Tag Archives: England

The UK Cannabis Industry Needs New PR Strategies

By Kajal Shah
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The cannabis marketplace is an ever changing one. The opportunities being generated in the UK space are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, patient care and supporting health and wellness for consumers, an image problem continues to persist.

Despite its expansive growth, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation. Having worked with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are a myriad of ways in which the industry can benefit from PR support. A strong PR strategy can not only drive media coverage, but help to reach customers, shorten sale cycles, bolster brand reputation and drive change within political and regulatory circles.

Whether you are a flourishing cannabis brand, a start-up or ancillary cannabis business, PR can help you stand out from the competition and become a credible voice in this competitive market.

Here are some key ways in which cannabis businesses can profit from PR:

Campaigning for progress

Each category of the cannabis sector faces its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. This, along with regulatory restrictions and a lack of education in the clinical community means cannabis stigma continues to exist.

For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by leveraging their story via the press and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.

Both cases offer strong proof of the powerful role PR can play in supporting those in need of medical cannabis. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. For cannabis leaders and professionals looking to invest in PR, it is critical that your PR partner understands the key issues, culture and complexities of the industry to create credible stories and campaigns to gain cut through in the media.

Reputation enhancement

CBD is the most established sector of the UK cannabis industry, having become firmly attached to the lifestyle scene in recent years with its broad spectrum of health and wellness products. With approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year through a market already worth an estimated £300 million, the industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.

Just some of the many hemp-derived CBD products on the market today.

Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD in the UK, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.

With hundreds of brands claiming to be the best option, establishing credibility and becoming a trusted voice is key. Educating your audience by positioning company experts will help to keep your audience up to speed on the most current information and allow your brand to achieve an authoritative voice within the cannabis space.

Amplifying awareness 

Driving awareness drives revenue. It doesn’t matter if your story and products are revolutionary if nobody knows they exist! PR can help build a narrative which conveys the purpose of your business, along with its vision and products, whilst promoting key insights to keep your company relevant. The power of public relations in this regard is very similar to that of positive word-of-mouth.

Strategic brand building

UKflagCannabis companies can’t advertise like mainstream companies, so they must tread carefully in the marketing of their products. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left and right, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a strategic business view.

Stories sell. It’s vital for a brand that wants to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to build a story which resonates with its audience. Strategic PR can therefore increase brand value and coupled with a digital marketing and social media strategy, boost engagement and elevate the profile of the business.

A wealth of opportunities

The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is one to watch. In relation to medical cannabis, the industry has called for change to improve patient access and pressure has been exerted on the government and regulatory bodies to normalise cannabis as an effective treatment for a myriad of health conditions In parallel, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.

Cannabis is a commonplace yet spectacularly complex plant. It therefore needs a PR strategy which can uncover key angles and opportunities across a multitude of avenues to position brands within the space for success and growth.

Whilst there is still much to learn and navigate in cannabis, PR has an important role to play in changing attitudes as the industry continues to expand and evolve. I am excited to see where it goes next.

The Changing Landscape of CBD in the UK

By Mike Barnes
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Reports estimate that up to 8 million people in the UK use CBD for its variety of wellness benefits. The market is currently worth £300 million, a figure which is expected to more than triple in the next five years.

Sales of CBD already outstrip those of Vitamin C at £301 million vs £119 million and given that almost 90 percent of users in the UK purchase CBD online, new investments into omnichannel and e-commerce capabilities are likely to lead to even more growth.

Yet, for all this excitement, the truth is the UK’s CBD industry is facing a bit of a roadblock.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Until this year, CBD has been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found that over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. On February 13, 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) unveiled new plans to better regulate the industry and announced a deadline of March 31, 2021 for the submission of a valid application for novel food licence for businesses selling food and food supplements containing CBD in the UK. Contained in the announcement was a warning to all CBD companies that failure to comply may result in products being taken off the shelves.

Consumers are also advised by the FSA to “think carefully” about taking CBD, and not to consume more than 70mg a day, making the UK the first country in the world to set recommended limits for CBD consumption, despite no scientific basis for the 70mg recommended limit.

Whilst it is undeniable that the CBD market requires some form of regulation and standards need to be raised for CBD products, to ensure consumers are receiving safe, legal and quality products, this will be a complex and costly process. CBD companies, particularly smaller CBD brands, will need to ensure they have the necessary infrastructure, expertise and resources to meet this deadline.

The deadline is fast approaching, and no extension has been granted despite of the difficulties caused by COVID-19. This will put all businesses under pressure, as the process for applying for Novel Food status requires supplying a large amount of data from rigorous testing. For larger players, this will likely be nothing more than a costly inconvenience, but for smaller, nascent businesses, these costs may put their longevity at risk. There are hundreds of CBD start-ups which have done great work to future-proof their businesses and create safe, high-quality products. Now, instead of preserving costs to try and stay afloat during the pandemic, these businesses must put a significant amount of precious resource and funds into finalising their applications in time.

Improving end user confidence in CBD products and understanding the process from seed to shelf is crucially important in this developing industry, however, I firmly believe these regulations are suffocating the market. I fear that on April 1, 2021, many smaller firms who haven’t managed to achieve Novel Food status yet have a superior product, will suddenly find themselves unable to legally trade.

On the other hand, there is the argument that the FSA ruling may increase the importation of CBD products from firms based outside of Europe. So far, the large cannabis firms in North America, which have the budget and expertise to meet FSA standards, have held back on importing CBD products to the UK. This may well have to do with the slightly dubious legal status CBD has so far had in the UK, so it will be interesting to see whether this changes in April next year and which players will enter the market. The CBD market will continue to grow and diversify but it will be essential that this leads to increasing consumer choice rather than confusion.

In my opinion, the only way the UK will be able to fully harness the potential of CBD is to create an independent, self-sufficient industry that not only helps consumers but contributes to the wider economy through jobs, skills and investment. The pandemic has done well to put a spotlight on the huge access issues cannabis patients face in the UK, bolstering the case to ‘onshore’ the industry.

Whilst this would require a streamlining and simplification of the licensing laws around growing cannabis, the development of a UK-based industry would have endless benefits. Not only would medical cannabis patients see improved access to their medication, CBD firms would no longer have to ship oil in from the dominating wholesale nations such as Poland, Czechia and Italy, this in turn having huge economic benefits. The development of a UK industry should involve the creation of a new regulatory system specifically designed for cannabis products and preferably for a new regulatory body, similar to the Office of Medicinal Cannabis in the Netherlands, to oversee all cannabis regulation, licensing, importation and approvals. This would mean a move away from the current solution of forcing CBD products into the Novel Food category and subjecting them to inappropriate regulations which will soon begin to smother the market with unnecessary red tape.

People are increasingly turning to more natural health and wellness solutions, so as Britons become better informed about CBD products and as the market matures, demand will certainly increase. Yet with both Brexit and standardisation of cannabinoid regulations occurring in parallel, the future and scale of the CBD market is still to be determined. A huge UK market could potentially help push it in a positive direction, facilitating processes for CBD producers.

The cannabis industry is resilient and until this point, has managed to grow at an exponential rate despite regulatory uncertainty. As acceptance and demand continues to increase, so the case for an independent UK industry will strengthen and regulatory roadblocks finally overcome.

Could CBD Standards Become Global?

By Marguerite Arnold
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Here is the good news: There are beginning to be regional- and country-specific guidelines on at least one widely grown cannabis crop internationally. This includes a range of regs on the medical side (GMPs) but they are also expanding for the “other” cannabis crop too. Namely, hemp.

Now, here is the bad news: The regulation that is developing in different regions is frustratingly not uniform, and can still differ greatly in critical areas. Most notably, for some reason, while the U.S. Farm Bill of 2018 created a new national standard for the amount of THC that could be contained in American hemp crops (0.3%), the same conversation in Europe during the same period of time led to a decision to set the level of allowable THC in hemp plants and products at a slightly lower one: 0.2%. As a further confusing muddle, Switzerland has set its THC limits at 0.1% (Switzerland is not in the European Union), and other countries across the region have also attempted to limit the THC in industrial hemp production to no more than this level, no matter what regulators rule at the EU level.

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

Beyond a lack of scientific reasoning obvious in the same, by definition, this creates a natural trade barrier between hemispheres. If U.S. farmers are looking for export opportunities to Europe (for example) not to mention other states, they have to worry about both local as well as destination standards – which on the surface at least, are currently incompatible.

It is also creating some frustrating issues for anyone who is in the market for hemp as either a buyer or seller.

Other Issues In The Mix
Markets are driven by many factors – including regulations but also cost and of course consumer demand for a product within a certain price range. Certainly, the CBD industry if not the recreational THC one right behind it (even in Europe now) desperately wants to attract those who are known euphemistically as “daily consumers.”

This means that both the price point and consumer opportunities must hit a mainstream distribution norm. While the recreational market will continue to be distorted by delayed, but inevitable discussions about reform across Europe, the medical market is beginning to set some groundwork that is also bleeding into the entire discussion. Namely, that extracts will play a large role here.

What does this wrinkle mean in a world where the agricultural cultivation standards are different?

Biomass And Extracts Are Gaining In Importance
For those in the strictly “flower” game, the market at least in the U.S., will remain a place where pretty flower crops will gain premium prices as long as they meet local spec.

european union statesHowever, this is a limited proposition, even now – especially in the CBD business. The edibles market, for one, has created a huge potential for vast quantities of industrially produced, outdoor grown hemp, bound for extraction and downstream, a vast variety of end products across a wide spectrum of niches – from wellness to purely cosmetic. So is the burgeoning medical market in Europe.

This means two things. The first is that consumer-facing products with any amount of cannabinoid (take your pick) can be produced to order, no matter the cannabinoid concentrations of the original plant. The second, by definition, means that biomass bound for extraction, particularly export, will gain an increasingly larger share of the wholesale market.

Does it really matter, in other words, to a European extractor, that the source product is of higher THC concentrate than is allowed for B2C sale in Europe? No. Indeed, all it means is that they have to buy lower amounts of biomass. The rest is merely a mechanical problem.

Playing The Regulatory Game
For an increasingly competitive hemp market in the United States, in other words, foreign exports are absolutely an intriguing option for revenue right now, and will continue to be as long as price competitiveness and overall quality issues remain high. Furthermore, there will be almost no pressure to regulate the market globally to the same standards, particularly if CBD itself is descheduled in December by the WHO.

In other words, the regulatory disconnect between the U.S. and Europe right now, and certainly for certain kinds of unfinished bulk product, could therefore open a new niche in the market that is unlikely to be “fixed” anytime soon.

Will Australia’s Cannabis Program Follow Canada’s Lead?

By Marguerite Arnold
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The news is intriguing in a world overwhelmed with pandemic news. THC Global, a Canadian-Aussie company now raising money and signing global deals, has just bought a “clinic network” of 30 prescribing physicians that will be able to supply up to 6,000 Australian patients this year.

In doing so, this entity is clearly beginning to establish a pattern of expansion in a new medical market not seen so far outside of Canada. Namely being able to obtain the all-important prescription for one’s brand at the doctor or prescriber’s office which is affiliated with a certain producer. Pharmacies and dispensaries downstream have no discretion for any other product to sell if the brand is written right on the prescription itself.

And this marks a new step in an industry frustrated with the high prices and high levels of red tape in other international environments where more widespread medical cannabis reform has come.

The Situation in Germany
Germany represents, so far at least, the destination market of choice for Canadian cannabis firms (for the last several years at least). This is for several very sound business reasons (at least in theory).

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

The German medical market is the largest in Europe. Health reforms which swept the country at the time of reunification also created a system that is in its own way a hybrid of the more European (and British) NHS and American healthcare. Namely, 90% of the German population is on the system, but it is tied to employment and income. Freelancers, even of the German kind, must use private healthcare as must all non-passport foreigners. If you make over a certain amount of money (about $65,000), you must also pay for private healthcare. As the cannabis revolution rolls forward, many cannabis patients are caught in changing rules and a great reluctance by public health insurers to allow fast entry of any new drug, including this one. This is based on “science” but also cost.

Bottom line? Yes, the market is lucrative and growing, and yes, cannabis is covered under public health insurance, but the ability of any producers to be able to maintain a reliable, steady market of “prescribers” is highly limited. Furthermore, unlike anywhere else in the world, pharmacists play an outsized role in the process – namely because there are no chains (more than four brick and mortar outlets are verboten). Prices and availability vary widely across the country.

There are also no “online” drug stores where patients can send prescriptions in the sense that this vertical has developed in other countries.

Hospital dispensation is, for all the obvious reasons, highly expensive and generally prohibitive for the long term, if not serving much larger numbers of patients.

The Problem in the UK
Like Germany, the UK decided to launch medical “cannabis” – or at least cannabinoid-related drugs under the purview of the NHS, but there are several issues with this.

Epidiolex-GWThe problems start with the fact that the system remains a monopoly for one British company, GW Pharmaceuticals. The medication produced by them, including Sativex and Epidiolex is expensive and does not work for many patients that it is produced “on label” for (such as MS or childhood epilepsy).

And then of course, the largest group of cannabis patients anywhere (chronic pain) have been explicitly excluded from the list of conditions cannabis can be prescribed for under public health guidelines in the UK. This, like Germany, has created a highly expensive system where those patients who obtain the drug on a regular (and legal basis) have to have both private healthcare and obtain help through private clinics. While there are several chain clinics now forming in the UK, this is not the same thing as “buying” patients in the thousands – the model seen in Canada from the beginning of 2014.

The market has a lot of potential, in other words, but like Germany, via very different paths to market than seen in Canada, in particular.

Why Is Canada Different?
The development of the medical market came through federal change in the law around the turn of the century. Namely, after patients won the right to grow for themselves, via Supreme Court legal challenge, patient collectives gradually formed to grow and sell cannabis that was more “professionally” cultivated. This, in turn, became the right of private companies and indeed household names in the Canadian market saw buying patient pools as their path to financing on the equity markets as of 2014.

This is not widely popular within the industry. Indeed, the last legal challenge mounted by the industry to ban non-profit patient collectives fell apart in 2016 – the year that the larger Canadian companies began to look abroad to Europe.

It is also undoubtedly why, beyond the red tape they face in Germany and the UK if not across Europe, Canadian firms are looking to hybridize a model which worked well for them at least in the early days of capitalization of the private industry. And maybe Australia will be “it.” Stay tuned.

The British Isles Sees Cannabis as an Economic Development Pathway

By Marguerite Arnold
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Cannabis as a tool of local or even regional economic development has rapidly gained traction in many jurisdictions within the United States and Canada. It has also caught on particularly in the poorer states of the EU (see Greece) and those countries hoping to enter the Union (North Macedonia).

These days, the concept is also spreading even to the UK, where reform has lagged significantly behind other countries both in North America and Europe. Indeed, two island communities are now investing heavily in the idea that cannabis is not only here to stay, but may invigorate communities and the economic health of islands looking for a new path, post-Brexit.

Cannabis so far, certainly in the United States and Canada, has proved to be a job creator just about everywhere for the past five years. Indeed, despite a few large corporate restructurings (see Aurora and Canopy Growth) of late, the industry itself has not slowed down, even with bumps in the road in terms of full and final legalization and the new challenges of a global pandemic.

House Of Green, Guernsey
This project is moving along, with its first harvest set for later in the year. The ₤2 million facility plans to be able to process up to 800 pounds every eight-hour day. Raw product is being grown at vineyards on the island itself by independent farmers and partners from other islands. Indeed, it is a unique facility on the European side of the Atlantic.

The company plans to process cannabis into tinctures, balms and salves as well as alkaline waters.

The idea is to create the base ingredients from which other products – bound both for the medical and recreational market – can be made.

Vecticanna, Isle of Wight
Just off the southern coast of the UK, Vecticanna is also embarking on an ambitious project – a fully solar-powered facility which plans to eventually employ 60 people. Their mission? To “unlock the therapeutic potential of cannabis” for the treatment of Fibromyalgia and related conditions.

Vecticanna has partnered with several large institutions, including the University of Southampton, and CAR Laboratories in Cambridge, and plans to produce its products in an R&D and research setting with the ambitious hope of furthering the potential of cannabinoid-based healthcare.

Where Goes UK and European Reform?

Reform across Europe has indeed been frustratingly slow. This includes the many hiccups in the German cultivation bid, which was first launched in 2017, and will only see the first nationally produced cannabis in the country sometime this fall. That amount is far too little for the patients who have already obtained prescriptions, and certainly will not be enough to serve the expected million plus patients in market here in just a few short years. Indeed, medical cannabis distributors in Germany are scouring the planet right now for properly certified product that comes from other European countries as well as South Africa, Australia, and even Latin America.

In the meantime, a new generic producer of dronabinol (synthetic THC) has just gained access to the German market.

In the UK, reform so far has also been torturously tortoise-like, with the National Health Service (NHS) favouring local producer GW Pharmaceuticals and forcing all other patients and their families to import pricey product from the Netherlands or Canada. While, it should also be added, excluding chronic pain patients.

Why Are The UK’s Island Cannabis Projects So Intriguing?

With a few exceptions (see Greece and Malta), European cannabis development remains mired in complications that include everything from a lack of reform and high prices to fights over basic regulations, including whether cannabis is a “novel” substance or not. This has slowed down the ability of growers to obtain the right certifications, find financing and actually go into business.

With two new producers on islands close to Europe and the UK however, there appear to be projects on the horizon which have jumped the regulatory queue, and are lining up for an intriguing future, supported from the ground up, by local policies that are looking at two simple things: the efficacy of the plant itself, and the economic well-being of their neighbors.

Scotland Moves Forward With Its First Cannabis Farm

By Marguerite Arnold
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The village of Langholm, known locally as the “Muckle Toon,” with its most famous descendent being Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon) is about to get another first. Namely, it will be the location of the first Scottish cannabis farm.

Father and son entrepreneurs William and Neil Ewart (who also own an agricultural farm, raise Angus cattle and have a racehorse stable) have obtained permission to produce enough cannabis to create 200 liters of oils a year. The production facility is also expected to employ about 50 people – from scientists to growers and IT staff.

However, this is just the beginning. Despite being given planning permission, the Ewarts will now have to apply for a license to actually produce medical cannabis.

Reform in the UK marches on

At present, British patients are in one of the toughest situations anywhere cannabis reform has ostensibly started to happen.

Domestic production, in other words, is a vitally needed part of British reform.The UK has moved forward on cannabis reform in fits and starts – one step forward and several back, for the last several years. Late last year, a full year after the drug was approved for prescription, in an abrupt change, cannabis was denied to everyone but Epilepsy and MS patients and those suffering from nausea due to chemo treatments. NICE, the agency in the UK who sets domestic prescription policies, shamefully excluded chronic pain patients from the new guidelines. This is despite the fact that there are chronic pain patients in the UK who had received prescriptions for cannabis after the law changed in 2018. Not to mention the fact that this subset of patients represents the largest percentage of people prescribed the drug in every other jurisdiction, from Colorado to Canada.

Those who have “qualifying conditions” must now find a doctor to prescribe – still no easy task. If GW Pharmaceuticals’ products (Epidiolex and Sativex) do not work, patients must then import the drug, at great expense from overseas. Even though this importing process has gotten significantly easier in the last months, supplies are still highly expensive imports from elsewhere (mostly Holland and Canada). This runs, at minimum, about $1,000 a month.

UKflagDomestic production, in other words, is a vitally needed part of British reform. It is also seen, increasingly, as a high value crop that can be exported elsewhere. Time will tell however, if the expensive British labor market can compete with product grown in Europe (in places like Spain, Portugal and Greece).

So far, the UK has lagged behind Germany, which itself went through a torturous and expensive process to not only approve its first cultivation bid, but is also now in the process of lowering prices. The first German grown cannabis is likely to hit pharmacy shelves by the third or fourth quarter of 2020. Don’t expect any cannabis exports to the UK, at least for now however, as there is not enough domestically cultivated German product to even serve existing German patients.

An Aberdeen clinic plans to be the first Scottish private facility to prescribe
As of mid-February, the privately run Sapphire Medical Clinics announced plans to become the first Scottish private medical clinic to prescribe cannabis. The facility will require a referral from a regular GP. This has so far, not been popular with the National Health Service (NHS). Some administrators have expressed concern that the process will result in doctors using their time to funnel patients into private healthcare to receive treatments not available or recognized by the NHS.

That said, as Sapphire has pointed out, the approximately 1.4 million patients in the UK have few other options beyond the black market.

Cannabis reform, in other words, is clearly inching forward in the British Isles. One cultivation facility and prescribing clinic at a time.

Top International Cannabis News Stories of 2019

By Marguerite Arnold
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Cannabis as a news story and an industry moved forward again this year, albeit in a rather more halting way than the last few. The volatility of the market in fact was one of the largest stories of the year, particularly after the events of this summer.

It’s Been A Wild Ride Kind Of Year

This time last year, the world was in a tizzy over the literally billions of bucks invested into a few top Canadian cannabis companies. This year, predictions are definitely a little more sober when it comes to the future of cannabis stocks. Most of the industry has taken a major beating this fall.

That said, the current correction was in the cards for just as long. What goes up, dramatically, must come down.

That said, this is not the whole picture of the industry – not by a long shot. Reform ain’t going back. Patient numbers are climbing, albeit slowly.

Here in Europe, the first and so far biggest public tender on cannabis was finally concluded in Germany with Aurora, Aphria and the cannabis company formerly known as Wayland (ICC) winning the bid lots for domestic cultivation this spring.

The British, who waffled around all year on what kind of “animal” cannabis actually is, celebrated that anniversary late in the year with a highly limited scope of coverage by the NHS.

And Luxembourg threw down the gauntlet on “recreational” within an aggressive timeframe (by 2022) and tripling its medical cannabis training budget for doctors next year.

International Cannabis Is Growing Like…A Weed

The most interesting discussions right now are clearly emerging on the international front. Cannabis became an internationally mainstreaming commodity this year as patient numbers began to climb on the continent.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoThis in turn has led to the normalization of the idea at least of an export trade in cannabis not only across Europe but globally as companies target the region. Cross border cannabis companies, in other words, are a “thing” that blossomed this year – and frequently, while sometimes financed by Canadians, called another country home.

The announcement of at least the first German wholesale reference price this year will also do wonders to start to normalize prices across not only the EU but all those hoping to export here.

That in turn will have global impact.

Regulation Is Beginning to Materialize

For those who thought that higher standards were a passing fad, the events of this year, particularly of the latter half of it have confirmed one thing for sure: Regulatory muster is here to stay.

GMPTo add to the general confusion, however, international standards on medical products and even food are absolutely in the mix as countries find that standards, measurements and production processes might be similar, but on the ground, still differ. Harmonization is a word many in the cannabis industry are hearing now, and not just in the medical space, but also the food and supplements market.

The initials “GMP” are on the lips of many this year. Not to mention another exciting development the cannabis industry from abroad did not see coming and still broadly does not understand – namely Novel Food.

The War For Reform Is Being Fought On Several Fronts

Inevitably, just as in the United States, the fights in the room right now as well as legislative gridlock are focusing on some strange nitty gritty. For example, cannabidiol (CBD) is just one cannabinoid from the plant. It is a chemical substance. Yet, suddenly, in Europe, this discussion is being bogged down in pseudo-scientific discussions in the name of public policy about whether CBD is a “new kind” of food.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Ultimately this is a discussion about regulation – whether CBD and hemp production should be regulated differently than they are right now – and whether the plant should be put in a different bucket than, say, tomatoes. Or when extracted, tomato juice.

GMP is also a very strange discussion which has still not exited the stage – mostly because of the lack of uniformity internationally between Canada and European states although that is moving in the right direction.

The last issue of course, which has been looming from the Canadian side for several years, including of course all the pesticide scandals, new regulations on the cultivation of all plants for human consumption. Even German farmers are up in arms (with a recent tractor protest in Berlin that paralyzed the city).

Cannabis is in the bullseye on all fronts.

Auld Lang Syne

If there was a theme to the industry as of this summer, it was clearly that things cannot continue as they have. The CannTrust Scandal absolutely encapsulated all that is wrong with the industry.

That said, there is every reason to believe that the most egregious scandals (or at least quite so many of them) are a passing fad. Indeed, many in the industry are in fact committed to turning over a new leaf (for the new year or just because).

The good news? There is every sign of course that it will.

NHS Finally Approves A Few Cannabis-Based Medicines for England & Wales

By Marguerite Arnold
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You have to hand it to the Brits right now. There is nothing that seems to be working in a land caught in the gray zone of “Brexit or Not.”

That absolutely can be said for cannabis prescriptions and the subsequent availability of the drug, via the National Health Service (NHS). For all the hand-wringing and drama so far, it has only taken a year between possibility and execution. That said if Brexit were that “fast” who knows what might have already happened to the NHS to begin with?

Regardless of the many deservedly snarky comments in the room (from both the British and elsewhere point of view), here are the basics:

Cannabis-based medicine will be available only to treat two relatively rare forms of childhood epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, or chemo-induced nausea caused by cancer treatment. The drug can also only be prescribed by specialist doctors (not GPs).

Who says the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (or NICE for short) doesn’t move quickly?

Perhaps they should have attended the 10th biannual IACM conference in Berlin at the beginning of the month. There were certainly reform-minded Brits who did.

What Were They Thinking?

When reading the recommendations from NICE, it is hard to imagine how a medical policy body could get most of the cannabis discussion so wrong. While it is nice to know that dying children seem to be highly effective in setting drug policy in the UK, that is hardly comforting to the potentially millions of adult Brits who have absolutely been left out, this time.

This begs the question why an adult in chronic pain or suffering muscular spasticity of a kind not caused by MS (much less adult epileptics) is somehow in a different basket of care? Indeed, the idea of recommending against the use of THC specifically for chronic pain is, at this point, a sign of at minimum gross inability to read even recent medical studies from just about everywhere, not to mention patient evidence and testimony. Those adults who managed to get coverage, at least so far, will be given the right to continue treatment until their doctor decides otherwise. Not a very comforting place to be.

Here Comes The Gray And Black Market

All this will do of course, is push those who do not qualify for NHS coverage into either the private market (if they can afford it), or more likely, the existing gray and black market. The former of which of course, is, like other places, underground.

And while GW Pharmaceuticals has everything to cheer about, the rest of the established industry, at this point, surely should be ready to take a concerted stand.

The ridiculous posture of the NHS beyond that on cannabis in this day and age is hard to understand. Even the Germans are ahead of them. And Deutschland is hardly a country where the use of cannabis is anything like mainstream yet.

But then, welcome again, to the wacky world of cannabis reform where it is possible to take one step forward and then many back.

Is This The Face Of The British Conversation Post Brexit?

If there were a single conversation to unite a country right now, the medical coverage of cannabis for the country’s poorest and sickest might be it.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be a conversation that will progress in the UK until it moves in the United States. Federal reform in America would of course open the doors, and immediately, to a state-like “recreational” market, where, theoretically, patients could buy any kind of cannabis they want.

Just like Colorado. Or California.

But here is the rub. In the United States, federal reform has not come yet. And even then, what health insurers decide to cover or not, and for what condition, is a topic many Brits have never had to really contemplate. And certainly not when it comes to cannabis. This new decision by the health authorities might just be a terrifying glimpse of what is yet on the agenda if and when Britain “divorces” the continent.

Is The Dream Of Medical Coverage For Cannabis Just That?

Here is the good news. Cannabis always makes progress, no matter how long the slog has been. If the Brits are determined to sit this one out while their citizens suffer, the conversation is still alive, if struggling, elsewhere. Notably Germany. And Israel.

These are, to date, the only two countries who have jumped in, seriously, on the issue of insurance coverage of cannabis, and for a broad range of conditions, although even here in both countries, there are still issues and controversies galore.

The terrible reality in the room however, is clearly writ large for all those who are brave enough to grasp it. Most patients are going to be on the hook for the cost of their medical cannabis for a long time to come.

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CBD In The UK: An Unregulated Marketplace

By Marguerite Arnold
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You have to give it to this industry. Everyone wants in. And well, Prohibition is so over.

The problem is, particularly here in Europe, for the most part, this is either the tedious process of educating doctors, creating medical grade product that insurers will pay for, or of course, trials to look forward to in the immediate future.

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.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

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.

Image credit: Flickr

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.

How very British.

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From CannTrust To Canopy: Is There A Connection To Current Cannabis Scandals?

By Marguerite Arnold
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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.Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logo

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?

What Went Down At Canopy?

Last year, Canopy announced its listing on the NYSE in May. To put this in context, this was two months after the first German cultivation bid went down to legal challenge. By August 15, 2018 with a new bid in the offing, the company had closed the second of its multi-billion dollar investments from Constellation.

Bruce Linton, former CEO of Canopy Growth
Photo: Youtube, TSX

Yet by late October, after Bruce Linton skipped a public markets conference in Frankfurt where many of the leading Canadian cannabis company execs showed up to lobby Jens Spahn (the health minister of Germany) about the bid if not matters relating to the Deutsche Börse, there were two ugly rumours afoot.

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.

Common Territories

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.

And of course by April, the company unveiled plans to buy Acreage in the U.S.

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.