For the second time in two years, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has delayed a critical vote on the reclassification of cannabis. The CND met in Vienna, Austria from March 2-6. The vote is now expected to happen in December 2020. The discussion about reclassification of the plant, however, has been going on for a little longer than that.
There are several recommendations that are on the table (even if far from perfect). See the full text of the recommendation here.
Delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol should be added to Schedule I of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol should be removed from the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
The six isomers of tetrahydrocannabinol chemically similar to Delta 9 THC should be classified similarly to Delta 9.
Extracts and tinctures made from cannabis should be removed from Schedule I of the 1961 Single Convention but that they should also be classified per the act. In other words, extracts with THC should be considered narcotics with medical purpose and all dealt with per a single rule.
Cannabidiol products containing no more than 0.2% of Delta 9 THC should not be under international control.
Preparations with THC that are made as pharmaceutical products should be reclassified as Schedule III drugs per the 1961 Convention. (Note – Dronabinol is already classified this way in the United States and has been since 2010).
What Does This Really Mean?
Given the impending lockdown of whole industries right now, but a wartime footing for certain pharmaceutical drugs and medical equipment makers, on one hand, this seems like the obvious and safest thing to do. The world needs a vaccine and direct treatments and to focus research, manpower and money in that direction.
Further, and this should hopefully galvanize the industry internationally, what this also does is keep the consumption of the plant itself basically illegal while putting the focus on professionally prepared pharmaceutical drugs.
This is short-sighted. Cannabis is unlike other medications. Further, the high cost of pharmaceutical drugs makes wider treatment policy options extremely expensive to implement.
Further, this approach continues to define cannabis – specifically Delta 9 and THC – as a narcotic.
While it is undeniably true that for recreational users, there are narcotic effects, most long term patients do not react to the drug this way – particularly if they suffer from chronic pain due to neurological issues (including movement disorders), inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and those that destroy the body’s immune response, like HIV.
There is a need for regulation, normalization of supply chains globally and of course, medical trials.The definitions of this plant, in other words, need to change. And not just for the benefit of pharmaceutical companies, but for patients as well.
Further, in a world that is quickly headed for a global recession unseen since the Great Depression, highly priced medications are not the best Rx.
As the German government responded to President Donald Trump recently, as he tried to offer a German company a billion dollars to only develop a vaccine for use on Americans, there are clearly limits to capitalism.
The Good News
It is highly unlikely by December, nine months into a global public health crisis which is widely expected to last for at least the next two years, that the UN will delay the vote again come December. There is a need for regulation, normalization of supply chains globally and of course, medical trials.
Beyond that, recreational reform also looms at a federal level in many countries and regions.
However, given the discussions so far, it is also clear that beyond the redefinition of cannabis, there will be greater legal opportunities to expand an industry too long stigmatized by old fashioned understandings and definitions of what cannabinoids are.
Europe continues to be the new frontier of medical and wellness developments in the cannabis industry, with various sources predicting that Europe will become the world’s largest legal cannabis market over the next 5 years. Key related statistics, include:
A population of over 740 million (over double US and Canada combined)
Total cannabis market estimated to be worth up to €123 billion by 2028 (€58bn medical cannabis (47%), €65bn recreational cannabis (53%))
Over €500 million has been invested in European cannabis businesses (including significant expenditure in research and development, manufacturing and distribution)
To reiterate this belief, this month, hundreds of industry experts and delegates will be attending Cannabis Europa in Madrid, to discuss the expansion of cannabis across Europe and the challenges facing the industry across the member states of the EU and the UK.
Global mainstream leans to European strength
Since late 2018, major global operators have made substantial moves into the cannabis sector. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company and maker of Budweiser, entered into a partnership to research beverages infused with two types of cannabis. Constellation, owner of Corona beer, announced a commitment for $4 billion investment in Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth. BlackRock Inc, through five actively managed BlackRock funds, has invested into Curaleaf Holdings Inc, a dispensary operator, for a not too insignificant investment sum of $11 million (as at March 2019). Such international investments prove that cannabis has moved from the fringes and into the mainstream.
When considering the impact of mainstream cannabis, it should be recognised that major European countries have approved or are planning on implementing, legalisation of medicinal cannabis. The UK, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands already have legal systems in place for medicinal cannabis and France and Spain are currently reviewing key legislative reform to align themselves with international practices. At present the German market is the third largest cannabis market (in terms of size) behind the US and Canada.
In addition to medicinal cannabis, several key European countries have systems in place, or are developing systems, or considering the reform of existing systems, to approve cannabis with THC content at a recreational level. The Netherlands already has a system and Luxembourg’s health minister in August 2019 announced the intention to legalise cannabis for Luxembourg residents. The Luxembourg government is lobbying EU member states to follow suit.
Whilst the EU has a labyrinth of laws in relation to edible CBD (as a novel food) which make the regulatory landscape complex, there has been an explosion of CBD products for vaping and cosmetics. Of course, with each of these products being subject to different local laws (some aligned between EU members states) in relation to vaping and cosmetic related regulations. The Brightfield Group has predicted a 400% increase in the European CBD market (including vaping liquid) from $318m in 2018 to $1.7 billion by 2023. There is also an expansion into applications for CBD with animals with many US manufacturers of CBD-infused pet food.
The European Parliament’s health committee has been calling for properly funded scientific research and there are motions to establish policies to seek to incentivise member states to advance the studies of medical cannabis, with a priority on scientific research and clinical studies – the first step necessary to drafting legislation, designed to better support the industry.
Where does the UK sit within cannabis?
Medicinal cannabis famously saw a legalisation, of sorts, by the then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, who provided the authorisations for prescriptions for the high profile cases of Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley. Subsequently, on 1 November 2018, this was codified into law by an amendment to Schedule 2 of the 2001 Misuse of Drugs Regulations. This allows clinicians to prescribe cannabis as an unlicensed medicine.
There have, of course, been some high profile licensed medicines. The UK company, GW Pharmaceuticals, is the largest exporter of legal medical cannabis in the world, cultivating medical cannabis for production of cannabis-based medicines (e.g. Epidiolex & Sativex). Epidiolex (manufactured by subsidiary Greenwich Biosciences) became the first cannabis-derived medicine approved for use in the US for treatment of seizures caused by Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes (both severe forms of epilepsy).
When considering the level of research development and investment in the medicinal field, it is no surprise that the UK is the world’s largest producer and exporter of medical cannabis. Research published by the International Narcotics Control Board indicates that the UK produces over 100,000kg a year of medicinal cannabis.
Previous guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) indicated that further research is required to demonstrate the benefit of medicinal cannabis, citing its cost versus evidenced benefit. However, there is now renewed confidence in the UK following NICE’s approval of two cannabis-based medicines produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, Epidiolex (cannabidiol) oral solution and Sativex (nabiximols), for routine reimbursement through the NHS.
Following the re-categorisation of medicinal cannabis in November 2018, a number of clinics have been established where specialised clinicians can start the process of prescribing cannabis based medicinal products (CBMPs). Whilst this route is not fast, and challenges are well documented as to the satisfaction of prescriptions made in the UK, there is momentum behind the development of this as a means for providing genuine and established medical care. A significant step in October 2019, was the CQC registration of one such cannabis clinic, Sapphire Medical Clinics Limited.
The UK medicinal cannabis sector is establishing a research-based approach to expand usage in the UK and across Europe.
How North America compares to Europe
Canada, as a first mover within the cannabis sector, has a multitude of large companies which are well-capitalised and have substantial international footprints. The Canadian exchanges have large listed companies looking to Europe with the intention of acquiring or investing into European operations. As of the date of writing, the 10 largest cannabis companies in Canada have an aggregate market cap of over $23.5 billion (and all registered cannabis companies in Canada having an aggregate market cap of over $46.5 billion).
Listed companies have had a tough time over the last 6-12 months with a slowdown in the market as a natural re-balancing occurs – part of which is due to rapid expansion and heavy investment into cultivation by all the major participants in the market. Over the next 6 -12 months we can expect to see management changes (some of which will be voluntary and some of which will be imposed by institutional pressure) to introduce different skill sets at board and senior management level to facilitate the oversight and leadership necessary for large pharmaceutical companies. Many operations have expanded into highly regulated products and complex supply chains whilst still operating with fundamentally the same team that established the operations with entrepreneurial efforts but, perhaps, a lack of experience in these sectors. The recent announcements by Aurora Cannabis and Tilray demonstrate that these restructurings and costs reductions have already commenced. However, with increased experience at board level and an improvement of profitability focused on sustainable business practices, should come new opportunities on a global scale for these North American operations.
The US market, because of the complexity of state and federal laws not being fully aligned, is closer to its infancy than the Canadian market. This is not too dissimilar to the European market. That said, there are a number of well-funded and quite large US enterprises. A limited number of these, such as Tilray, are looking to expand into Europe.
Many of the companies in the US have, and continue to, expand quickly so we can expect to see a number of mergers and acquisitions. We are likely to witness Canadian and US entities merging with one another with the potential for acquisitions for operations within Europe. It is unlikely that the North American companies will risk their capital through organic growth so would be expected to be identifying “turnkey” solutions.
One of the major challenges facing US companies is the complexity of supply and distribution. This is largely a result of the complexities for state and federal laws interacting with one another as well as international importation and exportation with US states.
How you can invest within the UK and Europe
Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.The UK remains, despite the events of Brexit, a major financial hub for Europe. The London market has seen the growth of several investment and operation cannabis companies. This includes private companies such as; EMMAC Life Sciences Limited and the operations formerly trading as European Cannabis Holdings (now demerged into several new entities including NOBL and LYPHE) as well as publicly listed companies; including Sativa Group PLC (the first publically listed cannabis specific company in the UK) and World High Life Plc, both operating on the NEX Exchange.
The Medical Cannabis and Wellness Ucits ETF (CBDX), Europe’s first medical cannabis ETF fund, domiciled in Ireland, and which has been passported for sale in the UK and Italy, has also caused a renewed stir within the market with a further platform for listed investment.
As the regulatory framework evolves further there is an anticipation that more medicinal cannabis and CBD related enterprises should have the opportunity to list on public exchanges, whether in the UK or in European countries.
Despite a period of slow down following the natural rebalancing of the fast-growing North American markets for the cannabis sector, there is renewed confidence in the expansion of the industry. Developments in the fields of research and development are anticipated to add further weight to the lobbying of government and regulatory bodies across Europe.
There is an increased push for a public dialogue and consultation in relation to medicinal and recreational cannabis in the UK, backed by several mainstream media platforms. This is likely to be shaped in some parts by national debates in Luxembourg and other European countries as they consider their own domestic laws.
With European parliaments across the EU (including the UK) hopefully having time freed up to discuss other political matters now that Brexit is progressing, the next 18 months should prove an exciting time within the European cannabis sector.
There have been many significant developments this summer in Europe that will shape the debate about reform and the legal cannabis market that trails it, for at least the next year. Here is Cannabis Industry Journal’sroundup of our biggest events and trends over the summer so far.
Medical Sales Across Europe Are Slow
In Germany, it is easy to maintain a fairly ballpark understanding of patient count. Find the number of prescriptions issued in the trade press and divide by four. Everywhere else, however, the true realization of what is going on across Europe is slowly starting to hit everyone outside producers wanting to know what is going on.Establishing territorial footprint has been what the race in Europe has been all about since mid 2016 for the Canadian LPs so far.
This is going to start to hit stock prices soon beyond the wobbles already evident in the market thanks to this summer’s breaking industry scandals (CannTrust, lawsuits in every direction) to lack of financial performance for investors (Bruce Linton’s firing from Canopy). It is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone that just because a public Canadian company issues a press release about a (cultivation, import, export or processing) “event” does not mean anything other than a slew of social media telling everyone about it. The frustration with “forward looking” statements has hit European investors big time, from the retail to the institutional kind.
Despite a lot of press releases in other words, which clearly show market penetration, there is not much else going on from the sales perspective when it comes to growing those first numbers. Establishing territorial footprint has been what the race in Europe has been all about since mid 2016 for the Canadian LPs so far.
However, from an industry, if not investor and of course, patient perspective, patient numbers are what really count. And unlike Canada, where patients remain the biggest existential threat to the industry, the same industry may not sign them up or ship to them directly in Europe. For several reasons.
Germany is still the only country in Europe with a significant patient count, and while growing, slowly, is still a group where 2/3 of patients obtain dronabinol. It should shock nobody that the most accurate patient count right now in the UK is hovering somewhere under 20. For the whole country, 9 months after the law changed. While the peculiarities of Brexit are also in the room, this is so far, compared to U.S. state markets, Canada, Israel and Germany before it, pathetic.
The Industry Says It Supports Patients…But Does It?
There are several levels to this debate which start with the still appallingly high level of price gouging in the room. 2019 and certainly this summer is a time when the Canadian companies are clearly learning that European governments negotiate for drugs in bulk. Even (and especially in the near future) this one. See the difference between the EU and the US.
The level of industry promotion vs patient access recently reached a new nadir this summer when it emerged that despite a great deal of interest, more people showed up (by far) to the week-long cannabis industry conference (European Cannabis Week in London in June) than there are legitimate patients in the UK right now.
That is about to change, but so far, industry support for trials has not materialized. When the various trials now being planned do get going, look for new battles over a couple of issues, starting with patient access to and control of their medical data.
Novel Food: The Regulation That Keeps On Giving
The issues involved in this discussion are complex, certainly by North American standards. This of course starts with the fact that there is no such regulation on the continent. But also rapidly bleeds into puncturing the amount of hot air entrepreneurialism there is in the room.
The CBD market in Europe that everyone got so excited about in investor releases, in other words, is basically dead for the time being. Yes, there are a few smart niche players weaving around the regs, but it is a full-time job.
Here is the reality: Since Christmas last year when Austria put the kabosh on all products containing the cannabinoid CBD, several major countries have weighed in on the issue. It is not going away. And it is here to stay, even after recreational.
Political Advocacy Is Stirring In Europe
Whether it is the vagaries of Brexit, the discussion across the continent about how the EU will work together, right wing populist screeds about “too much regulation” or national elections, cannabis is in the room from now until the end of at least 2021 as one of the hottest global political issues under the sun. That includes of course, a discussion about global climate change, sourcing, pricing and resource use so far unaddressed but rapidly looming.
Further, patients are still having a voice – whether it is making sure that their children obtain imported CBD, or that they can obtain their own THC prescriptions without going bankrupt or having to solicit in the black market.
Cultivation Bids Looming?
One of the surest signs yet that the German authorities at any rate, are in no mood to solve the cultivation issues still on the ground and the bid itself, is that the government just renegotiated, for the second time since last fall, the amount of medical cannabis to come over the Dutch-German border. Who is going to go next? With the Italian hybrid now done and dusted, Poland is likely to be next. And when that happens, expect a raft of similar initiatives across Europe. But probably not until then.
And in the meantime? Distributors are looking for product. The demand is clearly there. But across Europe this summer there is a clear sense that the hype machine that has been the industry’s mouthpiece is at minimum overenthusiastic about the bottom-line details behind it all.
Techniker Krankenkassen (or TK as it is also frequently referred to) is one of Germany’s largest public or so-called “statutory” health insurance companies. It is companies like TK that provide health insurance to 90% of the German population.
TK is also on the front lines of the medical cannabis discussion. In fact, TK, along with other public health insurers AOK and Barmer, have processed the most cannabis prescriptions of all insurers so far in the first year after the law change. There are now approximately 15,000 patients who have received both a proper prescription and insurance approval coverage. That number is also up 5,000 since the beginning of just this year.
In a fascinating first look at the emerging medical market in Germany, TK, in association with the University of Bremen, has produced essentially the first accessible report on approvals, and patient demographics for this highly stigmatized drug.
Because it is in German, but also contains information critical to English-speaking audiences in countries where the medical issue is being approached more haphazardly (see the U.S. and Canada), Cannabis Industry Journal is providing a brief summary of the most important takeaways from TK’s Cannabis Report.
Most Patients Are Women
This is not exactly surprising in a system where symptomology rather than ability to pay is the driver of authorizations and care. This is also exactly the opposite trend when it comes to gender at least, that emerged in Colorado on the path to medical legalization circa 2010-2014. While chronic pain is still the most common reason for dispensation, the drug is going mostly to women, not men, in their forties, fifties and sixties.
Even Chronically Ill Patients Are Still not Getting Covered
This data is super interesting on the ground for both advocates and those who are now pushing forward on “doctor education” efforts that are springing up everywhere. The only condition for which cannabis was approved 100% was for patients suffering from terminal cancer pain from tumours. In other words, they were also either in hospice or hospital where this kind of drug can be expedited and approved quickly. Other conditions for which the drug was approved were both at far lower rates than might have been expected (see only a 70% approval rate for Epilepsy and a 33% approval rate for Depression).
Expect approval rates to change, particularly for established conditions where the drug clearly helps patients, even if there are still questions about dosing and which form of cannabis works best, along with improved research, data and even patient on boarding.
Also expect interesting data to come out of this market for patients with ADHD (or ADHS).
Imported Cannabis Is Very Expensive
TK and other public health insurers are also on the front lines of another issue not seen in any other legalizing cannabis country at the moment. An eye-wateringly high cost per patient. The biggest reason? Most of the medical cannabis in the market is being imported. This will change when more cannabis begins to enter the market from other EU countries (see Spain, the Baltics and Greece) and, yes, no matter how many elements of the German government are still fighting this one when it begins to be cultivated auf Deutschland.
Most German Patients Are Still Only Getting Dronabinol
If there was one thing that foreign investors should take a look at, it is this. One year after legalization, just over 1/3 of those who actually qualify for “medical cannabis” are in fact getting whole plant medication or a derivative (like Sativex).
This means only one thing. The market is continuing to grow exponentially over at least the next five to ten years.
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.
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