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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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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.

South American Firms Begin Exporting Cannabis To Germany

By Marguerite Arnold
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In a sign of how widely the German government is now casting its net for medical cannabis, even South America is not off the table. At the end of last month, two firms– one from Uruguay and another from Columbia- announced that they would begin importing medical cannabis of the THC and CBD kind.

Fotmer Life Sciences (from Uruguay) and Clever Leaves (Columbia) are entering a market where domestic cultivation has been on the drawing board for two years so far, but so far, brought down by lawsuits.

At present, Aphria, Aurora and Wayland are the big Canadians in front position on the German bid- but so far that is only importing. There are legal challenges against what appears to be the domestic cultivation licenses that appear so far to be unresolved. And against that backdrop, the big Canadians are also facing competition from indie German distributors now casting a wide net for product, globally.

Due to the timing of the announcement from South America and the firm involved in the import, CanSativa GmbH is clearly connected to the large gap in demand that is now developing in the German market and supply requirements. Further CanSativa is also a German firm engaged in what insiders on the ground admit is basically the only way to enter the market here right now, namely via an agreement with one of the new (and Frankfurt-based) distributors who are interested in this space.

Cannabis Central Is Not Berlin

To the great surprise of outsiders, who have long believed that Berlin is the center of all things cannabis in Germany, CanSativa is now one of quite a few firms who have not only called Frankfurt home, but have begun to put the city on the global cannabis map. That started of course with MedCann GmbH (later acquired by Canopy Growth), now with a huge new office in the center of the banking district.

However that also includes the now controversial Farmako, and several other new distributors who are setting up shop with a “Mainhatten” address.

Why Frankfurt? It has one of the best and busiest airports in the world just 20 minutes from the center of the city, and of course, it is home to the Deutsche Börse, the center of not only German, but European finance.

What Does This Announcement Mean?

For those interested now in setting sail for Europe, there is clearly a strategic path to get there, even if it means picking up stakes and setting down cultivation roots in places where there is an ex-im market. While the announcement about Latin American exports is not unexpected, it is also surprising that the very competitive young distributors now popping up in Germany, in particular, cannot find closer sources to bring cannabis into the country from.

However, it is early days yet. The Israelis are coming as of this summer. German inspectors are also on the ground in Macedonia through June, certifying the early movers in the market there to begin importing presumably just before Israel enters the global ex-im business, finally.

There will also be an uptick in firms exporting at least medical grade (GMP-certified) CBD and hemp in the direction of Europe from the United States, although at present that traffic is a trickle as firms begin to find out about the possibility.

Regardless of the source, however, the news is yet another sign that the medical market is taking root, no matter how ambiguous the numbers still are, and no matter how hard it is on the ground to obtain.

Cannabis is now, indeed, entering Europe via Germany from all over the world, and it’s only going to get hotter this year.

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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.

Marguerite Arnold

Canopy Growth Makes Multi-Billion Dollar Conditional Acquisition Deal

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

The first German cannabis bid may have come to an end more or less, and with a whimper rather than a bang (not to mention the inevitable still-to-be-settled legal challenges). However even as the dust settles, one of the biggest “names” in cannabis and the company formerly expected to win at least a few of the tender lots is looking elsewhere.

Namely Canopy Growth, which was a finalist in the first round of the tender, has not shown up as a finalist firm in Germany this time (at least not so far).

However, it is clear the firm has other intentions afoot, namely U.S. expansion.

In an unprecedented move, Canopy announced its intent to buy the largest U.S. based producer of cannabis, a firm called Acreage Holdings, just before Easter. The conditional deal is being consummated in both cash ($300 million) plus stock swaps, and will not finally close until federal reform has come in the U.S. In fact, the deal makes the bet that the entire issue of U.S. federal reform will be solved within the next decade.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoIn the meantime, however, what this also does is place one of the world’s largest cannabis companies in the middle of what is largely seen as the world’s most valuable overall cannabis market. Further it does so in an environment where the company benefits from Acreage’s considerable market and political clout. Former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (a fierce opponent of legalization until it was personally convenient and profitable) is on the board of Acreage.

But there are those who might still be confused about why this deal happened. Canopy after all is fond of saying that its first focus is the “more valuable” medical rather than recreational market. And the U.S. market has many challenges still, that stem from a lack of federal reform. In fact, Canopy has frequently said in the past that they would not enter the U.S. until federal reform occurs. What gives?

What The Deal Also Does…

It is not “just” entry into the U.S. recreational market, albeit still on a state level that is significant about the deal. That starts with its timing.

When trying to understand the motivations of Canadian cannabis companies, especially ones who have eschewed the U.S. market in the past (at least until federal reform passes), it is also necessary to understand that they operate in a shifting world of global strategy that is never as straightforward as one might think. And often has nothing to do with cannabis per se.

Namely, while this deal places Canopy in the middle of the U.S. state industry it also does something else. It positions Canopy as a U.S. producer just two months after a new international pharmaceutical trade deal went into force (on February 8) called an MRA.

MRA agreements, also known as Mutual Recognition Agreements, are essentially trade deals between countries to accept the equivalency of their pharmaceutical production and supply chain.

On the cannabis front, the existence of MRAs between existing countries as cannabis has become legal, has also largely dictated the new international cannabis trade (see Canada and Germany as a perfect example) although this has been held as a closely held secret by the largest cannabis company executives (some of whom have previously denied that this was driving their expansion across Europe).

However, thanks to the agreement on this MRA in February, as of July of this year, Europe and the U.S. will formally kick off a situation where the European and therefore German health authorities will formally recognize American GMP processes.

That means that on the pharma front, Canopy has also essentially re-entered the European market, albeit by a bit of a backdoor. It also means that Canopy can immediately start to import cannabis drugs at least, made in the U.S. into the European and by extension, German market.

Cannabis drugs have been going in the opposite direction across the Atlantic to the U.S. for at least a year now (see the GW Pharma’s Epidiolex adventure last year). And further over the U.S.-Canadian border if now only bound for academic research (see Tilray).

It also may mean that they can import medical cannabis itself to be used as “medicine” or processed into one in Europe.

Does This Mean That U.S. Federal Reform Is Imminent?

Not necessarily. In fact, keeping the U.S. market in general out of the global cannabis trade, while allowing the top companies to participate both in the cross-state market and the global pharmaceutical one benefits the biggest companies. Conveniently, this also allows U.S. cannabis “pharmaceutical” producers to enter the EU in force just as Israel is expected to (third quarter this year). This also puts the “deal” U.S. President Trump and Israeli President Netanyahu cut on the subject to delay Israeli sales in an entirely new light (and one that should outrage both Americans and Israelis in the industry on this front even more). Not to mention every European hopeful producer unaware of the larger game afoot.

That said, what federal U.S. legalization will do is drop the operating costs of the larger U.S. entities now engaged in multi-state operations.

Cannabis in other words is not likely to be legalized in the U.S. before the next presidential elections for reasons that have everything to do with the profits of a few – and for that reason will certainly be a major theme in the next national political race.

And in the meantime, the biggest companies, Canopy included, are not only laughing all the way to the bank (although their shareholders are another story), but setting themselves up to be at the ground floor DNA of the global cannabis business as it establishes itself in every country of the world.

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How Germany Gets Its Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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The German cannabis cultivation bid may be mostly done and dusted (although the last four lots are now up for legal challenge) but the drama is only intensifying on the ground in Germany. Namely, where is the cannabis being consumed on the ground now actually coming from?

For the past several years (in fact since 2016 when a Frankfurt-based start-up called Medcann imported the first Canadian medical cannabis into the German market in partnership with Canopy Growth), the conventional wisdom has been that Holland and Canada were the only two countries allowed to import medical cannabis into the country.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoAs is usually the case in the cannabis industry, when it comes to such things, there were also multiple and highly creative explanations about this strange state of affairs that sounded oddly exotic enough to be plausible. This is after all, the international cannabis business.

These explanations also usually referenced conventional industry “lore” including such tall tales as these two countries were not signatories to an international drug treaty (not true), to being European (nope) or even a member of the EU (also completely false).

Yet there was always something strange with such urban legends – perpetuated by insiders across the German industry. Starting with a deliberate vagueness about details. Especially as in the summer of 2017 when Tilray announced grow facilities in Portugal, and by the end of it, Canopy was moving into Spain, and later by early 2018 Denmark and more. Italybegan to appear on the radar of multiple big Canadian companies. Clearly all these big companies seemed to know something that those outside did not. See Greece. Not to mention the teeth-gnashing of the Israelis– repeatedly shut out of the German market by not being allowed to export by their own government until Christmas Day, 2018.

The mystery deepened in March in fact, as a furore rocked the German-based cannabis industry over the last weeks. Farmako, a new, Frankfurt-based distributor, not only announced that it was importing 50 tonnes of cannabis into the country– and from Poland (where production of such bulk has not even been seeded) – but then gave additional details on a Bloomberg appearance that appeared to indicate that in fact the medical cannabis they were already selling (sourced from other places) had come from Macedonia. 

Certification, and most certainly paperwork are the name of the gameIn fact, no such transfer of cannabis had occurred from the Macedonian side (yet), although the firm in question at the other end of the deal was subjected to considerable harassment in the German canna-specialty press in the meantime.

The news, that occurred right at a time when Tilray is clearly training pharmacists for the German market, the first bid is concluding, Greece issues even more cultivation licenses, Canadian companies are clearing still stepping up their production game, and South Africa is also getting into the formal licensing act, with all sorts of interesting things afoot in Uruguay, also set off what appears to be an official investigation of the firms involved at the governmental level.

Insiders are tight lipped and nobody is willing to talk on record. However, the distribution firm, Farmako, has subsequently reported that in the month of March, they became the top selling cannabis specialty distributor in Germany. And since they are not out of business, it is also clear that while their PR may have been a little premature if not easily misunderstood, the broader message is very obvious.

What is also very clear at this point, in other words, is that the German door for cannabis and the international industry appears to be opening to product sourced from many places. Further by extension, the German government is in the process of recognizing foreign GMP certification processes from multiple countries all over the world as being equal to its own – at least on the cannabis front.

In fact, this has been going on relatively quietly for the past six months or so.

What Are The Standards, Certifications, and Qualifications?

A press release from January of this year, issued from an Australian firm called MCA, announced they had accepted the first letter of intent to ship to a German firm (in 2020). The company is currently accepting pre-orders as it finishes construction and achieves EU GMP certification. The same (female founded) firm was also present at the ICBC in Berlin this year in March, reporting that German demand from a universe of local distributors was already greater than they could fill. The news that their first sale went to German firm Lexamed, the controversial German wheelchair distributor who helped bring down the first German bid, was also largely unremarked upon at the time by most of the industry press and in fact, ever since.

GMPIn truth, it appears that the countries and companies that have the right to import to Germany must first have their own national GMP certification recognized as being equal to German standards – or a so-called Mutual Recognition Agreement (or MRA) must exist between the importer and exporter nations. It still means that to be really EU-GMP compliant, inspectors have to walk your cultivation floors. But first your country has to have the MRA. And that is a matter for lawyers and regulators to decide.

In the Australian case, the GMP equivalence for cannabis production apparently became reality within the last six months although no one is giving exact dates. In the case of Macedonia, this is pending, with German inspectors now apparently scheduled to begin inspecting domestic cultivation facilities within the next month to six weeks.

The biggest news, of course, which makes even more sense on the heels of Canopy’s latest “record breaking” U.S. acquisition, is that the EU and the U.S. will enter into an MRA in July that was finally agreed to in February of this year. This will also mean that cannabis “medicines” potentially even beyond CBD, produced via U.S. GMP processes, will be allowed to enter Europe if not Germany in the near future – and from the U.S. for the first time. Ahead of federal legalization in the U.S.

It also means that Israeli and American firms will be allowed to enter the European and thus German market for the first time (on the ground with product) by at latest, the third quarter of this year.

Caused By The Bid….and Likely Shorter Term Outcomes

What the events of the last several weeks make clear is that the bid is not only insufficient for demand, but the authorities are officially, if quietly recognizing the same. There are already rumours about the next cultivation tenders in Germany, and there is a high likelihood that other countries (see Poland in particular) may also follow suit shortly.

Further, the difficulties in making sure that not only countries but the companies based in the same remain compliant with EU and further German sanctified EU- GMP processes (for one) is likely to be an issue that continues to bubble. Why? It is a problem already in the broader pharmaceutical market here.

The Plusses and Minuses of The News

The first thing that is also obvious is that even Wayland cannot source the entire German market with the product it has begun to grow here no matter who ends up with the last four cultivation licenses this time around. Further, that the other winning bid firms (Aphria and Aurora as known at this point) without cultivation on the ground, are sourcing from somewhere that is also probably at this point, not even Canada. No matter how much expansion is going on in Canada, in other words, what is now entering the German market may bear a Canadian brand but could just have easily been sourced from almost anywhere in the world.

That also means that enterprising firms (see Australian MCA) can skip the Canadian introduction to the German market and sell directly to local producers before they even have crops on the ground, as well as the burgeoning German cannabis distributors across the country.

For such firms now wanting to enter the market, however, it is not all clear sailing. The events of the last few weeks clearly show that the government is watching, including reading English language industry press, and willing to pursue any firms it deems are breaking the rules on both sides of national borders.

Certification, and most certainly paperwork are the name of the game, as well as greater accuracy in company intentions (even if in the near term).


Disclaimer: Nysk, the Macedonian firm referred to in this story, is a sponsor of the MedPayRx pilot to market program

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German Cultivation Bid Appears To Have Three Finalists

By Marguerite Arnold
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The Frankfurt-based newspaper Handelsblatt Zeitung is reporting that three Canadian firms (actually two Canadians and a German start-up cofounded by another Canadian company) have now been selected as the first cannabis cultivation bid finalists, however insiders on the ground say that this is not necessarily a final decision.

A Berlin-based subsidiary of Wayland in Germany called Demecan, along with Aphria and Aurora have all been named as bid finalists pending a normal review period.

However, there are other complications still looming. This is far from over.

The first issuance of the bid in 2017 went down in court over a technical fault on the part of the issuing agency. The current iteration was posted last summer and saw its application moved several times because of further legal challenges.

As Peter Homburg, partner and head of the European Cannabis Group at Dentons said when contacted by Cannabis Industry Journal, “This is of course not an official announcement. I have a tendency to believe that others involved in the tender process historically may well challenge this decision.”

BfArM, the federal German agency in charge of the cannabis cultivation tender process, did not respond to a request for a comment as of press time.

The Decision Is Far From Over

Here are the basic challenges still ahead:

There is a lawsuit pending against the bid itself from applicants that has yet to be decided. The Klage (formal hearing in court) is due next week. If that does not derail the process, here are the next considerations.

While all three firms named in the bid have international reputations, there are some pending questions.

Wayland is far ahead of the other two firms in terms of production capability in the country. Their facility in eastern Germany has just been certified GMP standard – which means they are qualified to produce the quality of flower required for medical consumption. This news is also far from a surprise.

As Ben Ward, CEO of Wayland Group, commented when contacted by CIJ for a response via email: “At Wayland, we believe in meaningful partnerships, investing in Germany from day one, demonstrating a long-term commitment to the market,” says Ward. “Wayland GmbH is a German company, operated by Germans, existing in Dresden and Munich and is committed to this market. The companies awarded lots received the allocation based on a rigorous application process, not media sensation.”

Of all the Canadian firms, in fact, despite its lack of high-flying stock price, Wayland has made the most concerted effort to show its commitment to producing in Germany by a large investment of capital and expertise. Further, the firm has shown itself to be the most culturally sensitive to German culture, including hiring a female member to the board (a hot topic far from the cannabis industry). However, there are other issues looming. On the same day that Wayland issued a press release announcing its position in the bid, it also issued one announcing the merger talks with ICC had failed.

The second is that Aphria’s main cultivation center in Canada is not EU-GMP certified although they have applied for the same and now also own one of Germany’s largest distributors (with approximately a 6% market share).

Other firms not only kicked off the entire cannabis discussion in Germany, but have established GMP-compliant facilities both in Canada and across Europe, namely Canopy Growth, which was widely believed to have also applied to the second tender. However prevailing rumours about a Canadian “crop failure” in British Columbia (described by the company as a deliberate destruction of plants created by delays in the licensing process) last fall may have also played a role in the German decision.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoAurora is also in interesting waters. Having distinguished itself as Canopy’s closest rival across Europe, winning significant kudos in Denmark, Italy, Poland and Luxembourg last year, the company is also clearly not “just” a medical cannabis company and apparently was refused an opportunity to go public on the Deutsche Börse last fall. The selection of the firm by BfArm for the bid in a situation where the company is on a watch list created by the stock market regulatory agency in Frankfurt is also an intriguing one. Especially given the company’s announcement of its Polish success on the same day as the decision to import was announced, and the fact that so far it is the only Canadian cannabis company to successfully import to Luxembourg.

And The Import Game Is Just Getting Hot…

The unsurprising news that the bid appears to be moving forward is actually not the hottest news in Europe right now. The reality on the ground is already shifting. Several weeks ago, a Frankfurt-based distribution start-up announced that they had successfully imported cannabis into the country from Macedonian-based Nysk Holdings via Poland.

At the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) in Berlin last weekend, Australian producers (for one) were also reporting a German demand for their product that was greater than they could fill. And there were many Israelis present for what is expected to be an official opening of their import ability by the third quarter of this year.

Price Wars Are Looming

The bid itself is going to have a powerful impact on pricing in both the German and European market beyond that. It represents the first time in any country that a government has attempted to pre-negotiate prices for the drug as a narcotic beyond Israel and in this case, it will have at least regional implications.

aurora logoAt the same time, it is also clear that producers like Nysk and beyond them, Israeli and Australian firms (in particular) are actively finding ways to have their product enter the country- and further at prices that are catching the Canadians on the hop. Indeed Aurora is reporting that it actually lowered its “usual” prices to win European contracts which have been reported as being 3.2 euros a gram in Italy and 2.5 euros a gram in Luxembourg.

To put this in perspective, this is a range of about CA$3-5 a gram of flower which is also well below what Canopy (for one) has reported selling its product even to recreational users in Canada and significantly below medical export prices as reported by recent company corporate reports.

Wayland in contrast, is reporting that its production price in Germany will be at least a euro-per-gram cheaper than this. Or in other words, more in line with prices expected to be generated from both the bid itself and the cannabis now entering the country from other sources.

And of course, this is only the first of what is expected to be a series of new tenders. The original amount, itself increased in the two years the issue has been pending, is clearly not enough to even begin to meet demand as proved by the levels of competitively priced imports now entering the country.

Beyond questions about whether this time the tender will actually stand, are those now pending about new ones potentially in the offing – and not just in Germany but across Europe as cannabis continues to see a very green spring.