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?
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.
Access 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.
Folks from around the country and the world tuned into the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website as they held a public hearing on Friday, May 31. Manufacturers and suppliers asked the FDA to regulate CBD like food or dietary supplements, while the FDA seemed to want more evidence on the safety of CBD products before giving the greenlight.
Background On The Hearing
For the uninitiated, after President Trump signed the Farm Bill into law back in December 2018, Scott Gottlieb, now former director of the FDA, issued a statement the same day the Farm Bill passed, clarifying the FDA’s regulatory authority. In the statement, Gottlieb explained that Congress preserved the FDA’s authority to regulate products containing cannabis and its constituents under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
In April 2019, around the same time he resigned from the FDA, Gottlieb issued another statement, acknowledging the quickly growing industry throughout the country and total lack of federal regulatory guidance. This time around, Gottlieb laid out a handful of steps that the FDA plans on taking to address regulations around hemp and cannabidiol (CBD). Those included scheduling the public hearing for May 31, where written and oral public comments were submitted by stakeholders, sharing “their experiences and challenges with these products [hemp and CBD products], including information and views related to product safety.”
That statement also announced the formation of an internal agency working group to “explore potential pathways for dietary supplements and/or conventional foods containing CBD to be lawfully marketed; including a consideration of what statutory or regulatory changes might be needed and what the impact of such marketing would be on the public health.”
Fast-forward to May 31, the day of the public hearing, and all eyes in the industry focused on what all these stakeholders had to say to the FDA about CBD. The day started off with about two hours of oral comments, each speaker had roughly two minutes to deliver their thoughts.
Industry stakeholders representing cannabis businesses sang much of the same tune, clamoring for wise regulations on safety, testing, banking and interstate commerce, among other standards. NCIA Policy Director Andrew Kline’s comments included running through five major positions of the industry trade organization representing CBD companies. Those included recommending the FDA act quickly in setting up regulations, stressing the massive economic impact of the industry, saying that CBD products are generally safe, clamoring for voluntary, consensus-based standards and informing consumers of any potential risks. “The bottom line is this – an overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds present minimal health and safety concerns,” Kline told the folks at the FDA. “Time is of the essence. Hemp-derived CBD products are in very high consumer demand and the industry is eagerly awaiting FDA’s regulatory framework for these products. We strongly recommend that FDA act quickly to clarify the regulatory environment because there is significant confusion in the market.”
Anna Williams, representing the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), stressed the importance of testing for contaminants and adulterants as well as advocating for national standards on lab testing, instead of the state-by-state network of different standards.
Patients & Public Safety
After industry stakeholders had their chance to speak, the FDA allowed a group of advocacy organizations representing patients time to speak. That included representatives for the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Epilepsy Society, both of which were hesitant to throw their full support behind CBD as medicine. Kevin Chapman with the American Epilepsy Society said he wants to see clear warning labels, testing standards, more clinical trials and more studies before the group is ready to form a position on using CBD as medicine. Keith Fargo with the Alzheimer’s Association supports clinical trials to study it more, but thinks CBD is risky for patients without serious evidence of efficacy. A representative from the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance also echoed similar concerns. They want to see labeling of drug interactions on labels of CBD products.
After those comments, some organizations had the chance to speak followed by comments from retailers and distributors. Patrick Bird, owner of PMB BioTek Consulting, spoke on behalf of AOAC International, where he primarily discussed public safety. He said they want cannabis products to be regulated with food safety in mind, asking for FSMA to apply to hemp products. They want to adequately ensure product safety with things like mandating HACCP plans, recall readiness, saying hemp products should be treated just like food products.
Retailers & Distributors
Peter Matz, representing the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for the supermarket industry, said that regulatory ambiguity is a serious issue that needs addressing. “There is mass confusion in the marketplace for the public, suppliers, retailers and state regulators,” says Matz. “Demand for CBD products in human and animal use is growing rapidly. ¼ of American have already tried it. We are fielding questions from companies seeking clarity regarding the current federal regulatory framework.” He added, what many others also mentioned, that the FDA needs to move swiftly to provide a pathway to regulation.
Next on the docket came presentations from state government entities, including state departments of agriculture, followed by healthcare professionals. The state regulators that spoke mentioned a lot about food safety, standards, testing regulations, GMPs and things like that to protect consumer safety. “Currently states are struggling with the lack of sound scientific research available in CBD and long-term health impacts,” said Pam Miles, representing the Virginia Department of Agriculture.
One interesting aspect on their talks however was telling the FDA just how large their markets have gotten already and how they need guidance on how to regulate markets in their own states. Joseph Reardon, with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said they already have about 600 farmers growing hemp and thousands of processors working with the product in their state. “We urge the FDA to resolve the statutory issues improperly establish a legal pathway for CBD products to enter the market place,” Reardon commented. He also asked that the FDA extend the written comment period from July to August. “We are simply looking for a regulatory framework on the extraction, production and reconstitution of CBD or cannabinoid related products.”
Healthcare & Research
Healthcare providers, and physician testimony also echoed a lot of the same concerns, including the lack of research done, concerns about effects on at-risk populations and concerns about use as ingredients in dietary supplements and food. Some of the presentations also highlighted the room for nefarious activity in an unregulated marketplace. Some went as far as to mention cases where they found CBD vape juices with DXM in it (the active ingredient in cough syrup), CBD products found to contain THC, as well as synthetic cannabinoids responsible for drug overdose deaths. Some advocates in the hemp and CBD community have equated these arguments similar to reefer madness.
The major takeaway from this hearing is that everyone wants to see more data. Researchers and healthcare providers want to study the efficacy of CBD used in medicine, regulators want public safety information, patient advocates want to see data about effects on at-risk populations, trade organizations want data to back up label claims and the FDA wants to see just how safe CBD really is.
The opening of the UK’s first cannabis clinic is certainly cause for cheer. The effort, backed by a growing UK powerhouse that includes European Cannabis Holdings, has just opened its first private cannabis clinic in the UK, with two more on the way, including one in London by the end of the year.
The clinic will see patients who can afford to pay, in other words those who are privately insured and not covered by the NHS. The clinics will also serve those with chronic illnesses including chronic pain and epilepsy.
This development will also undoubtedly begin to increase the number of actual legal British cannabis patients, which is significant in and of itself. That count now, close to five months after cannabis became technically available via Schedule II prescription last year, is a shocking four patients. This is not a typo.
Presumably, this means that patients who enter the market this way will also be able to access newly imported Dutch cannabis which has just started to enter the country in bulk. Not to mention be able to find pharmacies who stock the drug.
For the backers of ECH (which include SOL Global), these are strategic moves indeed, which also bode well for those who can afford access.
But does this herald a new shift in the way that cannabis will be prescribed for the mainstream in the UK if not across Europe? That is not so clear.
The History of Cannabis Clinics… In Israel and Beyond
From the medical side of the world, it has been cannabis specialty pain clinics that have moved the conversation forward and served patients in places like Israel. In the latter part of the last decade, Israel slowly began to liberalize access not via dispensaries, as in the American model, but rather via specialty pain clinics paid for by the government. It was only when patient attendance at such prescription and dispensation points became flooded by applicants that the government, just a few short years ago, began to allow regular doctors to prescribe the drug and regular pharmacies to carry it.
What does this say about a British market where reform has just come, and only four patients?There are currently various initiatives sprinkled around Europe- mostly in the form of collectives of doctors who try to help get their patients cannabinoid treatments. See, for example, Kalapa Clinic in Spain. Or the “self help” group of patients in Germany loosely associated with Dr. Grotenhermann (one of the country’s best-known cannabinoid doctors).
Yet in Germany, the first country in Europe to liberalize medical use, there are as yet no cannabis clinics of either the private or public kind (although there have also been several unsuccessful attempts to do just this since 2017 in cities like Berlin and Munich). Part of the reason for the failure of the model in Germany at least is due to the fact that while specialty doctors are needed to help guide patients through the complicated approvals process, the payment for the same from the insurance companies (even private insurers) is so low it is not yet economically feasible to set up a clinic based on this model.
That said, it is clearly an idea that has occurred to more than a few entities. In Germany, however, land of (at least) 40,000 patients, this model has yet to take off. What does this say about a British market where reform has just come, and only four patients? Even as early as spring 2017, when the German government changed the law mandating insurance coverage, there were 800 German patients in the system.
Why The UK Is Likely To Be Different
Cannabis patients may actually be some of the best situated patients to ride out the Brexit crisis that will hit all drugs. Why? From the start, the strange classification of the drug is requiring bespoke solutions for niche patients. While it may not be fair, this in turn will at least start to create a core group of medical users.
Creating at least that first critical mass is also unbelievably important for greater access and reform, if not speeding it on its way. And the backers of the new clinics are well aware that impetus on this front will not come from the much-beleaguered NHS but rather private initiatives like the ones now being launched in the UK.
Disclaimer: ECH is a sponsor of the MedPayRx go to market pilot trial.
On December 28, 2018, Canopy made the unsurprising announcement that it would begin exporting medical cannabis to the UK. The move comes shortly after the formation of Beckley Canopy, the research effort founded in partnership with the Beckley Foundation and Amanda Fielding, the woman who has continued to pioneer the field of cannabinoid research, and the announcement that Canopy will jumpstart medical trials here.
The two events are also connected, as the company will most likely start its export direct to the trials now planned and in general for research purposes as well as pharmacies, based on doctor’s orders.
Impact On The UK Market
Canopy of course, is now in a race with several other Canadian firms to establish market presence both on the trial and patient front. Tilray, Namaste and Wayland Group have all lined up to enter the market, if not having secured first patient orders. That said, entry will be slow for all, namely because of import regulations that may well still go off the cliff because of Brexit.
Intriguingly, however, the Canadians are not the only ones now in the ring. And the “Irish Question” is becoming even more of a potential source of cannabis. That became obvious in the aftermath of an announcement for additional funding and a 25% equity stake in Dublin-based Greenlight Medicines by SOL Global, a Canadian-listed company. Greenlight has already established an extensive network of not only researchers but has a reach at this point to over 1,000 pharmacies across the UK and Ireland.
Bottom line? Look for discussions on access to be fundamentally caught up in the impending, larger political discussions that are still deadlocked, with no certainty in site.And while so far at least, Scotland has remained quiet on the discussion, along with Wales and Cornwall, these are also places domestically in the UK where there could be new cultivation operations coming shortly.
Why? Wales is the “duchy” of none other than the Prince of Wales, Charles, the man who will be the next king of England. For most of his life, he has been pilloried for his ideas about alternative healthcare and organic farming. However, he also owns vast lands in Wales that support him, supported by rents, that are likely, in the near future, to switch to cannabis farming. Whatever reluctance he might have had to take the plunge, this is likely to change course with the next generation when he becomes king. Oversight of the management of all of this bounty will switch to his son, William. And this is a no-brainer, beyond of course, the fact that his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle) already has a cannabis brand named after her.
Apart from this political and Royal twist, look for cannabis farming to occur in places like Cornwall, which has temperate weather brought by the Gulf Stream, a tourist economy and a desperate need, like many parts of the UK, for urban renewal. A high tech, high worth agricultural injection, in other words, is just what these parts of the country need.
Scotland, still, is an unanswered question mark, but it is unlikely that much growing will occur in the northern climes. That said, with cannabis production (of all sorts) beginning to wake up, there is no reason that the processing question will escape this part of the British Isles.That also means that calls for domestic cannabis to be grown in the UK itself could become much louder.
What Impact Will Brexit Really Have On Cannabis?
There is no way to really understand this question until the dust settles with negotiations that now have the potential to disrupt all trade between the UK and the rest of the world, including the Republic of Ireland. Ports and transportation through them are facing major disruption. Preparations for an off the cliff exit far beyond cannabis, have also been repeatedly criticized as being far too little, too late.
Bottom line? Look for discussions on access to be fundamentally caught up in the impending, larger political discussions that are still deadlocked, with no certainty in site.
That also means that calls for domestic cannabis to be grown in the UK itself could become much louder. Along with an impetus for greater reform.
Regardless, this drug, so often just below the surface of international affairs for so long, is clearly going to be in the room in larger political discussions now unfolding in the UK.
Impact On National Healthcare
British people, since the end of WWII, have had access to free healthcare thanks to the NHS. That said, after a decade of austerity, the system is now facing crisis unseen since the war. There are 100,000 doctor vacancies at the so-called “Trusts” across the UK which manage regional healthcare. Waiting times even for lifesaving operations are at an all-time high. And approvals for drugs, especially like cannabis, which fall into the territory of “special approval” across Europe are also caught in the mix.
As in other countries, in other words, while the news of exports beginning to enter the market is good for patients and the industry beyond that, it is just a start to a longer battle that is still playing out across Europe.
That said, there is another issue in the room that is also absolutely on the table and will be part of the medical cannabis conversation going forward. Digital healthcare–and of all kinds–is being touted as the solution to doctor and service shortages. Look for innovative cannatech solutions in particular that target this market in particular, in the near future.
In the meantime, the green trickle has begun. That said, given all that is at stake and on the table, there are many questions in the room about when the flood will actually take off.
It is official. British doctors as of November 1, 2018, can now write prescriptions for medical cannabis. But what does that really mean? And is this truly a victory or merely an opening in the fierce resistance to and outright battle against cannabinoids as medicine?
A Real Victory Or Another Stall?
Many in the advocacy community in Europe are profoundly split. On one hand, yes, the British decision, like other sovereign medical cannabis reforms in Europe over the last two years, is a victory. The British government, like many before it, has thrown in the towel on denying basic access to medical cannabis. But what does this mean, especially in a country which may well be facing shortages of basic food products and other kinds of medications in under half a year if things continue to blow up on Brexit and there is no “people’s vote” to save the day?
Cultivated product would, normally, be slated to come from Portugal and Spain where Tilray and Canopy in particular have set up cultivation centers. If things continue to head to a negotiated Brexit, it is inevitable that imported cannabis would fall into the same category of everything else set to come into England by boat or lorry. It is highly unlikely that the NHS would authorize full payment for cannabis flown in from Canada. Especially with British Sugar’s existing cannabis plantations in Norfolk as well as the budding cultivation deals now finally flowering all over the country if not in Ireland.There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money.
Brexit Is The Bigger Worry, So What About Cannabis?
It may also seem to some that access to cannabis is the least of the country’s worries. Actually this is a discussion deeply embedded in the politics and drama in London and Brussels right now. It is also at the heart of Brexit itself. Namely the propaganda associated with European divorce that ran along the lines of “saving the NHS.”
In fact, the legalization of medical use in the UK, just as it is in countries across Europe (Germany being the best and most current ongoing example) will do much to shine a light on how creaky and outdated the medical provision system really is here. Especially when it comes to approving new drugs for large numbers of people quickly. This was, ultimately the goal of public healthcare. See penicillin, not to mention most inoculation drugs or vaccines for childhood diseases (like Polio).
One of the great ironies of cannabis legalization in Europe of course is that it is also often shining a light on how far this concept, not to mention funds for proper delivery, has been allowed to lapse. There are many who expect that medical cannabis will actually save public healthcare systems a great deal of money. That is if it can finally make its way into widespread medical distribution.
And cannabis is a drug like no other. Why? Despite all the pharmacization of the plant that is going on right now as producers are being forced to produce pills and oils for the medical market, cannabinoid treatments will not be pushed so easily into “orphan” status – since whole plant products can treat a range of diseases. This is important in terms of supply and negotiated prices down the road. But in the short term, cannabis is falling into a couple of strange categories created by organized public healthcare, insurance mandates (both public and private), the demands being placed on producers in this space to act more like pharmaceutical companies, limited public spending budgets, and a changing demographic where chronic conditions treated by cannabis are a whole new ballgame. Namely patients are living longer, and not necessarily old.
So while it is all very well and good for British doctors to begin to write prescriptions for cannabis, merely having one does little good for most patients. In fact, this usually means the battle is only half won.
National Healthcare Is Still Functional In Europe
As foreign as it is to most Americans, most European countries operate more or less the same way when it comes to healthcare. First of all, all of the national systems in operation in Europe today, including the UK, were set up in the aftermath of WWII to recover from devastation most Americans, especially today, never experienced personally.
These healthcare systems were set up to first and foremost be inclusive. In other words, the default is that you are covered. 90% of populations across Europe in fact, including the UK, are covered by their national healthcare systems. “Private” health insurance actually only covers about 10% of the population and in some countries, like Germany, is mandatory once annual income rises above a certain level.
However this system is also based on a very old fashioned notion of not only medical care, but treatment of chronic conditions. Namely, that most people (the mostly well) face low prices for most drugs. Further, the people first in line to get “experimental” or “last use” drugs (as cannabis is currently categorized in Europe no matter its rescheduling in the UK), are patients in hospitals. With the exception of terminal patients, of course, that is no longer the case.
Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany.That is why, for example, so many disabled people began to sue the German government last year. They could not afford treatment until their insurer approved it. Monthly supplies in legal pharmacies are running around $3,000 per month for flower. Or about 8 times the total cash budget such people have to live on (in total) on a monthly basis.
In fact, because of this huge cost, approvals for drugs like cannabis do not actually happen at the front line of the insurance approving process, but are rather kicked back to regional (often state) approvals boards. As a result, approval for the right to take the drug with some or all of the cost covered by insurance, is actually limited to a much smaller pool of people right now – namely the terminally ill in hospital care. In Germany, the only people who are automatically approved for medical cannabis once a doctor writes the prescription, are the terminally ill. For everyone else it is a crapshoot. Between 35-40% of all applications in Germany are being turned down a year and a half into medical legalization. Some patients are being told they will have to wait until next year or even 2020.
And once that prescription is actually approved? Patients in the UK can expect to face the same kinds of access problems in the UK as in Germany. Namely pharmacies do not readily stock the drug in any form.
In the meantime, patients are turning back to the black market. While the online pharmacy discussion is different in the UK than Germany, which might in fact make a huge difference for the right approvals system, most patients in the UK still face a long fight for easy and affordable access covered by public healthcare.
Disclaimer: Marguerite Arnold is now in negotiations for a pilot of her digital prescription and insurance pre-approvals and automization platform called MedPayRx in several European countries including the UK, Germany, and a few others.
The projected growth of the legal cannabis market is astounding. According to a report from BDS Analytics, the industry is expected to grow from $9.2B to $47.3B in 2027 in North America, with medical cannabis contributing 33% of that overall growth. While this number is impressive for an industry still in its infancy, I have reason to believe it can be much higher.
In the pharmaceutical industry, treatment of pain and insomnia represent an annual revenue exceeding $140B; concurrently, studies have shown cannabis to be an effective treatment for both conditions. If medical cannabis can capture 10% of that revenue over the next ten years, it essentially doubles the current estimates mentioned above.
So, what stands in our way? Education.
To gain acceptance from the medical community, physicians need to better understand the plant and its therapeutic benefits. To do so, they need more substantial data to prove cannabis’ efficacy before prescribing it to their patients. However, federal illegalities have prevented government-mandated clinical studies, but I believe there’s another way.
By adopting a collaborative health care model, patients and caregivers can work together to track the effectiveness of their cannabis treatments and share their learnings with the larger medical community. With the right tools in place, we can fast-track the research process and provide physicians and politicians with the information they need to make this medicine more approachable and accessible to those who could benefit from it.
By harnessing the power of the community, we can apply learnings from one patient’s cannabis use to help countless others.The Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT)was a five-year study consisting of approximately 2500 patients with back and spine conditions. Participants entered qualitative data into an online portal, including post-surgical results and patient outcomes, to provide a comprehensive insight into treatment methods and their efficacy. Today, others suffering with those same conditions can enter their personal information into an online calculator and receive a prospective treatment plan. Together, patients and their doctors can view results and build a customized plan using more informed decisions about the available treatment options.
Another example comes from OpenNotes– an exploratory study that provides patients with full access to their medical files and the opportunity to input comments about their doctor visits and prognosis and make corrections related to the care they received. Results showed that this process helped patients retain a better understanding of their condition which improved their decision making and resulted in increased adherence to treatment plan protocols because they had greater trust with their doctors.Not only will this improve the patient experience by providing a safer, more sustainable treatment option, it also provides a very significant financial opportunity.
I believe the cannabis industry can take a leadership role in empowering patients to become active participants in their own treatment, while also sharing knowledge with the larger patient and physician communities. In fact, this core belief was the reason I founded Resolve Digital Health. Data-empowered patients not only make better decisions but also enjoy a greater feeling of control over their treatment. The power of collaborative healthcare grows exponentially when the data is shared to educate a broader group. By harnessing the power of the community, we can apply learnings from one patient’s cannabis use to help countless others.
Businesses within the cannabis industry can also leverage this data to create new products and services. For example, insights as to what products work best for certain conditions can help LP’s improve their product offerings and guide recommendations from dispensaries. Through product innovation, companies can make cannabis more accessible to a larger group of patients, who may be currently taking pharmaceuticals. Not only will this improve the patient experience by providing a safer, more sustainable treatment option, it also provides a very significant financial opportunity.
Ultimately, knowledge is power. When patients are empowered to make educated decisions about their health care and doctors are more tuned into the patient-tested cannabis treatment options, it’s a win-win for everyone.
If anyone (read Auslanders) had any illusions that the German take on medical cannabis was going to be casual or unscientific if not painstakingly documented, think again.
Techniker Krankenkasse (or TK as it is referred to by the locals) is one of Germany’s largest public health insurance companies. In other words, it is a private company that is required to provide so called “statutory” health insurance which covers 90% of Germans.
As such, they are also on the front lines now of the medical cannabis debate. Approximately one year after the new law requiring public health insurance companies like TK to reimburse cannabis claims went into effect, the company has just issued what would surely be a best-seller if it were being sold.All of the medical cannabis now being prescribed and reimbursed is coming from abroad.
The Cannabis Report, as it is titled, produced with the help of professors at the University of Bremen, is also the first of its kind. In its pages, along with the corporate summary produced for the recent press conference in Berlin, are several fascinating snapshots of what is going on.
By the numbers.
The Cannabis Report
For those who cannot understand German, this summary by Business Insider is quite educational. Here are the major takeaways: There are now almost 16,000 German patients who are receiving some kind of medical cannabis by prescription. From a doctor. These patients are also paying about $12 for their monthly supplies – even if they have to wait for reimbursement. This is in contrast to the 1,100 patients who managed to obtain cannabis by prescription and pay for it themselves before the law changed last spring.
Do the math and that is a 1,450% uptick. Add in the additional 15,000 left out of this report who are getting cannabis prescribed but their claims turned down, and that is an even more amazing story.
Here is the next obvious fact: All of the medical cannabis now being prescribed and reimbursed is coming from abroad. A significant amount is still coming from Holland. The rest? Canada.
For that reason, the cost of medical cannabis is a major concern, along with the medical efficacy of cannabis and the authors’ frustrations about dosing.
The most interesting takeaway? Chronic pain and spasticity arehigh on the list of prescriptions (MS is currently the only condition which is “on label” for cannabis). So is Epilepsy and AIDS. Most interestingly are the high numbers for ADD. This is also highly significant in a country where amphetamine prescriptions for the same are almost unheard of.
TK, like the other health insurers who have started to provide numbers, also approved approximately two thirds of the requests they received. And it has cost them $2.7 million. That bill will begin to reduce as Germany cultivates medical cannabis domestically. However, the tender bid, which now apparently includes 11 contenders, is still undecided, with growing apparently pushed off now until (at the earliest) sometime next summer.
The bottom line, however, in the report from Socium, a university-based think tank that focuses on social inequality, is that cannabis is a drug that should also be treated like any other medication. Even though study authors conclude that so far, they do not find cannabis to be as “effective” as other drugs, they clearly state that the drug does help patients.
An Equally Interesting Industry Snapshot
Flip to page 20, however, and the authors also confirm something else. The top companies providing medical cannabis to German publicly insured patients who are getting reimbursed are Bedrocan, Aurora andCanopy. Aurora’s brands clock in at the highest percentage of THC, although their German importer Pedianos, clearly offers a range of products that start at less than 1% and increase to 22%. MedCann GmbH (renamed Spektrum last year) is essentially providing the rest, and ranges of THC at least, that go from 5.4%-16.5%. They also provide the products with the highest percentages of CBD.
Unlike the other companies, Canopy’s “brands” are also showing up in ostensibly both medical and government reports (Houndstooth, Penelope, Princeton and Argyle). This is interesting primarily because the German government (and regulatory requirements) tends to genericize medications as much as possible.
Dosing, Impact, Results
The next page of the report is also fascinating. Namely a snapshot of what kind of cannabis is being prescribed and at what doses. Patients who are obtaining cannabis flower are getting up to 3 grams a day. Dronabinol, in stark contrast (which is still the only form of the drug many German patients are able to get), is listed at 30mg.
Unlike any corporate report so far, the study also discusses consumption methods (including, charmingly, tea). It is impossible to forget, reading this, how German and structured this data collection has clearly been. There are several fairly stern referrals to the fact that cannabis should not just be prescribed for “vague” (read psychological) conditions but rather aspecific symptomology (muscle spasms and severe pain).
There is also great interest in how flower differs from pills. And how long the effects last (according to the authors, effects kick in about 2-15 minutes after dosing and last for 4 hours). This is, of course, an accurate picture of what happens to just about every patient, in every country. What is striking, particularly to anyone with an American perspective, is how (refreshingly) clinical much of this basic data collection and discussion is.
And no matter how much the authors call for more research, they clearly have observed that cannabis can have positive, and in many cases, dramatic impacts on patients. According to the handy graphs which are understandable to English speakers, study authors find significant evidence that the drug significantly helps patients with severe pain and or muscle spasms – see MS and Epilepsy, AIDS patients with wasting syndrome and paraplegics (wheelchair bound individuals). Authors list the “strong possibility” that the drug can help with Tourette’s and ADHD. Fascinatingly, however, so far, German researchers are not impressed with the efficacy of the drug for Glaucoma. “Psychological” and psychiatric conditions are also low on the list.
Regardless, this is an important line in the sand. As is the clear evidence that cannabis has efficacy as medication.
The great German cannabis science experiment, in other words, is well underway. And further, already starting to confirm that while many questions remain, and more research is required, this is a drug that is not only here to stay, but now within reach of the vast majority of the population.
GW Pharmaceuticals scored a significant victory in the United States with its cannabis-based epilepsy drug Epidiolex in mid-April. The company received approval from a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel for its use in treating two forms of drug-resistant epilepsy.
The drug was granted “orphan drug” status in the EU a year ago.Will this be enough to move the conversation forward about cannabis as medicine in the United States?
So what does the future hold for this drug and a company, which has visited this space before? Remember Sativex?. The Company now faces real competition from a raft of companies moving into this space from just about everywhere – both from Canada and of course Europe itself.
The FDA Might be on the Verge of Approving its First Cannabis-Based Drug
It is not like this is either the FDA’s or GW Pharma’s first discussion about the medical efficacy of cannabinoids. Sativex, a mouth spray containing THC, was never granted approval in the United States for the treatment of MS – although it received such approvals in Europe.
If the FDA approves Epidiolex (made from CBD), it will be the first cannabinoid-based drug approved in the United States by the federal agency.
Will this be enough to move the conversation forward about cannabis as medicine in the United States? What will happen in the EU?
A Divergent and Highly Different Drug Market
Will the FDA finally approve at least one form of a CBD-based drug? The chances are that Epidiolex might finally move the agency to approve. However,this is not, despite the hype that the company has made in the press about this, the first cannabinoid-based drug to be approved in the United States. It might be, however, the first drug based on actual natural cannabinoids rather than synthetic ones that it approves for some purpose. Both Cesamet and Dronabinol (or Marinol) are synthetic cannabinoid drugs approved for several conditions from chronic pain caused by chemo to Parkinson’s.
But those who are hoping that this drug approval might open the floodgates at the FDA for startersshould take a pew. While Sativex was not approved in the United States, it was made available after 2011 for MS patients, particularly in Germany, which has the highest rate of MS of any European country. The problem? It was just too expensive for most people to afford – since their insurance would not cover it. And doctors were even more resistant to prescribing than they are now. So even getting a prescription was almost impossible.
That conversation was different in Europe post-2013, and there were people who managed to get a doctor to write a prescription not to mention afford the eye-watering prices sans insurance coverage.
That said, given the choice between whole plant meds, most people still prefer bud cannabis to the spray variety. And in Europe right now, that is what is on the table.
What Will This Mean in the US vs Europe?
In the US, the first thing that FDA approval will mean is drug sales for only one branded drug. That is the cynicism at play here. Furthermore, it also neatly dodges the THC issue.
In Europe? Particularly Germany? This development is not likely to make much of a dent. GW is competing with every single Canadian producer with flower-based oil – and on both the medical and non-medical CBD front. That also now includes local producers. Further, this is a market which prizes genericized drugs over name brands. In France, the distribution of Sativex was held up, primarily because of the row over cost. And who would pay.
It is also unlikely that the FDA approval in the United States will change the discussion either in the US on a federal level – or in Europe.
The most important place this news already made a dent? GW Pharma’s stock price – at least temporarily. It is also a spot of good news the company really needs. In February, the company’s GWP42006 drug designed for focal seizures (drug resistant epilepsy) failed to outperform placebo results and wiped 5% off the company’s stock.
In a move that seems to shed more doubt than certainty on domestic cannabis cultivation and the date that it will start auf Deutschland, the Higher Regional Court (or OLG) in Dusseldorf formally stopped the pending bid procedure for the first crop on March 28th. BfArM, the federal agency in charge of regulating all narcotic drugs, initiated that procurement bid. The tender bid was launched after the German Parliament and federal legislators changed the law last year to mandate that cannabis be available via prescription, and further that public health insurers were required to cover it.
That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. Criticisms about the process and requirements began immediately thereafter. For starters, the bid’s requirements excluded all German-only respondents to the bid and left both Canadian and Israeli firms in the front positions to obtain these valuable licenses. However, there were other gripes, including the fact that the amount of cannabis requested (about 6.6 tonnes) was far too low to even begin to meet real demand. Namely, there are easily 1 million German patients who could qualify for the drug.
In the space of the last year, in fact, the number of “official” German cannabinoid patients has shot up from 1,000 to about 15,000. That said, the top three covering insurers also report a mere 64% approval rate. This means that there are more doctors writing prescriptions than insurers are covering.
That, at least for patients and their advocates is a bit of good news despite the blow that any delay in domestic production has created. Doctor resistance to prescribing cannabinoids even when there are no other alternatives has been used as an excuse in many media reports for the speed of market development. That clearly is not true. The attitude on the ground in Deutschland is rapidly changing.
That bid announcement was supposed to come as early as last September. At that point, however,the agency was then forced to extend the response date, which it did, but apparently not for long enough.
Throughout the fall, it was impossible to understand, from any direction, what was going on. Four lawsuits against the bid were launched around September, each with differing complaints that ranged from criticizing the agency for the lack of extension and response time to monopolistic business practices.
The OLG dismissed all but the criticism about the extension.what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids
The one clear thing to come out of Düsseldorf? BfArM has been banned from awarding its contract to anyone to produce medical cannabis in Germany starting in 2019. The first letters to bid finalists announcing the bid had been canceledbegan arriving the day after the court’s decision.
Reading Between the Lines
There have been rumors since last fall that the bid would end up in such waters. However,all the major producers widely suspected to have applied for the bid also began announcing themselves as finalists in press releases. For this reason, the official line from everyone that the bid was still, in fact, on track.
Nobody could understand why anyone would want or even be able to halt the production of direly needed, locally sourced, high-gradecannabis. That includes BfArM, which made an impassioned response, via their attorney to the OLG in Dusseldorf. Attorney Heike Dahs warned the court that any interruption of the bid was “very bad for the care of patients.” He was similarly pessimistic about the ability to begin production domestically by the previously set 2019 deadline.
In fact, what this decision has done most clearly is slowed down the production of domestically grown medical cannabinoids (although potentially not by much) while giving officials at BfArM a rather nasty black eye that might yet lead to further legal action.
It also means that there will be another bid process. In the meantime, the ex-im market is, if anything, taking off.
This is a Shock And Opportunity – but not a Surprise
No matter the opinionated emails and IM’ing going on in several languages all over the world right now about the implications legally in the future, the major producers are all taking this in stride. And appear to be well positioned to respond.
According to Dr. Pierre Debs, the managing director of Spektrum Cannabis (the global medical brand of Canopy and based just south of Frankfurt), who responded to CannabisIndustryJournal a day after the court decision, the company is not affected by this development. “Spektrum has a steady and constant supply and we do not anticipate any problems supplying patients through their pharmacies,” he says. Debs received the first German medical import license to bring Canadian cannabis into the country a mere two years ago and has continued to carve a leading path in the discussion across Europe. “In addition to our supply from Canopy Growth Corp, our partnership supply agreement with Alcaliber in Spain will see Spektrum importing sun-grown medical cannabis products starting towards the end of the summer,” says Debs.
But it is not just the big guys in the mix anymore. And there are many who see opportunityto a situation, which is frustrating.“As the second-largest country by population in Europe and a leader within the EU, the German market represents a new frontier for the cannabis industry in general in the region,” says Zlatko Keskovski, chief executive officer of NYSK Holdings, a Macedonian firm now in its second harvest of GMP-certified cannabis and holding EU export rights.
For such firms, even though NYSK is a surprise entrant to the conversation this year and outside the EU, the current situation represents an unbelievable chance to enter a market literally starving for qualifiedproduct. The firm is currently looking for German distributors who cannot access medical grade cannabinoids via other routes including attending the ICBC in Berlin in April. “This year’s ICBC looks to be a seminal moment for NYSK,” says Keskovski. “We have taken the appropriate steps to ensure our high-quality standards have led to products that our customers, and eventually patients, can rely on. We look forward to the chance to showcase our achievements that we’ve worked so hard for. The ICBC will also present us with the opportunity to meet with potential distributors and future partners.”
German Patients are Going to be on the Front Lines of This Discussion
The difficulties that German patients have already faced in obtaining a drug that is now legal in their own country for medical use (and even for recreational purposes across an open border in Holland) are legion. While to a certain extent, German patients are in the same boat as patients elsewhere and their problems, in fact, there are still huge access issues that remain. For starters, the drug is much more expensive here, so those without health insurance approval face bills of about $3,000 per month. Why the eye-watering price? All medical grade cannabis is still imported, although increasingly this is now just via other EU countries, not just from Canada.
“One of the reasons we organized the national German Patient Roundtable is to give patients a voice in all of this supply and demand discussion and to help BfArM and others formulate workable solutions for all,” responded Philip Cenedella IV when reached for a response by CIJ. Cenedella, an American expat and the organizer of the Roundtable, a nationally focussed, umbrella group that is kicking off its campaign this year, spoke for many who are far from court and boardrooms where the decisions are being made.
“While there are very talented firms who will now take up this discussion with the government and reissue a response for the tender, what we continue to see on the ground is that patients simply do not have the access granted them in the law which was passed over a year ago,” Cenedella says, with more than a note of frustration. “We again are calling on all government officials, industry executives and patient advocates to band together to immediately establish workable protocols that directly help the patients.”
Indeed, despite the frustration and delay, if not new costs and opportunities that this decision creates, one thing is very clear on the ground here. The current status quo is unacceptable. That alone should also put pressure on the powers that be to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. And via several routes, including widening import quotas or even issuing new licenses as a new solution to domestic cultivation is implemented.
“Patients are not being served and do not have access to a medicine that has been proven to improve lives,” says Cenedella. “Our simple request is for BfArM to finally invite patients into their discussions, to work with patients to formulate workable cultivation and distribution solutions, and we humbly request that this happen now before they go down another dead-end road, ending in another court defeat, and resulting in even more delays to the patients that are still lacking the care afforded them by the German Federal Court’s decision of 2017.”
As cannabis conference backdrops go, Cologne (or Köln as it looks to the locals) has some major plusses. Cologne is a German city that has all sorts of both historical and cutting edge things to explore. Plus of course there is the timing. This part of the world just pre-Oktoberfest is a refreshing splash of multi-hued natural colors populated by people who wear lederhosen and dirndls in public (and with great enthusiasm).
Beyond its postcard settings, Cologne is a German center of medical research, as well as public policy making. The intricacies of pre and post war, not to mention post reunification politics, have made this whole region (which includes both Düsseldorf and Bonn) a major powerhouse in both deciding how things get done and then making sure they do. Including on all things scientific and medically focussed.
Overview of the Conference
Where German geographical proximity intersects with the global cannabis research and medical community is the work of the people who have made the International Association for Cannabis Medicines (IACM) one of the leading international scientific and medical cannabis conferences in the world. One look at the speakers list confirms that the top people in the cannabis research world came, spoke and even discussed unpublished research. Yes, that is the mark of a real academic conference. But in a world where medical efficacy is still being challenged, it is worth saying.
Even if you were not old enough to know about cannabis or well read, and had just showed up for the day, the subject matter and presentations were clear, easy to understand and stunning both individually and altogether.
Topics and abstracts ranged from trial data to changing legislation. Peppered between those were visions of where cannabis as medicine is clearly going as well as a far greater understanding of the role of the endocannabinoid system.
As a medical doctor, researcher, public policy expert or medical cannabis distributor, in other words, it is already a must-attend event. It is also packed with investors, not only from Europe but far from its shores.
If there was a message beyond the fact that the cannabis industry is now jumping the shark and going global, it was that the industry has now arrived in Europe and there is no turning back. On any front.
Most Interesting Highlights
It is very hard to pick which was the most ground-breaking research. It all is at this point and it is all fascinating. One of the most heartening abstracts was submitted from Montana. It was just a single patient study. However it showed visual evidence of a stage 1A malignant melanoma completely resolving after 60 days of treatment both topically and orally. Research out of Tel Aviv (of course) was presented showing that low doses of THC might even reverse age-associated cognitive impairments.
All of the genetic research into the plant not to mention new knowledge about terpenes was, literally, spell-binding to those who follow the science. Some of the presentations about ingestion technology in particular, were a clear indication of how much this world will be impacted by tech, where it is not already.
It was stunning just to sit and listen to ground-breaking science that is being produced by globally-known scholars at internationally renowned universities, but still ignored in every place where medical cannabis is not only still illegal, but out of reach of patients.
The current dire situation facing German medical users, of course, was frequently mentioned throughout the conference, and even from the presenting stage, as a human rights crisis.
The Ambassador Program
The conference was, by definition, not only an exchange of information and research, but also a gathering of the scientific cannabinoid community with a global reach. It was also clearly a gathering of academics and scientists on a mission. The dire need to educate both doctors and patients as the details and kinks get worked out on the ground is well recognized here. The IACM at least is also trying to do something about it.
On Friday night, the first full day of the conference, IACM organizers invited conference participants to a side meeting they at first wanted to limit to 30. The idea was to discuss the launch of an ongoing “Ambassador” program as well as a pilot project to help doctors and researchers communicate with each other. More than 60 people showed up and stayed, even if it meant standing against the wall for several hours.
The mood was helpful and light. Dr. Franjo Grotenherman, the best known and leading cannabis advocacy doctor in Germany, kicked off the gathering by serving food to guests before opening the floor to attendees to introduce themselves.
The idea clearly here, is to spread the word, no matter how, as quickly as possible.
An Intimate, Science-Based Networking Event
The event has a different vibe from purely “industry” events. While the industry was clearly in attendance, in other words, it was clearly there in a supportive role. The star of the show was the unbelievable wealth of scientific knowledge that spilled from the stage.
That is not to say that there was not a lot of business conducted here. On all levels. The networking is terrific. And this being the cannabis industry, most people are friendly, open and willing to give a polite stranger a few minutes of their time.
This is an absolutely intriguing event to consider, particularly for Americans who do not have much insight into the European medical or scientific worlds when it comes to cannabis. That includes cannabis clinics in legalizing states to prescribing doctors looking for medical evidence of using CBD in treating their patients. Canadians, Israelis and Swiss were here in force, beyond the locals with representatives from most countries in Europe. If looking to network with an international crowd of doctors, scientists and companies on the cutting edge of cannabis globally, this is absolutely one of the best places on the planet to be.
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