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.
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.
While you may not have heard of CannTrust Holdings so far, that is now about to change. A summer spectacle of double dealing and corporate greed has put this Canadian cannabis company on the global map.
Unfortunately, the current meltdown underway is indicative of more to come.
A Summary Of The Story So Far
CannTrust, a company which serves 72,000 Canadian patients and got into the game early, decided to do what it saw other companies doing all around them. That covers a lot of ground (good and bad at this point). Regardless, the most relevant recent twist to the saga came when the company hired a new CEO, Peter Aceto last October.
Aceto however, along with the now also fired co-founder and chair of the board Eric Paul, decided to continue growing and harvesting unlicensed product. Worse, this occurred while boasting in public of their productivity gains on the way to securing a hefty investment of capital this spring. $170 million. The grow rooms finally got their certification in April.
What is even more embarrassing however, is that this was a round led by the much-vaunted investors the industry has been courting assiduously for the past several years. Specifically, in this case? Institutional banks like Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets.
But that is “just” the North American hemisphere. The rather unfortunately named CannTrust (certainly at this point) also had a European footprint – notably Denmark. Unlicensed cannabis ended up there too, of course. Stenocare A/S, the company at the receiving end of the same, reported receipt of product from the unlicensed rooms on July 4.
As far as such things go, however, you have to give it to CannTrust company executives. In terms of setting standards if not benchmarks and “records”, they certainly seemed to have set a few, although probably not the ones they aspired to. If not, with certainty, their investors.
A Surprise Or Inevitability?
That said, for many who have been sounding warnings for at least a year, the 2019 Summer of Canadian Cannascandal is certainly starting to confirm what many have been saying for quite some time. This is not the first time a securities exchange, for one, has sounded the alarm. Deutsche Börse delisted the entire North American public cannabis industry last summer briefly. Then they revised their policy, reluctantly, after Luxembourg changed its stance on medical use. That said, they are still watching with a standing policy of bouncing any company that runs afoul of their rules.
The problems, issues and more bubbling at the center of this cannameltdown, in other words, are not limited to just one company or country.
And everyone knows it.
Accounting For Past Mistakes
For those who are counting, the value of all of that illegally grown CannTrust product is not insignificant. Estimates are floating in the CA$50-70 million range. The problem is, of course, nobody is sure what numbers to rely on. CannTrust employees knowingly provided inaccurate information to the new CEO if not regulatory body until a whistle-blower provided a few more details.
That said, for all of the hullabaloo, one thing this story also does is point a bright spotlight on the lax enforcement of even this pretty easy-to-understand regulation.
The question, however is, if CannTrust thought it could get away with this kind of blatent flouting of the rules, if not lax oversight, are there any other companies who might have also done similiar things?
After all, even the pesticide scandal of 2016 did not occur at just one company either.
Where Are The Proceedings?
This is a rolling story, which began to break at the beginning of last month when Health Canada issued a non-compliance order to CannTrust and impounded 5,200 kg of dried cannabis that was apparently grown in unlicensed grow rooms on July 3.
There have already been some jaw dropping revelations so far (beyond the executive decision to even go down this road in the first place) no matter how attractive pimping numbers was. Starting with things like fake walls being erected to hide the grow. And then of course pictures that have been all over social media of late, of the now departed CEO Aceto being photographed directly in front of said unlicensed rooms too.
As a result, the drama has continued to unfold in a highly predictable way.
By August 1, CannTrust Holdings, a Canadian cannabis company listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, was facing a “quasi-criminal investigation” by the Canadian Joint Serious Offenses Team. This is a coalition of law enforcement agencies including the Ontario Securities Commission, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Financial Crimes Unit, and the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch.
But CannTrust’s issues don’t end there. This is an international story that is just beginning. Government regulators in Europe if not elsewhere are paying attention.So are shareholders, and their lawyers.
Stand aside Canada! Events are moving in a strategically interesting way in Europe. And for once it is not news of the German bid.
In this case, implementation of the decision in Luxembourg would actually have two immediate effects.What, where, when? Luxembourg’s new center-left coalition of the Greens, Socialists and more traditional Democrats have put recreational cannabis on their ruling mandate and five-year agenda as of November 29, 2018.
In the comments of the same at the press conference held last week, the sentiments were pretty much of one tenor: “It’s way overdue.”
What does that mean, however, for the rest of the conversation across the continent?
Luxembourg: The First Recreational “State” Market In Europe?
While local advocates are quick to say that their ambition will make them the first EU country to completely legalize recreational cannabis, this is mostly true, but not entirely.
As much as it is fashionable these days to diss Holland, the fact of the matter is that the Dutch pioneered just about everything about the modern movement except clear cut regulation. Coffeeshop envy being what it is, however, it is true that the historical marker of the Dutch market was grey areas. That, however, has been in shifting territory for the last four to five years however. Hard as it is to believe that in just 2014 the Cannabis Cup held its last expo in Amsterdam. How the world has changed since then!
There is also this fact: Switzerland (true not an EU country but just next door geographically), is also poised to use this excuse to make its next move to fully leaded THC. The country has seen a sharp uptick in the consumer, OTC CBD market over the last two years. So much so that foreign (read American and Canadian in particular) enterprises are now looking to Switzerland as one of the more interesting “semi-EU” entry strategies at present. Taxes on a highly profitable industry are also in the public discussion. Adding a bit of THC to the mix, in other words, is likely to come fast in other places too.
Will This Move The Needle In Other Places?
The answer to that question is also, undeniably, yes. How fast that will happen in individual countries across Europe is another discussion. See France, which is now the largest member of the EU to have so far successfully ducked the cannabis question except for some basic decrim ideas that the now embattled French President Emmanuel Macron might, finally, put some enthusiasm into backing.
This could also certainly galvanize the UK. One way or the other, to stay or leave the EU itself. Full recreational won’t be in the cards, however, for quite some time.
Sound incredible? See Brexit so far.it will create the first deliberately regulated recreational market in Europe.
Many other EU countries have also been chafing at the slow pace of reform. Even after basic medical use has occurred. See German advocates who long to follow both the U.S. and Canada, and at present are for the most part shut out of the medical cultivation process. They are simply being outbid by the large Canadians.
But how fast such reforms will come even in Luxembourg, not to mention have a knock on effect elsewhere, no matter how momentous, is still an undecided question.
What Is The Biggest Immediate Impact Going To Be?
As is usually the case in Europe, things are rarely as straightforward as one country deciding to do (or not do) something. In this case, implementation of the decision in Luxembourg would actually have two immediate effects.
One, it will create the first deliberately regulated recreational market in Europe. How fast that could actually roll out is up for debate, considering that the country only legalized medical use as of this summer. As Colorado, California and certainly Canada have proven in spades so far, recreational reform always need some kind of medical base to start with. And implementation of both kinds of markets always seems, at least so far, to carry litigation. Especially in young, untested markets. See the German bid, most recently, just across the border.
However here is the second, and far more intriguing reality that really may be key to the entire enchilada. The legality of cannabis in Luxembourg also has everything to do with the German public cannabis market. Namely, the German stock exchange will only allow Germans to clear stock purchases of publicly listed cannabis companies on the Deutsche Börse if they are in line with not only German cannabis law but also that in Luxembourg, where they actually clear. That was a big issue this summer, only rectified when Luxembourg first changed its medical law.
It also meant, as of this fall, that Aurora went public in New York, not Frankfurt.
In the future, however, after Luxembourg goes full recreational Monty, this will no longer be the case. This will already be tested next spring as another company hopes to go public here. And when that happens, although certainly not for the next several years, the entire discussion of recreational reform will fully and finally be in the European room.
As August comes to a close, it is clear that it has been one busy quarter for market development – all over the place. Developments in the UK and Germany in particular, however, have been dramatic. In turn, this is also starting to bring other countries online – even as potential producers move in on the market and before real domestic medical reform has occurred (in countries ranging from Turkey to Spain).
And, say no more, Canada finally announced its “due date” in October.
How all three markets will move forward is also very interesting. They are all interrelated at this point, and even more intriguing, increasingly in synch.
This trend is also one advocates should take note of to push forward on further legislative and access issues going forward.
In the future, no matter what happens with Brexit, developments in both the UK and Germany will continue to push the conversation forward in the EU, a region that is now the world’s most strategic (and globally accessible) cannabis market. Advocates, particularly in Canada and the U.S. right now, can also do much to support them.
Events here, while they may seem “slow” to outsiders, are in fact progressing – and as Cannabis Industry Journal has been reporting – quite fast even if the developments haven’t been (initially at least) quite as public. As this ‘zine wrote, breaking the news in July, the Federal German Drugs and Medical Devices Agency (BfArM) quietly posted the revised bid in July on a European tender site after refusing to confirm that it had sent out (undated) cancellation letters to previous hopefuls. Applicants for the new tender have until October 22 to respond. It is expected, given the new focus on “coalitions” that there will be many more applicants from global teams.
Even more interesting is the informal “reference price” that BfArM is appearing to set for bid respondents (7 euros per gram) and the impact of that on all pricing going forward across the continent.
Within a week, it also emerged that the Deutsche Borse, the organization that regulates the German stock exchanges, and working via its third party clearing arm, refused to clear any trades of any publically listed North American cannabis company that are also listed in Germany. This is an interesting development for sure – particularly now. How it will impact the biggest companies (read publicly listed Canadian LPs) is unclear, particularly because they can now raise capital via global capital markets – including the U.S.
Earlier in the summer, one of the largest public or “statutory” health insurance companies in Germany issued the “Cannabis Report.” It showed that cannabis has now moved out of “orphan drug territory” in Germany, and over 15,000 patients are now prescribed the drug. That said, over 35% of all claims are still being rejected. Most patients at this point, are also women older than 40.
It seems to be less than coincidence that the other big mover this quarter (and in fact most of the year) has been the UK. These two countries are linked by history and trade more than any other in Europe.
As of October, the country will not only reschedule cannabinoid-derived medicine to a Schedule II drug, but also allow more patients to access it. It is unclear how fast reform will come to a country in the throes of Brexit drama, but it is clear that this discussion is now finally on the table. What is also intriguing about this development is how far and fast this will open the door for other firms to compete, finally, with the monopoly enjoyed by GW Pharmaceuticals in the British Islands since 1998.
In one of the quarter’s biggest coups that stockholders loved but left the domestic industry with few illusions about the fight ahead, GW Pharmaceuticals also announced that it had managed (ahead of all U.S.-based producers and firms and even rescheduling in the U.S.) to gain U.S. federal government approval to import a CBD-based epilepsy drug (Epidiolex) into the United States from the UK and thus gain national distribution.
What is even more interesting is that the next formal “steps” in all three markets are now timed to coincide within weeks of each other in October this year.
Canadian producers of course are in the leading position to enter both German and British markets. Further their production centers now springing up all over Europe are supplying both their source markets and will be available for international distribution.
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