In other words, decidedly less colorful (or at least in the North American sense) if not at lower volume than other places.
In the meantime, particularly filtered via American and Canadian coverage and industry success stories, the British are succumbing to the green magic any way they can.
Low-THC, CBD products as a result, are flourishing in a way that seems a bit like the “Colorado of Europe.” The early days. When all sorts of strange stories about processing leaked out of the first legalizing state market in the U.S. It is shocking to European eyes, in particular, of late.
“CBD” is, literally, everywhere.
For those with other kinds of experience in the world of cannabis, however, it is both slightly sad and slightly exhilarating. The Brits have the cannabis bug. But they seem a bit lost on where to go next.
What Is The Deal In The UK?
Regulations are weird here. You cannot use the flower of any cannabis flower (including those with under the requisite amount of THC) – also known as hemp. The novel food discussion is lost.
Regardless, there are clearly plans afoot, particularly on the corporate farming level, to begin a transformation of crops to include cannabis sometime soon. And far beyond the farmers, the boys in the city are getting hot under the collar for this kind of green.
London is also turning into (rather predictably) a center of all things cannabis equity.
There are already more specialty funds planning to list on London exchanges than anywhere else in Europe.
But is this all that surprising?
In the midst of Brexit, a failing NHS, and a society at odds with itself like no time since the 1970’s, the British are facing the cannabis revolution with anything but a stiff upper lip.
When it comes to all things cannabinoids, at least on the CBD side, no matter the odd police raid on a health food store or crunchy vegan experiment on land not protected by the rights of an inherited “country pile”, the cannabis horse, certainly of the broadly stroked CBD variety, is out of the barn.
But What Does this Really Mean?
For the moment? As globally financed companies set up in the UK for all kinds of cannabis trials, the CBD market here is taking on an oddly Bulldog twist.
There is more of a cottage industry of all kinds of CBD products unseen elsewhere in Europe (including from the U.S.). Labeling, testing and sourcing are largely a matter of hit or miss. And just like everywhere else, desperate, sick, depressed people (or those who fear becoming that way) are turning to the CBD miracle to fix a range of conditions.
The problem is that a lot of this is pure snake oil.
Yes, high quality, medical grade CBD does work as a stabilizer (just like THC). But not every oil containing some measure of highly diluted (or worse, contaminated) cannabinoid extract, is the panacea that cannabis offers.
Bottom line? The CBD market in the UK is sort of like Swiss Lite. There are medical trials in the offing, but the country is also in the middle of a constitutional crisis. There are many regulations, and of a bit more fundamentally intrinsic kind, on the line right now. Cannabis is in the room. But so is the Irish Border (the largest if not most existential sticking point in the never-ending Brexit negotiations).
Investing In The UK CBD Market
There are investors who are clearly examining the market, and a few big deals so far, but the vast majority of money flowing into the UK is going into its more flexible (if not frothy) equity market. The British, in other words, may be flailing a bit on domestic implementation, but equity funds in London are in touch with global investors on this issue – even if that money then flows back into Europe.
As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.
The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.
As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?
Who, What, Where?
The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.
Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.
By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.
Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.
What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?
The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.
Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.
Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.
On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.
Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?
Where Does This Get Interesting?
The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.
Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
Chances are if you follow the European cannabis scene, particularly out of Germany, that you might have heard of a firm called Farmako. They have certainly, in the three quarters or so they have been in business, been given a lot of “good press.” They certainly worked hard to get into the headlines.
The problem is that no matter how scintillating initial claims were to many members of the media if not industry beyond, the bloom was quickly off the rose in the same circles. Since at least March, these grumbles have earned the company increasingly bad press. Industry insider complaints and background knowledge also began appearing in places like Manager (a top German business magazine), Vice and Business Insider Germany. Behind the headlines and insider quotes, however, quite a few people are admitting, even if off the record, that while initially impressive enough to be believed – at least on the surface – most of Farmako’s claims have panned out so far to be just hot air. And there have been a lot of them, not only from the sourcing perspective but also from the research, scientific development and certainly tech fronts.
The rebutting, editing and confronting of which has also set off a round of really bad press.
Further, apparently even the embarrassing fallout (and of course resulting reorganization) is not what it seems to be. Which of course has also been described so far publicly by the Frankfurt-based company itself, and Berlin-based tech funder, Heartbeat Labs. The former of which are so far unsuccessfully walking back just about every claim made over recent months. The latter of which has a great deal of embarrassing egg on its face on the compliance front.
When reached for comment by Cannabis Industry Journal, Heartbeat Labs responded via email that they had none.
While Farmako is struggling to regain the confidence of the industry if not regulators and appears to be trying to hang on to its distribution license, the story itself is also illustrative of many of the failings of the so-far establishing cannabis industry. In Germany and elsewhere. Coming as it does within the summer of scandal involving both larger companies and start-ups, bigger questions about industry practices, in general are in the room. If not the backgrounds of those boasting about “industry experience” (or even worse when caught, “oops I have none, really”). Highly stereotypical fixes so far have also not helped.
Everyone makes mistakes in a world where everything is new and one where the regulations are constantly changing. The problem with Farmako in particular, is that there were so many.All the bragging in the English and German language press had consequences.
The Story So Far
Farmako made headlines earlier this year when they issued a press release claiming that they had inked a deal to “import 50 tonnes of cannabis from Poland.” They further claimed, when contacted by CIJ that they stood by the story. At this point, their claims were clearly about a future delivery. However, Farmako CEO Niklas Kouparanis then embellished further on Bloomburg. Kouparanis claimed that they were already distributing product from Macedonia.
The reality of course was nothing of the sort. While Farmako was distributing product it had sourced from other places, no Macedonian product had ever crossed the border. But as May rolled into June, it was clear that there was something else afoot. All the bragging in the English and German language press had consequences. The German press had a field day with the storied and very colourful past of both Farmako founders. The regulatory agency, BfArM conducted an investigation. Kouparanis was out by the beginning of July.
Producers Do Not Trust Them
Cannabis industry insiders (both producers and distributors) who contacted CIJ about this story, but wished to remain off the record, confirmed that many producers who had initially heard of the firm in both Poland and Macedonia, in particular, were distancing themselves from Farmako. But the stories were not limited to Eastern Europe. In the UK, where Farmako had used a chunk of its investment from Heartbeat Labs to also open a London office, cannabis professionals expressed scepticism of almost all of the company’s claims including not just sourcing, but on the tech and R&D side. One senior executive in the Canadian industry said on deep background that he was tired of the lies from Diemer in particular, and never wanted to speak to anyone associated with the company ever again.
And clearly all was not well within Farmako itself, no matter the constant cheery optimism, if not “shucks we didn’t know” attitude of all involved when actually confronted or questioned about their behaviour – and or statements – particularly to the press.
What Has Been The Upshot To Date?
Kouparanis may be history but Diemer remains with the company. Although Heartbeat Labs claims this has nothing to do with the subsequent company re-org and Kouparanis’ departure, insiders in the industry claim otherwise. Further, several also suggested that any attempt on the part of Farmako to enter into contracts until July was fundamentally compromised by the actions of Farmako execs themselves.
Diemer certainly, has been remarkably candid at least in review about one aspect that most in the cannabis industry who have encountered him so far agree with. He has come clean in interviews that he knows very little about the legitimate cannabis industry. Perhaps that is also why he has continued to claim that there is no crisis at the company.
Both statements of course also raise questions about why he is still there.
The company is still in business although apparently finding it very difficult to source product.The appointment of a new CEO, Geschäftsfüherinen– a female and first head of any kind of cannaspecialist distribution company auf Deutsch, Katrin Eckmans is also interesting. Eckmans makes her apparent cannabis industry debute with a professional background that includes ex-im at Frankfurt airport, after the quick departure of Kouparanis. Particularly given that he co-founded the company with Diemer after leaving a year long stint at Cannamedical (the second indie cannabis specialty distributor in Germany, established in 2017 by David Henn). And she is apparently being hired for both complementary experience and her gender (which while refreshing in a still male dominated industry is widely also regarded as at this point fairly easy-to-spot window dressing conveniently proffered to regain confidence of investors if not customers in a gender-friendly twist when a company or organization hits an existential crisis).
Calling in even a highly competent if inexperienced in the cannabis niche woman, in other words, even in this industry, does not necessarily “fix” things. This goes from company culture to critical relationships within the industry (upon which distributors like Farmako depend on at this point).
For now, at least, Farmako, and its financier in Berlin appear to have deflected criticism of their efforts although those who have had interactions with the staff are placing bets on when the doors in both Germany and the UK will shutter.
Farmako’s detractors may yet also lose such wagers. The company is still in business although apparently finding it very difficult to source product. Not, in this case because they cannot find it – but rather because producers are flat out refusing to work with them.
In the meantime, particularly other German canna specialty distributors are taking a lesson from this story. If Farmako survives, in other words, it will do so by overtaking the competition that has sprung up all around them – which is not only unburdened by the baggage, but is also determined not to make the same mistakes.
Astroturfing is the practice, in political messaging and campaigns, of creating what seems to be a legitimate, grassroots inspired campaign that is actually bought and paid for by an industry lobby or other corporate interests.
It is also clear that this practice is now entering the cannabis space, certainly in the UK.
How and Where?
On August 1, the British Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group sent out a group email entitled “Strategic litigation on medical cannabis access in the UK.” The email, from the group’s senior communications manager, was to announce the kick-off of a crowdfunding campaign to defend a cannabis patient.
It’s beneficiary? A British female MS patient, Lezley Gibson, now facing prosecution for growing her own cannabis after being unable to afford what was on offer at her local pharmacy.
Here is the first flag: MS is the only condition for which Sativex (manufactured by British firm GW Pharma) is prescribed on label (in other words without special approvals).
The problem is that the NHS (along with most of the German statutory approvers) feels that Sativex is still too expensive and not effective enough. And that problem won’t be solved with either patient home grow access or a lawsuit to gain that right, but rather funded trials.
However, more disturbingly, the email referenced the supposed success of a similar legal tactic in Germany several years ago. This is to say it used a highly inaccurate analogy. In Germany, a male chronic pain patient sued the government for the right to grow his own cannabis. He won the right temporarily, but this was taken away from him after the law changed in March 2017. Now he, like every other cannabis patient in Germany, must get his cannabis from a pharmacy. German patients also must get their initial prescription approved by health insurers – which is for everyone – but particularly non MS patients – the biggest fight in the room right now on the topic of medical efficacy.
Further, the right to grow one’s own medical cannabis, no matter the condition suffered, has been removed from patients in every legal jurisdiction where there is no constitutional right to it first – namely patients sue for the same.
As such, it is entirely conceivable that as a “strategic” case, this is more likely to put pressure on the NHS to pay the sky-high price of Sativex for MS patients (which it has already refused to do) than create any other kind of access for anyone else.
When contacted by Cannabis Industry Journal, a CDPRG spokesperson said that the patient had given her support for the crowdfunding campaign and needed help.
However, there are other issues here. Namely that when selecting a strategic case (no matter how harsh this sounds to the individual patient), the entire discussion at this point – certainly from an efficacy point of view, might be better served with supporting the case of a patient who has less access because of either physical condition or economic status.
In fact, in Germany so far, thanks to the change in the law that the British group references, while there certainly are tens of thousands of cannabis patients at the moment (including many MS patients), the majority of them receive Dronabinol or Sativex. And all of them have to fight for medical access and approval from their insurers. That is of course, when they can find a doctor to prescribe in the first place. There are also estimates that there are close to a million patients in Germany who cannot get access, thanks to the change in the law created by one patient’s law suit.
Is this flavour of litigatious advocacy now afoot in the UK, in other words, the kind of lawsuit that is designed to benefit the industry more than patients looking for affordable, home-grown, if regulated product?
Astroturfing Cannabis Issues Under Brexit Colors?
No matter the real versus stated intent of the instigators of the Gibson case, or the eventual outcome of such litigation, there is no doubt that cannabis is being brought into larger political debates. And further, no surprise, “patient access” is an issue just as ripe for “issue manipulation” and astroturfing as anything else.
“Strategic” if not “crowdfunded” cause or tactical lawsuits are another form of this technique.
That foreign cannabis money is already in the room is also no surprise. The British press was alight with stories during June of the amount of money contributed to the CDPR Group from Canadian sources.
Seen within the context of Brexit itself, this is disturbing locally.There are other issues involved in this kind of challenge to the law.
Not to mention the fact that in May, none other than Arron Banks, the self-styled backer of the Leave Campaign, decided, suddenly, to throw his hat into the CBD oil ring on Twitter. Not to mention repeated the same information repeatedly, including his $4 million investment into the space during the following months so far. Plus, of course, wildly optimistic valuations of the U.S. market.
Suing For Patient Justice Or A Backdoor For Canadian and Other Corporate Interests?
There are other issues involved in this kind of challenge to the law.
The first is that in the British case this is actually not a constitutional case per se, but a human rights one. See the problems that those who are trying to define the British constitution right now on other matters (see Brexit) are running into.
The second is that while the patient in question in this case (Ms. Gibson) is undoubtedly relieved at the prospect of a legal defence for growing her own medication in the face of insurmountable cost, on the “positive” side, her case is unlikely to do much more than make impoverished patients fight NHS paperwork if they can find a doctor. See Germany, as a prime example.This lawsuit, in other words, no matter how it might get one woman out of a terrible legal situation, is not necessarily “pro-patient.”
But what it will do is something else. It may well remove the current widespread prohibition on the harvesting of cannabis flower in the UK. And while patients would face again being moved into the slow lane of NHS approvals (with lots of fights over efficacy looming and still unsolved), corporate growers and processors if not importers, already investing millions into such efforts across the UK and Ireland, benefit.
At the exclusion, also, as has been the case in Germany, of local producers who are not already large corporate interests or existing farms.
This lawsuit, in other words, no matter how it might get one woman out of a terrible legal situation, is not necessarily “pro-patient.” It also may well do everything to frustrate, slow down and further complicate medical access for those at the end of the chain, while only opening up “investment opportunities” for large companies and well-heeled interests who have nothing but profit, if not the destruction of the NHS in mind.
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.
Drug Science, a non-profit research group founded to reform drug policies based on scientific evidence rather than politics or even economic considerations, launched an ambitious trial project in the UK.
The goal? To get medical cannabis to 20,000 British patients suffering from a range of conditions that the drug is well known to help treat.
Who Is Drug Science?
Founded by Professor David Nutt, the former chief drug advisor to the British government who was fired in 2009 for stating that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol, the group itself is clearly not afraid to tackle controversy. The Project TWENTY21 initiative is an ambitious if not desperately needed undertaking.
Targeted patient groups include those suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, MS, Tourette’s and addiction.
Several cannabis companies have already signed up to support the effort which also includes the United Patients Alliance ,and academic researchers.
According to Abby Hughes, Head of Outreach for UPA, “Whilst a change in UK law has given clinicians the green light to prescribe medical cannabis, the majority of patients are denied access, some even being criminalised, whilst corporations are profiting from the same plant.”
Hughes also noted that the goal of the project is to begin to ground patient demand in research and hard data. “We hope that by having a dataset that proves the efficacy of medical cannabis, thousands of patients will be able to access legal, affordable medicine, which may improve their quality of life,” she said.
What Is The Scope of Project TWENTY21?
It is the first-of-its-kind project in the UK where, 9 months after the law changed to allow prescription of cannabinoids as well as the medical importation of the same, there are less than 20 (legal) patients in the country. And all of the successful candidates so far have fought for the right and still do.
While important in its own right, the concept if not forward motion on the same, is also poised to create similar trials all over Europe. This is especially true in countries (like France) where the issue of reform has not moved at all. Or even in Germany (with well over 50,000 patients two and a half years after similar reform was passed by the Bundestag) where problems with access and questions about medical efficacy still frustrate the close to a million Germans who cannot access the drug. Switzerland and Luxembourg may yet prove to be similiarly interesting.
Why Is This Timely?
There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe as the cannabis industry has really begun to establish itself since mid-2016. This is the only way to help forward medical understanding of cannabinoids at a level that leads to mainstream acceptance. And more importantly, medical and payer mainstream approvals. Until that happens, despite all the press releases, overall sales across the continent remain low.
One of the most important issues beyond this – the extraordinarily high pricing seen in Europe until late last year – has also played a role of course. Payers (see the German “statutory” health insurers) on the front lines of uncertain medical efficacy are still reluctant to pay for a drug, in any form, they do not understand, do not have evidence for, and are still highly suspicious of.
There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe With cannabis companies agreeing to provide product (in this case potentially from Australia), a research organization with national chops and brave leaders is likely to take the conversation far. And not just in the UK.
While Drug Science is of course not the only British entity planning canna trials and in part supported by the Canadian industry (see The Beckley Foundation for starters), Project 2021 is also certainly likely to be a study with both local as well as regional and global implications.
In Europe, there are other regional trials now in the offing (see Switzerland, Germany and France). Only Germany of course, has a patient population that is starting to be large enough to be effectively studied, and of course, the majority of these patients are still receiving dronabinol.
It is also clearly a steady state march, rather than a discussion that is likely to see significant boosts in patient numbers any time soon. Unless of course, there are other contributing factors.
Regardless, unlike the U.S. and even Canada, the strict medical focus of Europe (including the UK) is finally moving the conversation to the next level. Large, regional and/or national medical trials – and further for conditions the drug is well-known to treat but are so far considered “off-label” for most Europeans will be the watchword here for the next several years.
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.
Any thought that established British and Canadian growers were not already cooperating and in the throes of establishing a UK cannabis production base was put to bed in early July.
Namely, the news that Sundial, an Alberta based Canadian company, is buying Bridge Farms, the winner of the Overall UK Grower of the Year Award in 2017, is a sign that the age of British cannabinoid production (and in bulk) is here. The agriculture group has a 75-acre production facility in Lincolnshire (strategically on the border with Norfolk) and a recent ₤18 million equity injection.
This also means that large-scale CBD production in the UK is now underway with authority.
What it also means, however, is that the winds of trade, even if historically, are already cultivating some interesting partners as the entire British cannabis discussion gets underway.
Sundial Growers also almost simultaneously filed documents to list on the Nasdaq in the U.S. In this, they look remarkably similar to Tilray.
British Sugar Is Now Not The Only Game In Town
The links to the cannabis industry in this part of the UK are not new. Namely, the county of Norfolk (the east-coast “bump” of the British coastline just south of Lincolnshire) is home to British Sugar, the cultivator for GW Pharmaceuticals cannabis crop.
This part of the world is also historically associated not only with major international British trade, but in the past at least, of the German kind in particular. See the port of Kings Lynn and the Hanseatic trading route that put the eastern town on the global shipping map until the advent of the railroads in the UK leached its importance south, to London in the 19th century.
Foreign investment in agriculture, in other words, in this part of the world is not new. Nor is shipping the final product elsewhere.
What Does This Mean For The British Market?
That is an interesting question on the advent of a potential Brexit. Is this newly constructed agricultural centre designed, like Canopy’s newest hempire in New York State, for domestic consumption, and-or overseas trade?
For that reason, a fully automated CBD production facility in such a strategic and historic part of the country seems to indicate the commercial production of CBD has begun at a level virtually unseen in any other European country so far. And further, that its backers have an international, not just domestic market, in mind.
What Does This Mean For the European Market?
Unless the UK is planning on eviscerating all worker safety and pay regulations, it is unlikely that British-grown cannabis will be price competitive with what is going on in Europe right now. The German market, in fact, is a very good precursor to the kinds of growing pains the UK is likely to see in this regard.
Exports, in other words, are highly unlikely, at least to Europe.
What this does mean however, is that licensed producers, with international roots and global financing, are clearly moving into the more or less corporate production market that is slowly getting going in Britain.
And just like elsewhere, post Canada, there is no chance, at this point at least, for any “mom and pop” industry to develop.
Given a lack of patient access at this point that is also not likely to fly politically for long.
Regardless, as of the summer of 2019, there are beginning to be the signs that large scale production of both THC and CBD, is getting going in Britain.
Tilray has managed to successfully import its first bulk supply of medical cannabis oil into the UK.
It was a Tilray product, in fact, that was not only confiscated at the border last year – but subsequently sparked media outrage over the denial of the same to one Billy Caldwell, an epileptic child. It was not the only outcry nor was Billy the only child endangered. And the British people, in fact, finally signalled that they had lost their stiff upper lip on this one last year.
All of this despite lingering and significant problems ever since. Not to mention an intriguing and well-timing market entry for Tilray right after things have been heating up on cannabis reform in Parliament of late.
The Tilray product, which will be imported from its new production facilities in Portugal, has already been distributed in other European countries, including Croatia and Germany.
What is significant in other words, is that the UK is starting to allow bulk orders in through customs- and they are coming not from Canada, but from Europe. Even if it is a Canadian company’s brand on the same, for now at least.
Tilray of course, is not the only company engaged in a race to get imports into the country. Right after Christmas last year, Canopy/Spektrum announced the same plans. Wayland has clearly been angling for a British outpost for some time. And of course, more locally initiated groups, including European Cannabis Holdings, have been working to initiate easier access to British markets for well over a year. Let alone more locally grown interests and pursuits now clearly lining up for market entry.
But this announcement, coming so shortly after all the recent activity on cannabis reform and calls for trials in the UK, clearly means that the doors are now opening fast for the largest players angling to get in.
Bottom line? Look for the biggest Canadians with an already established European presence, to begin making similar announcements this summer.
Being “Available” Is Only The First Hurdle
One of the biggest problems facing not only the “industry” but patients in the UK, much like elsewhere, is that doctors do not know or want to prescribe cannabis and cannabinoid medicines- and for reasons stemming from fear or ignorance about medical efficacy to insurance coverage.
Medical cannabis, in all its forms so far, however, is also highly expensive and out of reach for most unless they obtain an NHS approval (or as in Germany, statutory health insurer approval) to actually obtain the drug. And then have a place to obtain it.
This basically counts out everyone who cannot pay out of pocket and cannot find a willing doctor to sign them up via onerous and ongoing paperwork. And that, of course, is the majority of the sick people in the room.
It is this basic conundrum, which the bigger Canadians have yet to solve themselves (and it is becoming more of a recognized issue in the U.S. in the days, presumably, before the 2020 election which will hopefully set a timetable for federal reform) that has been in the room for the last two years thanks to Germany.
It is even more of an issue in the UK. Especially with a renegotiation in Britain’s diplomatic and trade relationship with the rest of the world.
That includes, as of mid-July, a downright, undiplomatic spat between the White House and Whitehall right now over leaked comments from the British Ambassador to Washington – and about matters of competency far from cannabis. Although of course, this issue is in the room.
For that reason, the Canadian as well as the European connection to imports right now (from not just Portugal but Holland) on the medical side of the ledger, spell an intriguing fall for not only cannabis, but the real shape and direction of British politics- and by extension- British trade.
Patients Are Taking It To The Streets And To Parliament
As much as patients have so far partnered with the big Canadian companies in the attempt to get the borders open, this is not the only game in town. Dutch imports, from Dutch companies, are already showing up in the UK (see Bedrocan). And both British and Irish growers are getting in on early action, even if for now “just” on the CBD side.
Furthermore, it is clear that patients are playing a large role in making sure that they are being heard, even to the point of putting pressure on doctors. In an extraordinary admission at the parliamentary level during the last week of June, lawmakers conceded that the British public was taking matters into their own hands. And furthermore, that the change in the law had led to clear expectations that were not being met.
Namely, British patients are literally demanding medical cannabis by prescription from their doctors.
And much like in Germany, with a mandate for coverage, the government is being forced to listen, and as best as it can in a severely crimped and politicized Brexit environment, respond.
While cannabis reform is hardly the Guy Fawkes, in other words, in a tinder match environment that British politics certainly is right now, it might be a kind of spark that drives a much wider conversation in the UK about current events.
Specifically the survival of a system that is poised to provide not only access to cannabis but comprehensive medical care beyond that, even for the old or chronically ill.
The British have finally decided that cannabis reform is overdue. In London at least, 63% of the population believe that recreational reform is a good idea. According to a poll by The Evening Standard, the rest of England too, is getting close to a majority when the idea of recreational reform is in the room.
It is, as usual, recreational reform that is the icing on a medical cake that has yet to be baked. But that spice brownie is well on its way to the oven too. According to the British Medical Journal as of the beginning of July, the idea of broader access to regulated medical supplies for patients is mandatory.
And in the ranks of the conservative party, Crispin Blunt founded the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group last September to lead Parliament in a long overdue discussion about the use of both medicinal and recreational cannabis use in the UK that formally “launched” during the last week of June.
But how the industry will develop here is also a big question in the room right now, especially with a country poised on the edge of one of the biggest constitutional questions in the country’s history – to Brexit or not, and how.
The North American Influence Is Controversial
While Blunt, for example, sees no issue with injecting North American capital into the debate, there are others who are not so sanguine. And while the idea of Canadian reform is popular here, including the freedom of patients (and others) to grow small amounts themselves, the idea of Canadian companies influencing national policy is not. From The Daily Mail to The Guardian, there have been front page headlines about the coming financial influence of “The North Americans.”
That this discussion is also going on at a time when the UK is considering a completely new trade agreement with the world, including on pharmaceuticals, is not insignificant. Where the country’s drugs come from, far from cannabis, is absolutely on the table. Not to mention how much they cost.
Questions of basic access are likely, in other words, to be in the room for a long time here. The barriers to obtaining and filling a prescription start at its expense – which is ₤1,100 (about $1,400) per prescription. There are few people, let alone those who are chronically ill, who can afford the same. This is far from a “normalized” drug- even of last resort- at the NHS.So far, the number of actual cannabis patients in the UK (ones who go to a doctor for a prescription and fill it) is still under 100 people.
That said, it is a start. And for the first time, as of this summer, those with the money can in fact, obtain cannabis by prescription.
But what happens to those (the vast majority) who cannot?
Patients Are Feeling Side-lined
Just as in national legalizing conversations in the United States and Canada so far, patients are being pushed aside for “the business” to take the conversation forward. But where does this business fall on matters of price and access?
So far, the number of actual cannabis patients in the UK (ones who go to a doctor for a prescription and fill it) is still under 100 people.
While patient groups are organizing, and the earliest ones to gain national attention, usually families whose children have been directly in the line of fire, are getting commercial ambitions themselves, the fact remains that patient voices are not the loudest ones in the room. Although as Blunt announced last week, he does not see recreational reform happening in the UK for the next five years.
That also means that every Canadian company entering the market (in particular) will have to continue to sing the same medical song they have been humming across Europe- at least in public.
The UK is NOT Germany – But It’s Not Canada Or The US Either…
No matter how much more “liberal” supposedly, the English people are on the whole CBD question (there is already far more CBD for sale in the UK than just about anywhere else), the UK market is still far behind Germany. Why? Since March 2017, insurance companies auf Deutschland have been required to cover the drug – from sprays and pills to floss when prescribed by a doctor.
There are, by latest calculations about 50,000 German patients.
That said, it is clear that the British do not seem to give a fig about the entire “novel food” discussion and are literally, in some cases, daring the police to raid stores and shut down establishments. The idea of rebellion against EU rules seems very obvious on the CBD front.
Beyond this, however, it is also clear that “Canadian” much less “American” cannabis reform is not necessarily the only model in town.
As the British, in other words, do finally embrace the cannabis question, it is very likely that the face of the same will be of a unique Limey strain all of its own.
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