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The European Cannabis Industry In Review: 2019

By Marguerite Arnold
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european union states

2019 opened with a strange vibe in the air on the cannabis front. Israel and Thailand set the stage with dramatic reform announcements last Christmas. And as the calendar counts down to 2020, the larger players all seem to be licking their wounds (if not stock prices).

But cannabis reform is not just about profits on the public markets. What has gone down and where and ultimately, has the year lived up to its promise?

Reform Marched On In Several Countries

At this point, reform is certainly “too big to fail.” There will be no going back anywhere no matter the laggards still in the room.

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

From the perspective of opening patient access (and markets beyond that), There were several big stories on the medical front this year – and – in a real first for the EU – of not only the medical, but recreational kind as well.

Germany of course is going, relatively speaking, like “gangbusters” on the medical front although supply, quality and supply chain issues are still in the room. Even more so now because the German government has also announced, for the first time, a public reference wholesale price per gram of floss. That alone is big news, although expect that too to drop (see Aurora’s pricing for Italy, for starters).

In the UK, the NHS finally got down to brass tacks and negotiated a bulk discount for GW Pharmaceuticals cannabis drugs for a very narrow band of patients (mostly child epileptics and MS patients). A tiny minority of the estimated 1.4 million daily British “medical” users including those suffering from chronic pain can afford imports. The rest is all black, or in the case of CBD, gray market.

In France, the country finally got on the reform bandwagon with a “medical trial.” This means that all the major countries in the region are finally on board with some kind of reform. That too is a meaningful move.

Poland is also opening – a good sign for the remaining conservative countries in Europe still on the fence.

And in a real first (although do not get too excited just yet), on the “recreational” front, it is not just Holland that is in the room any more. Both Denmark and Luxembourg announced that they were opening this conversation. In Denmark and Holland’s case, this is in the form of “trials” in places where operational grey markets have already been established. In Holland, this is of course, regulating the “coffee shop” trade in large cities like Amsterdam. In Denmark, the new “trial” will be on the grounds of a revived hippy experiment called Christiana, that morphed predictably into the control of gangs over the last generation.

Luxembourg, however, seems intent on setting the benchmark if not timeline and is moving aggressively in one direction. As a result, as of this year, the strategic “heart” of Europe is now on the schedule to go full monty by 2022. That said, it is a country of about half a million people. Further, no matter the inevitably hype on the way, don’t expect the country to turn into a big cannabis hub- nor encourage pot tourism even from neighboring Europeans.

The end of 2021 is the time to watch for all things recreational. In the meantime, including next year, look for increasing “experiments” in other places. Particularly of the Swiss variety (where both recreational and medical products are sold via pharmacies.)

THC Is Being Accepted As Having Medical Efficacy

No matter the controversy in the room, and the strange inclinations of the British NICE to try to undo forty years of medical knowledge about the impact of THC on chronic pain, medical cannabis and specifically medical cannabis with THC has made its global medical debut as of this year.

UKflagThat said, the push is on to “pharmacize” the product.

Flower (floss) is in the room, in other words, but the future is looking towards oils and distillates – at least for the medical market long term. And a lot of that will also come increasingly to this market from places like Portugal, Spain, Greece and other European markets now moving into the cultivation space seriously.

Then again, there is still a lot of road to travel. Wags who predicted that German health insurers would never pay for floss cannabis just five years ago were wrong.

CBD Is Not All Its Cracked Up To Be

For all those who sang “Free the CBD” this year, Europe has taken a rather conservative and concerted push back. From Austria to Italy and Sweden to Poland, the path to market for any product containing CBD has been a tough one this year.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

That said, perhaps it is a call for more standardization- no matter how painful that might be economically. At a presentation given at this year’s IACM medical conference in Berlin, a medical researcher revealed the results of a study he had conducted on the accuracy of labelling of these products in several European countries. The industry has not standardized, labelling is all over the place in terms of accuracy – and the claims about “medical efficacy” are hard to swallow for substandard over-the-counter product.

If the CBD-based part of the industry is to thrive here, it will have to find a way to establish and certify itself. That appears to be going on in Italy right now. It also impacts every cultivator from Portugal and Spain to Eastern Europe looking at the possibilities right now.

However, with labelling and other EU cross currents in the room, this route to the industry has been fraught this year with all the cross winds and those are not likely to dissipate next year or indeed for the next several.

The Cannabis Winds Of Trade Are In The Air

While it may be a bit ironic, given that international trade has pretty much always been a hallmark of the development of the modern cannabis industry, next year will undoubtedly be the year of “International Cannabis Trade.”

GMPNo matter the problems “back home,” as of this year, a German-based manufacturer of GMP-certified product got fully underway (see ICC/Wayland’s success this year). That, along with the final decision on the first German cultivation bid, has clearly shaped a market that is still changing. And that change is driven by the admission, even by authorities, that there is not enough legal cannabis grown in the country.

That means that the strength of the German market will continue to drive policy (see the recent announcements on wholesale pricing) as well as demand that will be met across the continent.

Along the way, cannabis reform is also being driven locally. And that means, no matter the trials and tribulations of the Canadian part of the sector, which perhaps can be considered aptly warned for getting a bit too big for its britches, and no matter how faulting, the winds of reform are still afloat. Just perhaps, on the cards for next year and those to come, blowing from many more points on the globe.

Poland Pushes Forward On Reform

By Marguerite Arnold
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Given all the fuss about newly opened markets in Europe of late (see all the hullabaloo recently in the UK), it would be remiss for anyone in the industry to forget about Poland.

The Eastern European country that shares a large part of its border (if not recent history and long cultural influence) with Deutschland has been proceeding slowly into the cannabis space for the last couple of years.

There are a couple of similarities (and differences too) about the market development in the country to its Teutonic sister to the West as well as the emerging fight over access that is sparking patient revolutions all over the continent now.

A Brief History Of Polish Cannabis Reform

Like other culturally conservative places (see state reform in the United States in places like Georgia), Poland has moved towards reform in a way that may make political sense, but has left patients in much the same boat as British ones. Reform began happening without access as of late 2017.

Polish Flags Image: włodi, Flickr

Poland, or so the joke goes in Germany, is Deutschland’s “trailing sister,” on most things, and cannabis reform in some ways, is absolutely following that pattern. But it is not exactly analogous, starting with patient access. In fact, the first opening of the market did not touch import much less cultivation. It only authorized patients to cross borders in search of their medication. No matter the high cost involved. And of course, the still dodgy proposition of returning across a border with a highly stigmatized narcotic product.

Fast forward a year? Many of the major Canadian cannabis companies had achieved some sort of import (mostly of small amounts of the drug and mostly to single hospitals). See the announcement of Aurora last October on the same day that the Polish government announced a change in the law that they had imported in bulk to a hospital.

But what is going on now, particularly with a growth in acceptance of the medicinal impact of the drug across Europe? And will the Poles, like the Germans, launch a domestic cultivation bid anytime in the near future? Not to mention learn the lessons that so far have continued to stymie German domestic cultivation as well as frustrate a smooth supply chain if not operations on the ground?

The Market Is Coalescing

According to Andrew Makatrewicz de Roy, managing director of Bearstone Global, a market research and investigative firm moving into the cannabis space, Poland has one of the more progressive laws in Europe, but still is lagging behind other countries in terms of organisation and a political lobbying movement.

“There is a lot of vibrancy in the market, but we want to make sure that there is an initial forum where the market can meet and discuss the industry here”.There are also a few (low volume) transactions taking place.

However, as in other places (see the UK in particular), there is a lot of heat if no fire yet behind the scenes. Both individuals and companies are starting to appear who will help build a wider ecosystem in the cannabis space.

As in other countries in Europe, despite the market potential, there is still a general political lag in further development of the industry. Perhaps because of complications in the German market. And almost certainly because of complications with German reform and its own cultivation bid. There have been rumours of a Polish bid circulating for at least a year. Licensed cultivation is beginning to take place.

In response, Makatrewicz de Roy is moving to establish one of the first industry conferences in the country in October. In late July, he also held the first precursor to the same – an online streamed event that attracted 70 major thought leaders from the industry including many members of the political class, producers and distributors (including some of the biggest Canadian ones), doctors and patients.

“We want to build an ecosystem,” de Roy said. “There is a lot of vibrancy in the market, but we want to make sure that there is an initial forum where the market can meet and discuss the industry here”.

European Cannabis News Roundup- Summer 2017

By Marguerite Arnold
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Obstacles to American cannabis reform are creating a quirky if valuable market. Cannabis is still a “Schedule I” drug. From a practical perspective, this has created a multi-billion dollar industry that as of yet, cannot get reliable banking services. It also means that patients cannot get the drug covered under health insurance. There are no national safety requirements for growing, packaging, labelling or consumption.

This is certainly not the case elsewhere. Other countries are rapidly outpacing the U.S. in such regards even if their commercial markets are not (yet) of the same size. Outside of Canada right now, Europe is the place where most of these things are happening.

Just as in the U.S., however, there is no one single path to reform.

Who Is Interesting In Europe?

This is an evolving question, but here, for the moment are the market leaders and what is going on locally:

Germany. Cannareform auf Deutsch currently underway makes this the most exciting country in Europe right now. The country is basically the “California of the EU” as it were, with about 20 million more people.

German Parliament Building
Photo: NH53

As of January 19, the lower house of the German parliament voted unanimously to legalize cannabis for medical use. Further, they voted to cover it under public health insurance which covers 90% of Germans. Yes, this is a system in process. Yes, there are problems. Health insurance companies appear to have launched a tepid attempt to slow this down, but just as in Canada, they are already facing court challenges. It is a losing battle here. Both legal and legislative mandate are very clear.

This is an industry that will also begin to grow, per government estimates, at between 5-10,000 patients per year for the next couple of years. It could grow faster than that. With over 1 million potential patients already, and a high interest in plant-based and natural medicine, this is a market more than ready for cannabis products. There are now up to ten growing bids up for grabs here and those who have applied are waiting anxiously as the government is set to announce the winners this summer. The big push right now on the ground is doctor and patient education as well as getting patients signed up for trials.

Recreational reform is also far from dead here. The medical question, in fact, has only inspired activists to redouble their efforts to get recreational reform finalized sooner than later. Especially given developments elsewhere, including locally.

Bern, the capital of Switzerland
Photo: martin_vmorris

Switzerland. The Swiss are approaching the question of legalization in another unique way not seen anywhere else. That said, they are clearly inspired by events in other places. Since 2011, low-THC cannabis has been for sale in regular shops. However in the last quarter of 2016 and into the first of this year, the market all of a sudden seems to have woken up. There are now over 160 shops either selling the drug or applying to sell it. This is all product that is taxable.

Thanks to this, reformers are now pushing a bill federally that would legalize and tax the sales of all THC products – no matter their concentration. In effect, in other words, the Swiss are looking at tax revenue first. If they succeed, they will be the first country to enter the market this way. It will also push other countries, starting with their closest neighbours, to examine the question of legalization just on this front. The economic justification alone is compelling. Expect Austria to also look at the problem this way.

Spain. The country is widely billed as the “next Holland.” Why? Cannabis reform has been very similar procedurally. Due to loopholes in the current law, the Spanish have been able to establish a thriving “cannabis club” market. These clubs are member-driven and non-profit. However locals who are over the age of 21 can sign up and smoke in “semi-private.” Legislation now pending in the Spanish legislature would focus on better regulation of both the clubs and the existing grows that support them. The way the Spanish seem to be approaching the issue is to give larger cities and regions direct control over regulation of the industry. However for now, this is a market that is steadfastly resistant to commercial development on the scale seen in other places. Investors – especially from overseas, are avoiding the market because of this uncertainty.

De Wallen (Red Light District) in Amsterdam, where a number of cannabis shops are.
Photo: Bert Kaufmann

Holland. Generation X reformers are used to the idea of the grey market created by the unique nature of Dutch culture and the plant. For the better part of 40 years, the entire industry here has been based on a unique market of seed producers and growers. That, in turn, supports the coffee shop culture. There are many proposals to change the law here, and the industry will probably begin to better regulate – starting with cultivation, as the rest of Europe turns its attention to this issue. It was Holland after all, that started this. What is next for Holland 2.0? It is likely that regional developments will also shape this market too. It is still part of the EU.

Italy. While a bit of an outlier, the Italians are also in the game now. How further reform will proceed here, however is anyone’s guess. The Italian military began growing and distributing cannabis to pharmacies last year. The first medically focused canna café has now opened in Rome.

The Eastern Bloc

Eastern European countries are all over the map on legalization – although most are approaching this as a medical issue. In Czech Republic, legalization has moved forward here steadily in large part because of existing national drug policy. Croatia began importing from Canada last year in the form of cannabis concentrates. Both of those countries have digital prescription systems to integrate with medical cannabis, as part of the legislation legalizing medical use in 2015. This digital dispensation system is also unique so far in Europe, although other countries will be entering this area quickly. Even Turkey has begun to implement reform, allowing producers to begin to grow the plant domestically for local medical use.