issues and a serious need for new kinds of educational materials.

In Germany, for example, pharmacists are being recruited and trained by not only staff recruiters specializing in the same, but also sent on special training courses funded by the big Canadian companies (Tilray being the noticeable one recently). The brick and mortar vs. online discussion is also a big topic across Europe. Notably, where it is allowed and where it is, as in Deutschland, verboten.

And, of course, the big green giant in the room everywhere in Europe, in particular, is payer/insurance approvals, which are based on a kind of education called proven medical efficacy.

And that, so far, is in markedly short supply.

In the UK, it is so far the main reason that NHS patients (for example) cannot access coverage for the drug to treat conditions like chronic pain.

In the meantime, the most widespread “education” that is going on, is still mostly at the patient level. Especially when patients sue their insurers, or lobby doctors to prescribe.

The cannabis industry may be maturing, in other words, to be able to answer these questions – but there is also clearly a long way to go.

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Corporate CBD Production Gets Underway in UK

By Marguerite Arnold
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Any thought that established British and Canadian growers were not already cooperating and in the throes of establishing a UK cannabis production base was put to bed in early July.

Namely, the news that Sundial, an Alberta based Canadian company, is buying Bridge Farms, the winner of the Overall UK Grower of the Year Award in 2017, is a sign that the age of British cannabinoid production (and in bulk) is here. The agriculture group has a 75-acre production facility in Lincolnshire (strategically on the border with Norfolk) and a recent ₤18 million equity injection.

This also means that large-scale CBD production in the UK is now underway with authority.

What it also means, however, is that the winds of trade, even if historically, are already cultivating some interesting partners as the entire British cannabis discussion gets underway.

Sundial Growers also almost simultaneously filed documents to list on the Nasdaq in the U.S. In this, they look remarkably similar to Tilray.

British Sugar Is Now Not The Only Game In Town

The links to the cannabis industry in this part of the UK are not new. Namely, the county of Norfolk (the east-coast “bump” of the British coastline just south of Lincolnshire) is home to British Sugar, the cultivator for GW Pharmaceuticals cannabis crop.

GW logoThis part of the world is also historically associated not only with major international British trade, but in the past at least, of the German kind in particular. See the port of Kings Lynn and the Hanseatic trading route that put the eastern town on the global shipping map until the advent of the railroads in the UK leached its importance south, to London in the 19th century.

Foreign investment in agriculture, in other words, in this part of the world is not new. Nor is shipping the final product elsewhere.

What Does This Mean For The British Market?

That is an interesting question on the advent of a potential Brexit. Is this newly constructed agricultural centre designed, like Canopy’s newest hempire in New York State, for domestic consumption, and-or overseas trade?

For that reason, a fully automated CBD production facility in such a strategic and historic part of the country seems to indicate the commercial production of CBD has begun at a level virtually unseen in any other European country so far. And further, that its backers have an international, not just domestic market, in mind.

What Does This Mean For the European Market?

Unless the UK is planning on eviscerating all worker safety and pay regulations, it is unlikely that British-grown cannabis will be price competitive with what is going on in Europe right now. The German market, in fact, is a very good precursor to the kinds of growing pains the UK is likely to see in this regard.

european union statesExports, in other words, are highly unlikely, at least to Europe.

What this does mean however, is that licensed producers, with international roots and global financing, are clearly moving into the more or less corporate production market that is slowly getting going in Britain.

And just like elsewhere, post Canada, there is no chance, at this point at least, for any “mom and pop” industry to develop.

Given a lack of patient access at this point that is also not likely to fly politically for long.

Regardless, as of the summer of 2019, there are beginning to be the signs that large scale production of both THC and CBD, is getting going in Britain.

No matter where their customers are located.

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Tilray Imports Medical Cannabis Oil In Bulk To UK

By Marguerite Arnold
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Tilray has managed to successfully import its first bulk supply of medical cannabis oil into the UK.

It was a Tilray product, in fact, that was not only confiscated at the border last year – but subsequently sparked media outrage over the denial of the same to one Billy Caldwell, an epileptic child. It was not the only outcry nor was Billy the only child endangered. And the British people, in fact, finally signalled that they had lost their stiff upper lip on this one last year.

All of this despite lingering and significant problems ever since. Not to mention an intriguing and well-timing market entry for Tilray right after things have been heating up on cannabis reform in Parliament of late.

The Tilray product, which will be imported from its new production facilities in Portugal, has already been distributed in other European countries, including Croatia and Germany.

tilray-logoWhat is significant in other words, is that the UK is starting to allow bulk orders in through customs- and they are coming not from Canada, but from Europe. Even if it is a Canadian company’s brand on the same, for now at least.

Tilray of course, is not the only company engaged in a race to get imports into the country. Right after Christmas last year, Canopy/Spektrum announced the same plans. Wayland has clearly been angling for a British outpost for some time. And of course, more locally initiated groups, including European Cannabis Holdings, have been working to initiate easier access to British markets for well over a year. Let alone more locally grown interests and pursuits now clearly lining up for market entry.

But this announcement, coming so shortly after all the recent activity on cannabis reform and calls for trials in the UK, clearly means that the doors are now opening fast for the largest players angling to get in.

Bottom line? Look for the biggest Canadians with an already established European presence, to begin making similar announcements this summer.

Being “Available” Is Only The First Hurdle

One of the biggest problems facing not only the “industry” but patients in the UK, much like elsewhere, is that doctors do not know or want to prescribe cannabis and cannabinoid medicines- and for reasons stemming from fear or ignorance about medical efficacy to insurance coverage.

Medical cannabis, in all its forms so far, however, is also highly expensive and out of reach for most unless they obtain an NHS approval (or as in Germany, statutory health insurer approval) to actually obtain the drug. And then have a place to obtain it.

This basically counts out everyone who cannot pay out of pocket and cannot find a willing doctor to sign them up via onerous and ongoing paperwork. And that, of course, is the majority of the sick people in the room.

It is this basic conundrum, which the bigger Canadians have yet to solve themselves (and it is becoming more of a recognized issue in the U.S. in the days, presumably, before the 2020 election which will hopefully set a timetable for federal reform) that has been in the room for the last two years thanks to Germany.

Image credit: Flickr

It is even more of an issue in the UK. Especially with a renegotiation in Britain’s diplomatic and trade relationship with the rest of the world.

That includes, as of mid-July, a downright, undiplomatic spat between the White House and Whitehall right now over leaked comments from the British Ambassador to Washington – and about matters of competency far from cannabis. Although of course, this issue is in the room.

For that reason, the Canadian as well as the European connection to imports right now (from not just Portugal but Holland) on the medical side of the ledger, spell an intriguing fall for not only cannabis, but the real shape and direction of British politics- and by extension- British trade.

Patients Are Taking It To The Streets And To Parliament

As much as patients have so far partnered with the big Canadian companies in the attempt to get the borders open, this is not the only game in town. Dutch imports, from Dutch companies, are already showing up in the UK (see Bedrocan). And both British and Irish growers are getting in on early action, even if for now “just” on the CBD side.

Furthermore, it is clear that patients are playing a large role in making sure that they are being heard, even to the point of putting pressure on doctors. In an extraordinary admission at the parliamentary level during the last week of June, lawmakers conceded that the British public was taking matters into their own hands. And furthermore, that the change in the law had led to clear expectations that were not being met.

Namely, British patients are literally demanding medical cannabis by prescription from their doctors.

And much like in Germany, with a mandate for coverage, the government is being forced to listen, and as best as it can in a severely crimped and politicized Brexit environment, respond.

While cannabis reform is hardly the Guy Fawkes, in other words, in a tinder match environment that British politics certainly is right now, it might be a kind of spark that drives a much wider conversation in the UK about current events.

Specifically the survival of a system that is poised to provide not only access to cannabis but comprehensive medical care beyond that, even for the old or chronically ill.

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Has Cannabis Reform Landed In The UK?

By Marguerite Arnold
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The British have finally decided that cannabis reform is overdue. In London at least, 63% of the population believe that recreational reform is a good idea.  According to a poll by The Evening Standard, the rest of England too, is getting close to a majority when the idea of recreational reform is in the room.

It is, as usual, recreational reform that is the icing on a medical cake that has yet to be baked. But that spice brownie is well on its way to the oven too. According to the British Medical Journal as of the beginning of July, the idea of broader access to regulated medical supplies for patients is mandatory.

And in the ranks of the conservative party, Crispin Blunt founded the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group last September to lead Parliament in a long overdue discussion about the use of both medicinal and recreational cannabis use in the UK that formally “launched” during the last week of June.

But how the industry will develop here is also a big question in the room right now, especially with a country poised on the edge of one of the biggest constitutional questions in the country’s history – to Brexit or not, and how.

Justice Minister Crispin Blunt (right)
Photo courtesy of The UK Ministry of Justice, Flickr

The North American Influence Is Controversial

While Blunt, for example, sees no issue with injecting North American capital into the debate, there are others who are not so sanguine. And while the idea of Canadian reform is popular here, including the freedom of patients (and others) to grow small amounts themselves, the idea of Canadian companies influencing national policy is not. From The Daily Mail to The Guardian, there have been front page headlines about the coming financial influence of “The North Americans.”

That this discussion is also going on at a time when the UK is considering a completely new trade agreement with the world, including on pharmaceuticals, is not insignificant. Where the country’s drugs come from, far from cannabis, is absolutely on the table. Not to mention how much they cost.

Questions of basic access are likely, in other words, to be in the room for a long time here. The barriers to obtaining and filling a prescription start at its expense – which is ₤1,100 (about $1,400) per prescription. There are few people, let alone those who are chronically ill, who can afford the same. This is far from a “normalized” drug- even of last resort- at the NHS.So far, the number of actual cannabis patients in the UK (ones who go to a doctor for a prescription and fill it) is still under 100 people.

That said, it is a start. And for the first time, as of this summer, those with the money can in fact, obtain cannabis by prescription.

But what happens to those (the vast majority) who cannot? 

Patients Are Feeling Side-lined

Just as in national legalizing conversations in the United States and Canada so far, patients are being pushed aside for “the business” to take the conversation forward. But where does this business fall on matters of price and access?

So far, the number of actual cannabis patients in the UK (ones who go to a doctor for a prescription and fill it) is still under 100 people.

While patient groups are organizing, and the earliest ones to gain national attention, usually families whose children have been directly in the line of fire, are getting commercial ambitions themselves, the fact remains that patient voices are not the loudest ones in the room. Although as Blunt announced last week, he does not see recreational reform happening in the UK for the next five years.

That also means that every Canadian company entering the market (in particular) will have to continue to sing the same medical song they have been humming across Europe- at least in public.

The UK is NOT Germany – But It’s Not Canada Or The US Either…

No matter how much more “liberal” supposedly, the English people are on the whole CBD question (there is already far more CBD for sale in the UK than just about anywhere else), the UK market is still far behind Germany. Why? Since March 2017, insurance companies auf Deutschland have been required to cover the drug – from sprays and pills to floss when prescribed by a doctor.

There are, by latest calculations about 50,000 German patients.

That said, it is clear that the British do not seem to give a fig about the entire “novel food” discussion and are literally, in some cases, daring the police to raid stores and shut down establishments. The idea of rebellion against EU rules seems very obvious on the CBD front.

Beyond this, however, it is also clear that “Canadian” much less “American” cannabis reform is not necessarily the only model in town.

As the British, in other words, do finally embrace the cannabis question, it is very likely that the face of the same will be of a unique Limey strain all of its own.

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A Cautionary Tale of Two British CBD Start-Ups

By Marguerite Arnold
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As cannabis reform finally begins to hit the UK, the same confusion, lack of standards and uneven application of the “law” reigns supreme.

Just like other places (notably Israel, the United States and Canada), in the early days after medical reform hits, the English situation is instructive if not reminiscent of other fights elsewhere – no matter how much individual stories may differ on the surface. Just like in Israel for example, sick children had to be hospitalized before anyone moved forward on reform.

Just like in the United States, Canada and Israel, the people who were able to get into the changing industry first and early had money and political connections.

And just like everywhere else, who survives and who gets hit with red tape, is largely a matter not of entrepreneurial savvy, but connections, inherited privilege, race, gender and of course, bank account. In a place like the UK, where “class” is still a valid force on its own (beyond access to money), this is already obvious. As a theme, it is one that is sadly, not over yet for too many in or affected by “the industry.”

There are still, per the estimates available, less than 100 legal patients in the UK. Those served by the NHS are also well aware of their “second class” status when it comes to healthcare. This one issue, after all, drove Brexit, and may yet cause it to fail, just on this one issue. Cannabis may be a side note in the debate. But it is also, by this time, clearly in the room.

A Chelsea Popup Shop Survives While A Brighton Eatery Fails To Open

In January, two graduates of Imperial Business School (a private, prestigious university in London) opened a “pop up shop” (kind of like a kiosk) in Chelsea. This is a part of the city frequented by Royals on the hoof, reality stars of a certain vintage, and a lot of highly priced real estate.

So far, with the predictable fawning press coverage, the almost too “cutely” named TheDrug.Store (which by its own admission is selling non-medical products) has been doing brisk business.

Meanwhile, in the historic if less slightly less elite but almost as expensive touristy seaside town of Brighton, The Canna Kitchen, a CBD eatery with the catchy slogan of “let food be thy medicine”, was closed by the police right before it was supposed to open at the end of May (although there is no mention of this or the negative press on the website, which despite having no telephone number, still allows visitors to “book a table.”) The owners, who also seem to be quite well-heeled millennials themselves, appear to be on the verge of “losing hundreds of thousands of pounds and laying off 15 staff,” to quote The Guardian story on the subject.

Never mind the irony that they also seem rather well positioned financially. Or that many, many more people, usually called poor patients, are still at risk of being hospitalized because they cannot get (or afford) their medication.

As the industry, such as it is, and patient rights group organize in earnest this summer, reform in the UK also hinges on whether and what the country decides to do in the fall.

And despite the huge disparities that exist in terms of who has access (let alone to entrepreneurial capital), or perhaps because of them, look for a healthy debate from patients about policy, access and fairness.

European Cannabis Week Kicks Off First Year In London

By Marguerite Arnold
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Hold your hats and book your seats! The Limeys, no matter what they are doing on Brexit, are getting organized on the cannabis front. A unique coalition of “home-grown” as well as cross-European, American and Canadian industry insiders are already making travel plans for London during the last week of June.

Unlike Trump’s recent visit to the British capital, however, they are likely to meet nothing but enthusiasm if not a growing understanding in the British populace at large that the Great Green Cannabiz Has FINALLY Landed.

Now the question is getting the entire industry mainstreamed (just on the medical side).

On the CBD “recreational” discussion, the entire enchilada is still being formed and reformed. A high-end CBD “pop up” shop opened in a ritzy part of London in January while a more crunchy CBD restaurant in the seaside town of Brighton was shuttered right as it planned to open. Just another innocent victim in all the fuss about novel food still working its way through the entire British conversation (as it is elsewhere in Europe, including most recently Germany and Italy), certainly, but hopefully one of the last.

However, for that very reason, enthusiasm is already high as organizers continue to add events even three weeks out.

What Is On The Agenda?

Check the event website for details and scheduling. There is also a lot that is not on the official website, but has clearly been organized around it. That includes a patient advocacy and policy formation gathering on Thursday being organized by the United Patients Alliance and other events not on the “official” ECW list (or website) but clearly all with the goal of networking, interacting and gaining ground (such as the internationally organizing Cannabis Tech Society).

The first two days are reserved (at least during the day) for Cannabis Europa – the “other” major European cannabis business conference that got its start in 2018 in London. Earlier this year, the event was also held to a standing room only audience in France. Organized by two of the leading cannabis consultancies in the UK who are making a clear play towards both North America and Europe- Prohibition Partners, and Hanway Associates, the event is primed to bring together those in the international industry curious about changing times and opening opportunities not only in the UK but across Europe.

The rest of the week, events are spread out across the city (and are already selling out). Of note on Wednesday is an investors conference as well as an introduction to the growing ranks of British doctors (one hopes for the future of nascent doctor training programs everywhere across Europe, without borders), even if nascent at the moment, who are joining the medical cannabis crusade.

Thursday’s planned events also include a focus on connecting women in the industry to investors – particularly of the medical kind – and MedPayRx’s third pilot to market workshop (Unveiling The Digital Prescription). It will also include a ground-breaking seminar about cannabis certification for doctors at King’s College (long known for its critical studies about the supposed connection between cannabis and a host of nasty mental illnesses and conditions starting with schizophrenia).

There is also a round of private parties, events, industry soirees and more that are invite only. However, as with most cannabis industry events, showing up and tagging along is one of the best ways to network and meet people.

It will be a busy week, for sure.The entire cannabis debate is absolutely hitting in this space in the UK in a way that it has not in other places

Why Is This Significant?

The British are finally kicking off their version of “the industry.” That said, problems abound, including of the kind seen in places like Germany, with the added whiff of further disruptions thanks to a still-pending Brexit. On the healthcare discussion at least, it is hard to find a fan of the NHS in the ranks of average cannabis patients (who are still struggling to get their numbers over 100 for the entire country six months after Schedule II prescriptions were authorized). However, it is also equally hard to find anyone in the ranks of the chronically ill at least, who would welcome a more U.S. style approach to healthcare provision – even if they can avail themselves of private healthcare coverage. That is just 10% of the population.

The entire cannabis debate is absolutely hitting in this space in the UK in a way that it has not in other places (including Germany). This is, beyond Brexit discussions, in part a testament to the creakiness of the British system, although the German one at present also leaves a lot to be desired.

Nobody wants an “American” system. And the Canadians in the room are also dealing with the problem that so far, Canadian public health insurance does not cover medical cannabis either.

Like it or not, this is also a theme that colors cannabis politics in Europe as much as the industry does not know how to channel and harness it. The Green Vest movement is certainly alive and well in the UK. Nor should it be underestimated. And that resentment at the moment also is hitting some of the biggest industry players who are the only ones allowed market entry where it counts (the regulated ones including medical).

On the CBD front, despite assurances by activists as late as last year, and certainly overflowing enthusiasm about the potential of this market, novel food still applies.

Where the conversation will certainly get interesting is the ability to distribute through online pharmacies (unlike in Germany where this is still verboten– and for all drugs, not just cannabis). But even here, don’t look for the UK to become just another Amazon outlet. New rules, including GDPR, still affect the UK and will continue to do so no matter what happens in the fall. This has to do with what is called “trusted nation” status that affects regulatory issues including pharmaceuticals but also financials (which is why the idea of the UK sailing off entirely on its own or as an American subordinate state is also ludicrous).

Not to mention of course, that supply and demand has yet to be effectively linked anywhere in Europe.

Cannatech, beyond distribution platforms, will also become more of a focus in climate change conscious Europe.

And of course, with a focus in London, there will be a much greater opportunity for both the concentration of specialty equity and the industry itself (in English) that will impact issues across the continent.

In a nutshell, in other words, the week-long events in London (held in conjunction with an equally interesting gathering now coalescing in Berlin just the weekend before) is proof positive that not only is the European cannabis industry in the middle of another seismic year, but the British and German movements are connecting, coordinating, cooperating, and driving change both at home and elsewhere across the region.


Disclaimer: European Cannabis Holdings and Prohibition Partners are sponsors of MedPayRx and a business relationship exists between them.

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Why International Trade Agreements Are Shaping The Cannabis Industry

By Marguerite Arnold
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If you have wondered over the past several years, why the big Canadian companies (in particular) are following the global strategy they are, there is actually a fairly simple answer: Newly implementing trade agreements, particularly between Europe and North America.

More specifically, they are highly technical trade agreements that are also called Mutual Recognition Agreements, (or MRAs).

In fact, look at the schedule of the MRA agreements signed between the U.S. and individual EU countries over the last several years, and it also looks like a map of the countries that have not only legalized at least medical cannabis, but where the big Canadian companies (in particular) have begun to establish operations outside of their home country.

But what is going on is actually more than just CETA-related and also will affect cannabis firms south of the Canadian-U.S. border.

All of these swirling currents are also why the most recent MRA to come into full force in July this year, between the U.S. and Europe, is so interesting from the cannabis perspective. Even before federal reform in the U.S. If this sounds like a confusing disconnect, read on.

What Are MRAs?

MRAs are actually a form of highly specialized trade agreement that allow trading countries to be certain that the pharmaceuticals they purchase from abroad are equivalent to what is produced at home. This includes not only ingredients but processing procedures, production plant hygiene, testing, labeling and more.

When it comes to the  EU-US MRA agreement, this means that individual states of the EU can now recognize the American Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) as an effective federal regulator of American pharmaceutical production that is equal to the procedures in Europe. US GMP standards, in other words, will be recognized as equal to those of EU states.

This will now also, by definition, include GMP-certified medical cannabis formulations.

What is so intriguing, however, is how this development will actually place certain American (and Canadian) manufacturers in a first place position to import cannabis into Europe ahead of the rest of the American cannabis industry.

What Are Mutual Recognition Agreements All About?

One of the most important quality and consumer safety aspects of establishing a clean supply chain is tied up in the concept of GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices). These are procedures, established by compliant producers of pharmaceuticals, to ensure seed (or source) to sale reliability of the medication they make. In the cannabis industry, particularly in the advent of Canadian-European transatlantic trade in cannabis, this has been the first high hurdle to accept and integrate on the Canadian side.

GMPIf European countries recognize a country’s GMP certifications are equivalent to its own, in other words, and cannabis is legal for export, a country can enter the international cannabis market without facing bans, in-country inspections and the like. In the interim, imported products still have to be batch tested until the agreements are fully accepted and operational.

Israel, for example, already had an MRA with the EU, and medical cannabis is legal in the country. However, Israel was prevented from selling cannabis abroad until a legislative change domestically, passed on Christmas Day.

That is why the MRA agreement between the US and EU with Canadian companies in the middle also put both Israeli and U.S. firms at an extreme disadvantage in comparison. Both in entering the market in the first place, and of course associated discussions, like the German tender bid. That is now changing- and as of this year.

A Specialized Map Of Global Medical Cannabis Exporters

Ironically, what the new US-EU MRA could also well do is create a channel for pharmaceutical cannabis from the United States to Europe (certainly on the hemp and CBD front) just as Israel is expected to enter the international cannabis export industry (later this summer or fall). It could well be also, particularly given the Trump Administration’s tendency to want to not only “put America first” if not pull off “a better deal” in general and about everything, that this is why President Trump offered the delay to Israel’s president Benjamin Netanyahu in the first place.

Regardless of the international individual developments and subtleties however, what is very clear that from the time the first bid stalled in Germany in the summer of 2017 until now, the U.S.-EU MRA has been in the room even if not named specifically as a driver.

For example, the FDA confirmed the capability of Poland and Slovenia to carry out GMP inspections in February of 2019.  It was only last fall that Aurora pulled off its licensing news in the former (on the same day licensing reform was announced by the government). Denmark was recognized in November of last year during the first year of its “medical cannabis pilot progam.” Greece was recognized in March 2018. Italy, Malta, Spain and the UK came online in November of 2017.

Overlay this timetable with a map of cannabis reform (and beyond that, cannabis production) and the logic starts to look very clear.

The upshot, in other words, is that while cannabis still may be “stigmatized” if not still “illegal” in many parts of the world, more generalized, newly negotiated and implementing, specialized global trade agreements between the US, Europe and Canada in particular have been driving the development of certain segments of the cannabis industry globally and since about 2013.

The Biggest News?

As of this year, as a result, expect at least from the GMP-certified front at least, that such international trade will also include medical cannabis from the U.S.

Want an example of the same? First on that list if not early in the game will now undoubtedly be Canadian-based Canopy Growth, with Acreage on board, headquartered in New York.