With all the fits and starts involved with getting the Startup Nation out of the box on cannabis exports, every new twist and turn of the story is intriguing. There are indeed reports that officials have suggested that the Israeli export market might finally, formally open for business as of early next year. However, and this is a big caveat, such exports can only occur if the domestic supply has been met.
And herein lies the rub. According to the Times of Israel, Israeli patients face a huge shortage of access to product, and in a story that is still universal at this juncture, turning again to the “black market.” Even though in the case of Israel, what constitutes really “black” if not “grey” is still as much in flux here as anywhere else.
Tikkun Olam, the first company to obtain a license from the Health Ministry, also reportedly lost the permit based on a police recommendation.
Who is black, grey and allowed to become legitimate appears to be on the same slippery, often fraught path here as it has been this summer in places like Canada. Or even the United States at a state level. See California.
In truth, this may signal a readiness to license more firms in Israel for both domestic consumption and export. The timing suggests that both are in the offing as the world enters not only the third decade of this century, at what is not quite yet, unbelievably the second of the legal cannabis industry everywhere outside Israel.
Not A New Problem
In truth, the dilemma facing Israel is one that has plagued governments since the beginning of not only cannabis reform on a widespread level at the earlier this decade, but market economics beyond that.
In the world of cannabis, this discussion is actually turning up in several places. It was present in Canada – indeed the biggest Canadian companies began to look to Europe as Canadian patients continued to successfully defend their right to grow in court circa the summer of 2017. It is also in the room across Europe as price economics clash with early reformers. Denmark, for example, might have welcomed outside money to kick-start their medical trial, but nobody seriously thought (at least on the Danish side) that their home-grown product would be able compete on price with say Portugal, Spain or Greece.
In a world where cannabis pricing in even Europe is starting to normalize, and higher prices and profits can be found abroad, what indeed, should cash-strapped governments do?
The answer is actually very easy as much as most governments still do not want to admit the same in most of Europe at least. Do what the Israelis appear in fact to be finally doing, which is democratizing the cultivation market. Once that occurs, the incentives for “black” market will disappear here as in other places.
The Bottom Line- Good News?
Israel has never intended to sit this issue out. The spoils on both the tech and IP fronts are just too great beyond the plant itself. The Israeli government, even with American and other foreign money, has also supported the industry for the last twenty years certainly in a way unseen anywhere else. And the modern “industry” itself, even at the small R&D end, is over fifty years old here.
The backlog of research and knowledge, beyond any individual strain or plant, in other words, is about to be let loose on the world as of next spring. And there will be no turning back.
Despite the fact that the Danes are going to do something that is still verboten in Germany and many other European locales (namely allow a recreational trial), the overall bloom is off the first heady days of the cannabis rose here in Denmark.
Medical sales have stalled of late because of both supply (and in part CannTrust problems) and of course price in a market with a lot of cultivation enthusiasm, but also one which still imports its medical cannabis (although domestic production is coming online soon).
This is even more interesting of course given some ideas floating in the current Euro cannosphere – namely that Canadian funded, Danish based cultivators are or were planning on importing to both Germany and Poland this fall. In other words, low sales at home for expensive product that can be bought for less at the revived Christiana marketplace are not a market entry strategy that brings ballast to balance sheets. And while the rec market is coming (obviously), the trial is in early days yet.
Further, while the German market certainly presents an opportunity for higher priced cannabis coming out of Denmark (for now), that also will not last. And is certainly not the case in Poland.
For that reason, it is clear there is at least temporary trouble brewing in what some initially thought was going to be a European-based cannabis paradise. But that too, is so 2018.
A Few Numbers
The medical trial in Denmark is now entering the beginning of its third year as of 2020. There are, according to official estimates just over 4,000 legal patients. 34 companies have permits to cultivate cannabis, including all the usual suspects – starting with Canopy Growth, Aurora, Aphria, ICC (Wayland) and The Green Organic Dutchman, plus of course all the indie locals.
Put this in perspective and is it really any wonder why Aurora also just recently announced the halting of partly built construction in both Denmark and Canada this month?
Especially with problems in Poland, slower than expected legal sales in Germany and of course the disaster that is still the UK, this newest setback for the company is also not exactly unexpected. The only cannabis company, European or not, who benefitted from the recent NHS pivot on medical cannabinoids was the home-based GW Pharmaceuticals, albeit at lower negotiated prices as the total pool of patients is now increased with the new NICE guidelines.
Given all of these headwinds, even with a few export possibilities, the Danish market that supposedly offered a promised respite from the problems of the German one (certainly on the cultivation front), has run into a similar problem at point of prescription and sales.
Even Danish patient number growth is anaemic compared to Deutschland – which is, by all reports, not even close to considering a recreational trial in Berlin, Bremen or any other jurisdiction which has suggested the same.
With bulk, high-grade production coming online, there is clearly going to be a regulated cannabis market in Denmark. How the decisions about who will qualify for medical will be made in the future is another question. And one that certainly the larger producers at least, are responding to in kind.
The Winds of Change
Given the amount of compliant cannabis now in the pipeline for the continent (and not just domestically) it will be interesting to see how 2020 shapes up. However, no matter how still sluggish the numbers, another domestic cannabis market has begun to come into its own as the continent moves forward on the issue generally.
While Luxembourg is a tiny country in the middle of Europe, it is beginning to play an outsized role in pushing all aspects of the cannabis discussion forward in the EU.
The country has steadily moved forward on integrating cannabis into the medical system. In 2018, medical cannabis was tested in a pilot project and is now available, on prescription, from a limited number of hospital pharmacies since February of this year. The program, at least from the Department of Health’s perspective, has been “very successful” so far in the words of Health Minister Etienne Schneier.
So, as a result, the next phase of the transition is going into effect. The budget for doctor training and medical cannabis purchases will be increased from €350,000 to €1.37 million next year. The drug will also be available from all pharmacies. Overall, the government has allocated a budget of €228 million for its cannabis “pilot” next year – an increase of €22m in 2019.
Canopy Growth Moves Into A Prime Position
Canopy Growth also announced last month that it has now become the exclusive supplier of medical cannabis to the country in a deal that extends through the end of 2021 (in other words presumably until recreational reform becomes legal). This is an interesting twist of events, given that Aurora announced it was the first company to import the drug into the country last year.
This is certainly a new chapter in the ongoing competition between the two Canadian companies who have, since 2017, essentially split Europe’s “first entries” between them (with the exception of Tilray in Portugal).
Why Is Luxembourg’s Cannabis Experiment So Interesting?
The increasingly strategic position of this tiny country on the cannabis discussion cannot be discounted.
In the summer of 2018, it was the government’s decision to change the law on medical cannabis use that preserved the ability of Germans to continue to buy cannabis stocks. Confused? The Deutsche Börse, in Frankfurt, the third largest stock exchange in the world, claimed that it could not “clear” stock purchases last summer because their clearing company, based in Luxembourg, could not close the transactions in a country where even medical cannabis was still off the table. When Luxembourg changed their law, in other words, the Deutsche Börse had to reverse course.
Since then, this tiny country has continued to challenge the cannabis discussion in the EU – also announcing that a full-boat recreational program will be enacted within the next two years (almost certainly by 2021). This aggressive timetable will also move the discussion in almost every EU regulation still on the table, and probably position the country as the only one in Europe where a fully integrated medical and recreational policy is in place. Even Holland does not cover medical cannabis these days. Dutch insurers stopped covering the drug in early 2017 – just as the German government changed its own laws.
Luxembourg, in other words, has now effectively pulled at least on par with Denmark and Germany in the cannabis discussion, with recreational now the agenda. And appears to be willing to preserve its medical program after recreational comes.
Who says size matters?
The “Colorado” Of Europe?
One of the reasons Colorado was such a strategic state in the cannabis discussion in the U.S. was undoubtedly its “purple” status – i.e. a state which politically swung both ways on a range of policy issues.
Luxembourg in fact, as the seat of the European Courts of Justice, may end up playing the same role in Europe – but on a national level.
In fact, the battle here increasingly resembles not Canada, but the U.S., as individual countries begin to tackle the cannabis question in their own way – both within and beyond the EU rubrics on the drug.
Will the United States legalize federally before the EU changes its tune? That is unknowable.
However, for the moment, the market leader in the EU to watch is undoubtedly Luxembourg, no matter its geographical size and population count.
As usual, cannabis reform enters through a crack, and widens from there. Luxembourg appears to be, if not the only crack, then certainly one of them that is turning into a decently sized crevice in the unyielding wall of blanket prohibition.
Aurora has just faced a rare setback in Europe. The Italian government has cancelled one of three tender cultivation lots to supply Italian patients it granted Aurora this summer (in July).
Aurora was the only company to win the bid after other companies were disqualified.
For this reason, the high-level parliamentary attention to the bid this fall is even more interesting. Most foreign cannabis is being imported from the Netherlands and Bedrocan. While Wayland (ICC) and Canopy are in the country (Wayland has established production facilities for CBD in fact), Aurora was the only foreign Canadian cannabis company to actually win government issued, cultivation slots.
What Is Going On?
In July, Aurora won the Italian bid, beating out all other companies for all three lots.
Yet in September, the third lot, for high-level CBD medical flower, was cancelled by the Ministry of Defense which oversees cannabis importing and production, for an odd reason. Specifically, the lot was suddenly “not needed.”
As of October 31, the Minister of Health responded to parliamentarians who wondered about this administrative overrule by saying that the rejected lot (lot 3, for high-level CBD) was in fact rejected because stability studies to define the shelf life of products were not being conducted.
EU GMP Standards Are In The Room In Europe
This is not really a strange turn of events for those who have been struggling on the ground in ex-im Europe to learn the rules.
For at least the second time this year, and possibly the third, a national European government has called stability tests and the equality of EU-GMP standards into question. As Cannabis Industry Journal broke earlier this fall, the Polish government apparently called the Dutch government into question over stabilization tests (albeit for THC imports) during the February to September timeframe.
It is still unknown if there is any connection between these two events although the timing is certainly interesting. Just as it was also interesting that both Denmark and Holland also seemed to be in sync this summer over packaging and testing issues in July.
Aurora and Bedrocan are also the two biggest players in the Polish market (although Canopy Growth as well as other international, non-Canadian cannabis companies are also making their mark).
What is surprising, in other words, is that countries all around Germany are suddenly asking questions about stability tests, but German authorities, still are notably silent.
Why might this be? Especially with German production now underway, and imports surging into the market?
Is This A Strange EU-Level CBD Recreational Play In Disguise?
There are no real answers and no company is talking – but in truth this is not a failure of any company on the ground, rather governments who set the rules. If there are any cannabis companies in the room at this point who are not in the process of mandating compliance checks including stability tests, it is the governments so far, who have let this stand.
Further however, and even more interestingly, this “cancellation” also comes at a time when novel food is very much in the room in Italy. Namely, it is now a crime to produce any hemp food product without a license. There is no reason, in this environment, why a national cultivator could not also produce locally a high-quality, high-CBD product for the nascent Italian medical market.
While nobody is really clear about the details, there is one more intriguing detail in the room. The government may, in fact, allow medical cultivation now by third parties.
You have read the press releases. You may have heard about such ideas at a recent cannabis conference in and around the EU of late. Or you may have encountered new distributors coming into the game with a German presence and a decidedly interesting ex-im plan that sounds a bit, well, off the map.
No matter how geographically creative some of these plans are, the problem is that many of these ideas literally do not make economic sense. Either for the companies themselves (if not their investors), and certainly not for patients. Not to mention, truth be told, the looming price sensitivity issues in the European market that North Americans, for starters, seem to still just be waking up to.
Some Recent Examples….
Yes, exports from Denmark have been much in the news lately (including into both Germany and Poland). Truth be told, however, this makes about as much sense, economically, as importing ice to eskimos. Why? Denmark, for all its looser regulations and less-uptight approach to the cannabis discussion generally, is one of the most expensive labour markets in Europe. Fully automated production plants are one thing, but you can build those in other places too. Especially warmer climates, with lots of sunshine. German production, as it comes online, will also make this idea increasingly ludicrous.
Who on earth got on this bandwagon? It seems that the enthusiasm in the room began when Denmark began to import to Germany (where the disparities in wages in production are not so noticeable). However, lately, several Canadian companies with a Danish footprint have been eying Poland of late.
And on that particular topic – there are many who are doing the math and trying to figure out, as the alternatives get going, if even Canada makes much sense, or will in a few years.
Low Wage Markets With Sunshine Are Hotspots For European Cannabis Production
Like it or not, the European market is extraordinarily price sensitive – namely because it is not “just” consumers called patients picking up the tab but health insurance companies demanding proof of medical efficacy.
That starts, a bit unfortunately, with understanding wage economics across Europe. The warmer the climate, in other words and the further east on the map, wages drop precipitously. That is “good” for an industry looking to produce ever cheaper (but more compliant) product.
It is also good, at least politically, for countries whose elected leaders are being forced to admit that cannabis works, but are less than copacetic about encouraging local production. See Germany for starters, but places like Austria, Poland and most recently France (which has just embarked on a first of its kind medical cannabis trial).
Here, no matter the temporary buzz about Denmark, are the places that cannabis production makes sense:
Portugal: The country is a newcomer in the cannabis discussion this fall, although in truth, the seeds of this reality were sown several seasons ago when Tilray began to build its production plant in the country in 2017. They are far from the only company who has seen the light, and these days, farmers are getting hip to the possibilities. Especially if they are already exporting crops throughout Europe.
Spain: The industry that can afford GMP certification is getting going, but everyone else is stuck in a limbo between pharmaceutical producers and the strange gray market (see the patient clubs in Barcelona). That said, political groups are beginning to discuss cultivation as an economic development tool, if not sustainable food and medication strategies.
Greece: The weather is warm, and the investment climate welcoming. Of all the countries in the EU, Greece has embraced the economic possibilities that cannabis could bring. How that will play out in the next years to come is an intriguing story.
Italy: The southern part of the country in particular is ripe for cannabis investment and it’s full of sunshine. However, as many have noted, organized crime in this part of the world is a bit fierce and starts with the letter M.
Malta: The island is a comer, but does importing cannabis from here really make economic sense? There are trade routes and economic treaties tying the island both to the apparently Brexiting British and Europe. Why not, right? Just remember that along with labour, transportation costs are in the room here too.
And Just Outside The EU…
The country now (sort of) known as North Macedonia and struggling to get into the EU if France would just get out of the way is also going to be a heavyweight in this discussion for years to come. Wages, of course, will increase as part of EU membership, but in general, this country just north of Greece is going to play a highly strategic role in exports throughout Europe.
As the industry faces what is undoubtedly a watershed moment for the international cannabis vertical, a new Spanish firm steps into the market with its own EU GMP certification license. Linneo Health is also helmed by the ever eloquent and highly experienced Jose Antonio de la Puente – a tall drink of water with a conscience, a brain and an admirable mission statement.
This also implies, at minimum, government lack of coordination and agreement on EU GMP cert even between European nations, for a nascent industry while also trying to avoid the thorny issue of patient home grow. See also the trials and travails of the erstwhile German cultivation bid and its reconstituted Frankenstein-esque bigger if younger sister. In fact, this contretemps is almost certainly involved if not indirectly to blame.
Not All Is Entirely Rosy On Cannabis Europe’s Eastern Front
Almost simultaneously to Linneo Health’s announcement, however, the news came that in Poland, authorities had suspended the pending product registration process. Will this be on hold until after the October election?
In this environment it is almost impossible to know.
Here is one thing to consider. These almost simultaneous developments in Spain and Poland and the newest announcement about further certification of the Dutch recreational system under a new pending “recreational trial” are almost directly related.
That said, even such political maneuverings are not new – and far from limited to any single company. Both Germany and Poland have been wracked by reform stuttered by short term gain and market entry strategies executed by most of the biggest players in the room. Aurora, for example, announced their first import into Poland the same day the Polish government changed the law last fall. Aurora uses Germany as its breakpoint distribution center for Europe.
A Stamp of Authenticity That Is Sorely Needed
Beyond the pharma and market entry politics, however, this Alcaliber-helmed project creates a ring of authority to the same that creates at least one cannabis brand the European medical community can see the certification for.
For now at least, certainly among the ranks of the upper echelons of the international cannabis industry, there must surely be a sigh of relief.
EU GMP certifications (in other words, the authorization to produce product bound for a medical, pharma market) do not happen overnight. On the European front, this is surely at least a step in the right direction for an industry embattled by scandals, particularly of the securities, production, certification and accounting kind right now.
In this case, however, it is also clear that no matter the egregious oversteps and potentially illegal and certainly dubious behaviour of some members of the industry, there are also clearly those within it, and at high levels, who have tried to do the right thing. And further, from the beginning of the nascent industry here as of 2015.
Who Is Alcaliber?
Alcaliber is one of the world’s largest opioid manufacturers. Unlike American counterparts, the company decided several years ago to invest in and back ideas of the opioid-to-cannabinoid therapy model. Linneo Health is a 60% subsidiary of Alcaliber and 40% owned by a Spanish family office called Torreal, S.A.
This is, as a result, one of the most important GMP licenses in Europe at the moment if not the world. It means that within a pharmaceutical environment, the first widespread research and production of plants and therapies for those suffering from both chronic pain, plus neurological and oncological conditions that cause or are related to the same, will be put on a fast track long in the offing. Certainly in Europe.
And that for one, is a positive development that will have widespread implications elsewhere. Particularly given the news that the opioid epidemic in the United States finally has a name, and culpable parties.
What Else Is Unusual About This Project?
GMP certification is a vastly misunderstood concept at the moment. It is also a highly thorny one because of a still standardizing set of agreements. The regulatory environment is in place, in other words, but there are many, many gaps, as well as shifting rules and underlying treaties.
However, on top of this, there is also an amazing lack of innovation in interpretation, in part because of many misadvised consultants who are actually seeking to “save” production costs for their clients, or because they do not know any better. Or because producers are scared of doing the wrong thing.
The new project in Spain is unusual because it is a greenhouse grow that got EU GMP cert – although look for more of this in the future. It means that with careful, standardized, pharma production, not all regulated cannabis grows, even for the medical market, have to use huge amounts of energy in repurposed post-industrial developments. It is also certainly cleaner than growing outside. And, when done right, saves huge amounts of water.
Cleantech, in other words, has finally hit the cannabis industry in Europe. As well as a pharmaceutical company invested in the cannabinoid treatment of (at least) chronic pain.
That is an overdue and hugely positive development. No matter what else can be said for shenanigans engulfing the rest of the industry at the moment.
Tilray just did something very interesting. In addition to announcing that it was shipping product to German distributor Cannamedical via its Portuguese facility, it also announced that it had begun outdoor cultivation.
Even more intriguing: the company is claiming that somehow, via its proprietary technology (apparently), this kind of crop will be legit for distribution within the EU medical system.
There is only one problem with this. Outdoor growing does not sound remotely GMP-certified.
Here is the next bit of exciting news. Tilray, apparently, is not the only large Canadian cannabis company now operating in Europe that appears to be trying to get around GMP certifications for medical market penetration. Or appear oblivious to the distinctions in the international (and certainly European market).
And things are a bit smelly on that front, not only in Denmark post CannTrust, but in truth even in Germany, the supposed “Fort Knox” of regulatory consumer and pharmaceutical standards.
In fact, at least according to insiders, there is apparently quite a bit of gray market product sloshing around in the Teutonic medical market. Even though so far, at least not publicly punished for the same, nobody has been caught. Or at least publically reprimanded.
And who is on the hot seat at least according to most of the licensed if not just pre-licensed indie producers and distributors who were contacted for this story? Sure, there are dark horse “start-up” indie violators, but they are not the only problem. Many who talked to CIJ named big public Canadian companies too. And potentially Bedrocan beyond that.
Who Is Who And What Is What?
Part of the problem, beyond any kind of deliberate flouting of regulations on the part of many companies who are at least trying to understand them, is that global standards are different. “GMP certifications” of every country, even within a region like Europe, are in fact, not uniform. That is why, for example, the new EU-US MRA agreement had to be signed first regionally and then on a state-by-state level across the EU.
Beyond Germany of course, there are other problems that are coming to the fore.In the medical cannabis space, in particular, right now, that is causing problems simply because many with pharma experience are not hip to the many risks in the cannabis industry itself. On the Canadian, Australian and American side, there is also a lot of bad advice, in particular, coming from consultants who should know better.
To be properly EU and German GMP-certified, one of the required steps is to have German inspectors walk your production floor. It is also not good enough to have “pesticide-free” or national organic certification at the crop cultivation site, and add GMP cert at time of “processing.” That piece of misadvise has been showing up not only in Canada, but Australia too. And creates a nasty reality if not expensive retooling upon entering the legitimate market in Europe, for starters.
These Issues Affect Everyone In The Industry
In an environment where ex-im is the name of the game, and even the big guys are short of product, compliance is getting granular as smaller players step up to the plate – and many if not most hopeful Canadian producers (in particular) now looking to Europe for sales are not (yet) up to speed.
A big piece of the blame also lies in the lack of proper administration at the federal and state level too – even auf Deutschland. To get a distribution license, a company must actually get three licenses, although there are plenty in the market right now who begin to describe themselves as “distributors” with less than the required certs.
The lack of coordination and communication, including which certs to accept as equivalent and from where is creating a market where those who know how to game the system are.
For example, several people who contacted CIJ, claimed that uncertified product was making its way into Germany via Central and Latin America, through Canada, picking up “GMP cert” along the way. In other words, not actually GMP-certified but labelled fraudulently to make it appear that way.
The same claims were also made by those with on-the-ground industry knowledge in South Africa (Lesotho).
Beyond Germany of course, there are other problems that are coming to the fore. As CIJ recently learned, a firm authorized by the Dutch government to provide cannabis packaging, including for exports, was not GMP certified until July 2019 – meaning that all product they shipped internationally even within Europe before that date potentially has labelling issues. Cue domestic importers. If not regulators.
Grey Market Product Is Making Its Way In Through Official Channels
For those who are taking the time to actually get through the legal registration and licensing process, it is infuriating to see others who are apparently fairly flagrantly buying market position but are in no position to fulfil such obligations. It is even more infuriating for those who intend to meet the requirements of the regulations to realize that the vast amounts spent in consulting fees was actually money paid for inaccurate information.
And the only way ultimately the industry can combat that, is by standing up, as an industry, to face and address the problem.German distributors are so aware of the problem that they are starting to offer gap analysis and specific consulting services to help their import partners actually get compliant.
Government agencies also might be aware of the problems, but they have been reluctant to talk about the same. CIJ contacted both BfArM and the local Länderauthorities to ask about the outdoor grow in Portugal and the lack of GMP cert for a Dutch packager. After multiple run-arounds, including sending this reporter on a wild rabbit chase of federal and state agencies (who all directed us back to BfArm) and an implication by the press officer at BfArM that the foreign press was not used to talking to multiple sources, CIJ was redirected back to state authorities with a few more instructions on which bureau to contact. The state bureau (in Berlin) did not return comments to questions asked by email.
Here is the bottom line that CannTrust has helped expose this summer: the entire global cannabis industry is trying hard to legitimize. Not every company is shady, and there are many who are entering it now who are playing by the rules. But those who are hoping to exploit loopholes (including “name” if not “public” companies) are also clearly in the room.
And the only way ultimately the industry can combat that, is by standing up, as an industry, to face and address the problem.
Editors Note: This is a developing story. CIJ has been contacted by the Dutch Cannabis Agency as it investigates what appears to be an intra-government debate over qualification of EU-GMP cert, acceptance of audit documents and other matters within European countries that appear to have caused much of this confusion with regards to Bedrocan and its packager Fagron. Many reputable, licensed sources within the industry spoke to us on deep background, out of concern that they too would be held liable. That said, so far, nobody can explain why the only licensed Dutch packager, was issued a new EU GMP cert document on July 9, 2019, the same day that Danish authorities halted CannTrust product entering Denmark. That is a government decision. Further it is also still unclear why rival cannabis companies would attempt to contact the cannabis media with a certain (and misguided) spin on this situation.
As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.
The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.
As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?
Who, What, Where?
The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.
Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.
By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.
Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.
What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?
The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.
Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.
Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.
On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.
Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?
Where Does This Get Interesting?
The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.
Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
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.
Aurora 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.
At 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.
There is a lot of European news afoot from the big public Canadian companies between all the headlines about Israel. Namely, established cannabis companies in the market already continue to shore up their presence across multiple member EU states.
What is at stake? Establishing some kind of European foothold in an environment where licensing and production costs will not bust the bank- and what will be the first government-set, pre-negotiated bulk price for medical cannabis flower. For all the high-flying news of even hundred million-dollar (or euro) investments, right now the biggest hunt is on for ways to trigger sales figures that continue to grow steadily in the customer column.
There is also a dawning realization that prices are going to start stabilizing if not falling after the German government finalizes its selection of bid winners.
As a result of all of this, to compete against each other and streamline distribution and supply chain costs, the larger Canadian companies in the market are clearly angling to set up efficient distribution networks- even if that means buying pieces of them one country and property at a time.
How well that will work in the longer run remains to be seen- but it is a play that is starting to show up in other European developments (from the Israeli side). That said, the latest news of the big guys in the field make sense within this context, if none other.
Canopy Growth Announces UK and Polish Moves
Spectrum Cannabis, the European-based medical brand of Canopy Growth chalked two more achievements off its Euro “to do list” in January. At the beginning of the month, Spectrum announced it was preparing to enter the UK market via the creation of a joint venture with Beckley Canopy Foundation, Spectrum Biomedical.
In Poland, the company also announced the successful shipment of its high-THC whole flower “Red No.2.” The Polish government began allowing sales late last year.
Neither development however should be a surprise to those watching the strategy of either Canopy or for that matter several other public Canadian cannabis companies. Aurora, for example, announced its first successful shipment into the country on the same day that the Polish government changed the law. On the British side, the combined forces of changing the regulatory scheduling of cannabis and allowing the drug to be dispensed by prescription have certainly changed the game on some levels. Brexit is about to play havoc with most imported products, and cannabis is no exception to this.
In this sense, the challenges facing both British and Polish patients right now are also fairly analogous. Importing is the only way to get the drug to patients, and the cost of import is also prohibitively high for most. Then of course, there is actual approval beyond that, which is also a problem everywhere cannabis has become legal.
While both developments of course, are good news for the company, this does not mean that the initial going will be easy or smooth for any company, including one as skilled at strategic market entry in core countries across the continent for the last several years as Spectrum has reliably proven to be.
Green Organic Dutchman Gets Cultivation License In Denmark
Why are so many public cannabis companies attracted to the tiny country? The first is that the country, like Switzerland, in fact, is not as bound by EU rules as say, Germany and France. It can “experiment” in ways that are notably different from its neighbors.
As a result of this and a change in the law that began a multiyear trial to experiment with regulation and medical efficacy, cultivation licenses are also easier to obtain than in other places. There are also other plusses to establishing a presence in the country if not the continent including a strong social care system, and a research environment that promises to produce great results on the medical efficacy discussion continent wide.
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