As the cannabis industry — now estimated to be worth more than USD 200 billion — continues to erupt around the world, Europe is about to take off.
This draws a parallel with the watershed legislative events of November 2012, when Colorado Amendment 64 and Washington Initiative 502 were implemented. These two bills kicked off a wave of medical and adult use acceptance in the United States. Europe’s medical referendums which started in 2017-2018 and the recent December 2020 United Nations acceptance of medical attributes of cannabis will do the same in that continental marketplace. Europe is following science and studying popular opinion about cannabis, just like the United States nearly a decade ago.
In many ways, the American “medical” market has been a political ploy, while the European market is truly medical in every way. Distribution through pharmacies and mainstream channels is the wave of the future. This method of distribution will both increase access and taxable bases quicker than the U.S. “medical” dispensary model. People who truly need cannabis should not be hindered by any rules or regulations to get the medicine, and the U.N. has paved the way for access while the U.S. still awaits rescheduling.
The road to medical cannabis in Europe is more stringent than that of the U.S. and Canada. This is because most European markets have strict medical standards and medicines must be produced in European Union Good Manufacturing Practices (EU GMP) certified pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. This is the same standard that all medical Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) producers are held to.
Both Canadian companies, who have just launched extraction with Canada’s “Cannabis 2.0”, and American manufacturers alike are unfamiliar with pharmaceutical API production. Some argue that food-grade GMP standards are the most similar to already-existing systems in the U.S. and Canada. However, the meaning of “medical” is clear in Europe — it means medical. Improving access for patients to products will be the central challenge for Europe over the next few years as patient growth increases.
Europe is also embracing its potential adult use markets. First came Denmark, then Luxembourg, and now the Netherlands are all beginning to engage with the question of adult use cannabis legalization. We expect Portugal will soon join this list. After all, in a post-coronavirus world, every country will be looking for a means to grapple with a devastated economy and to boost employment to widen its taxable base.
The United States was supposedly founded by Puritans escaping gregarious Europeans. Now it’s likely America will legalize cannabis within the year and Europeans will be left asking, “Why them and not us?” And it will become harder to explain why such potential for growth in employment and increased tax revenue isn’t being taken advantage of as Europe begins to emerge from lockdown. It would be shrewd to expect a wave of European adult use kick-offs in 2022.
It is clear that 2021 is setting a blistering economic pace: from mergers and acquisitions to monster capital raises, to increased debt raises to the hot special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) London Stock Exchange (LSE) up listings and initial public offering (IPO) fever. This year will be a cannabis-fueled explosion that Europe will not be able to ignore. With Canada, the U.S. and Mexico all likely to legalize cannabis in the near future, how long will it be before South and Central America follows suit? And then, how long for this wave to reach Europe?
The real answer is, it’s already here. Early adopters of cannabis overbuilt as the Canadians were given more money than they deserved, while the U.S. market was largely fueled by private equity and proved that it could be the biggest and best-run model. Europe will follow its own path by acknowledging the failures and successes of these markets, blending them to form its own unique European model.
The American dispensary will eventually pop up in Europe in a form similar to the current social clubs of Barcelona and coffee shops of Amsterdam. Possibly specialized pharmacies will carry more cannabis products, but it’s too early to call — countries are only just beginning to figure out how cannabis rules might be shaped to fit their needs and values.
There are greater issues people are dealing with in the age of COVID-19, but that will change. Economic recovery, the need to provide medicine more quickly and affordably, social reform, green projects and many more pressing issues will become thematic of a post-COVID world; a set of themes for which a cannabis-shaped solution checks many of the necessary boxes.
There is a certain misrepresentation of cannabis as a panacea, able to cure every medical ailment and remedy every social problem if only it were legalized more broadly. While cannabis certainly is not a cure-all, it can fix many issues facing governments today. People were grateful for cannabis during these troubled times with cannabis stockpiling and usage through the roof in the early stages of the pandemic. As a result, 2021 has the potential to shatter old establishment perceptions as more consumers speak out.
Now, it is only a question of how the individual and collective European nations choose to regulate expansion across the continent. And the power to create a truly world-beating cannabis model is in their hands; without the international market differences and troubles that plague the North American sector, there will be virtually no limits to cannabis expansion throughout Europe if those in charge believe it to be so.
The cannabis industry saw close to $15.5B in deals across VC, private equity, M&A and IPOs in 2020 according to PitchBook data. Early and growth stage capital has been a key enabler in deal activity as companies seek to innovate and scale, taking advantage of trends towards national legalization and consolidation. Entourage Effect Capital is one of the largest VC firms in cannabis with over $150MM deployed since its inception in 2014. Some of their notable investments include GTI, CANN, Harborside (CNQ: HBOR), Acreage Holdings, Ebbu, TerrAscend and Sunderstorm.
We spoke with Matt Hawkins, co-founder and managing partner at Entourage Effect Capital. Matt started Entourage in 2014 after exiting his previous company. He has 20+ years of private equity experience and serves on the Boards of numerous cannabis companies. Matt’s thought leadership has been on Fox Business in the past and he has also recently featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance, Cheddar and more.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Matt Hawkins: We’ve been making investments in the cannabis industry since 2014. We’ve made 65 investments to date. We have a full team of investment professionals, and we invest up and down the value chain of the industry.
I had been in private equity for 25 years and I kind of just fell into the industry after I’d had an exit. I started lending to warehouse owners in Denver that were looking to refinance their mortgages out of commercial debt into private debt, which would then give them the ability to lease their facilities to growers. I realized there would be a significant opportunity to place capital in the private equity side of the cannabis business. So, I just started raising money for that project and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run and we’ve built a fantastic portfolio. We look forward to continuing to deploy capital up to and through legalization.
Green: Do you consider Entourage Effect Capital a VC fund or private equity firm? How do you talk about yourself?
Hawkins: In the early stages of the industry, we were more purely venture capital because there was hardly any revenue. We’re probably still considered a venture capital firm, by definition, just because of the risk factors. As the industry has matured, the investments we make are going to be larger. The reality is that the checks we write now will go to companies that have a track record of not only 12 months of revenue, but EBITDA as well. We can calculate a multiple on those, and that makes it more like lower/middle-market private equity investing.
Green: What’s your investment mandate?
Hawkins: From here forward our mandate is to build scale in as many verticals as we can ahead of legalization. In the early days, we were focused on giving high net worth individuals and family offices access to the industry using a very diversified approach, meaning we invested up and down the value chain. We’ll continue to do that, but now we’re going to be really laser focused on combining companies and building scale within companies to where they’re going to be more attractive for exit partners upon legalization.
Green: Are there any particular segments of the industry that you focus on whether it’s cultivation, extraction or MSOs?
Hawkins: We tend to focus on everything above cultivation. We feel like cultivation by itself is a commodity, but when vertically integrated, for example with a single-state operator or multi-state operator, that makes it intrinsically more valuable. When you look at the value chain, right after cultivation is where we start to get involved.
Green: Are you also doing investments in tech and e-commerce?
Hawkins: We’ve made some investments in supply chain, management software, ERP solutions, things like that. We’re not really focused on e-commerce with the exception of the only CBD company we are invested in.
Green: How does Entourage’s investment philosophy differ from other VC and private equity firms in cannabis?
Hawkins: We really don’t pay attention to other people’s philosophies. We have co-invested with others in the past and will continue to do so. There’s not a lot of us in the industry, so it’s good that we all work together. Until legalization occurs, or institutional capital comes into play, we’re really the only game in town. So, it behooves us all to have good working relationships.
Green: Across the states, there’s a variety of markets in various stages of development. Do you tend to prefer investing in more sophisticated markets? Say California or Colorado where they’ve been legalized for longer, or are you looking more at new growth opportunities like New York and New Jersey?
Hawkins: Historically, we’ve focused on the most populous states. California is obviously where we’ve placed a lot of bets going forward. We’ll continue to build out our portfolio in California, but we will also exploit the other large population states like New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. All of those are big targets for us.
Green: Do you think legalization will happen this Congress?
Hawkins: My personal opinion is that it will not happen this year. It could be the latter part of next year or the year after. I think there’s just too much wood to chop. I was encouraged to see the SAFE Banking Act reappear. I think that will hopefully encourage institutional capital to take another look at the game, especially with the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange open up. So that’s a positive.
I think with the election of President Biden and with the Senate runoffs in Georgia going Democrat, the timeline to legalization has sped up, but I don’t think it’s an overnight situation. I certainly don’t think it’ll be easy to start crossing state lines immediately, either.
Green: Can you explain more about your thoughts on interstate commerce?
Hawkins: I think it’s pretty simple. The states don’t want to give up all the tax revenue that they get from their cultivation companies that are in the state. For example, if you allow Mexico and Colombia to start importing product, we can’t compete with that cost structure. States that are neighbors to California, but need to grow indoors which is more expensive, are not going to want to lose their tax revenues either. So, I just think there’s going to be a lot of butting heads at the state level.
The federal government is going to have to outline what the tax implications will be, because at the end of the day the industry is currently taxed as high as it ever will be or should be. Anything North of current tax levels will prohibit businesses from thriving further, effectively meaning not being able to tamp down the illicit market. One of the biggest goals of legalization in my opinion should be reducing the tax burden on the companies and thereby allowing them to be able to compete more directly with the illicit market, which obviously has all the benefits of reduced crime, etc.
Green: Do you foresee 280E changes coming in the future?
Hawkins: For sure. If the federal illegality veil is removed – which means there’ll be some type of rescheduling – cannabis would be removed from the 280E category. I think 280E by definition is about just illegal drugs and manufacturing and selling of that. As long as cannabis isn’t part of that, then it won’t be subject to it.
Green: What have been some of the winners in your portfolio in terms of successful exits?
Hawkins: When the CSC started allowing companies in Canada to own U.S. assets, the whole landscape changed. We were fortunate to be early investors in Acreage and companies that sold to Curaleaf and GTI before they were public. We are big investors in TerrAscend. We were early investors in Ebbu which sold to Canopy Growth. Those were huge wins for us in Fund I. We also have some interesting plays in Fund II that are on the precipice of having similar-type exits.
You read about the big ones, but at the end of the day, the ones that kind of fall under the radar – the private deals – actually have even greater multiples than what we see on some of the public M&A activity.
Green: Governor Cuomo has been hinting recently at being “very close” on a deal for opening up the cannabis market in New York. What do you think are the biggest opportunities in New York right now?
Hawkins: If it can get done, that’s great. I’m just concerned that distractions in the state house right now in New York may get in the way of progress there. But if it doesn’t, and it is able to come to fruition, then there isn’t a sector that doesn’t have a chance to thrive and thrive extremely well in the state of New York.
Green: Looking at other markets, Curaleaf recently announced a big investment in Europe. How do you look at Europe in general as an investment opportunity?
Hawkins: We have a pretty interesting play in Europe right now through a company called Relief Europe. It’s poised to be one of the first entrants to Germany. We think it could be a big win for us. But let’s face it, Europe is still a little behind, in fact, a lot behind the United States in terms of where they are as an industry. Most of the capital that we’re going to be deploying is going to be done domestically in advance of legalization.
Green: What industry trends are you seeing in the year ahead?“We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis.”
Hawkins: Well, I think you’ll see a lot of consolidation and a lot of ramping up in advance of legalization. I think that’s going to apply in all sectors. I just don’t see a scenario wherein mom and pops or smaller players are going to be successful exit partners with some of the new capital that’s coming in. They’re going to have to get to a point where they’re either selling to somebody bigger than them right now or joining forces with companies around the same size as them and creating mass. That’s the only way you’re going to compete with companies coming in with billions of dollars to deploy.
Green: How do you see this shaking out?
Hawkins: That’s where you start to look into the crystal ball. It’s really difficult to say because I think until we get to where we truly have a national footprint of brands, which would require crossing state lines, it’s going be really difficult to tell where things go. I do know that liquor, tobacco, beer, the distribution companies, they all are standing in line. Big Pharma, big CPG, nutraceuticals, they all want access to this, too.
In some form or fashion, these bigger players will dictate how they want to go about attacking the market on their own. So, that part remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait and see where this goes and how quickly it goes there.
Green: Are you looking at other geographies to deploy capital such as APAC or Latin America regions?
Hawkins: Not at this point. It’s not a focus at all. What recently transpired here in the elections just really makes us want to focus here and generate positive returns for investors.
Green: As cannabis goes more and more mainstream, federal legalization is maybe more likely. How do you think the institutional investor scene is evolving around that? And is it a good thing to bring in new capital to the cannabis market?
Hawkins: I don’t see a downside to it. Some people are saying that it could damage the collegial and cottage-like nature of the industry. At the end of the day, if you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that are waiting to pour into companies listed on the CSC and up-listing to the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange, that’s only going to increase their market caps and give them more cash to acquire other companies. The trickle-down effect of that will be so great to the industry that I just don’t know how you can look the other way and say we don’t want it.
Green: Last question: What’s got your attention these days? What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about?
Hawkins: We’re constantly learning about just where this industry is headed. We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis. We all saw the correlation between cannabis and alcohol prohibition. The reality is that the industry is mature enough now where you can see similarities to industries that have gone from infancy to their adolescent years. That’s kind of where we are now and so we spend a lot of time studying industries that have been down this path before and see what lessons we can apply here.
Green: Okay, great. So that concludes the interview!
Last week, GW Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: GWPH) announced they have entered into an agreement with Jazz Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: JAZZ) for Jazz to acquire GW Pharma. Both boards of directors for the two companies have approved the deal and they expect the acquisition to close in the second quarter of 2021.
GW Pharma is well-known in the cannabis industry as producing the first and only FDA-approved drug containing CBD, Epidiolex. Epidiolex is approved for the treatment of seizures in rare diseases like severe forms of epilepsy. GW is also currently in phase 3 trials seeking FDA approval for a similar drug, Nabiximols, that treats spasms from conditions like multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.
Jazz Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company based in Ireland that is known for its drug Xyrem, which is approved by the FDA to treat narcolepsy.
Bruce Cozadd, chairman and CEO of Jazz, says the acquisition will bring together two companies that have a track record of developing “differentiated therapies,” adding to their portfolio of sleep medicine and their growing oncology business. “We are excited to add GW’s industry-leading cannabinoid platform, innovative pipeline and products, which will strengthen and broaden our neuroscience portfolio, further diversify our revenue and drive sustainable, long-term value creation opportunities,” says Cozadd.
Justin Gover, CEO of GW Pharma, says the two companies share a vision for developing and commercializing innovative medicines, with a focus on neuroscience. “Over the last two decades, GW has built an unparalleled global leadership position in cannabinoid science, including the successful launch of Epidiolex, a breakthrough product within the field of epilepsy, and a diverse and robust neuroscience pipeline,” says Gover. “We believe that Jazz is an ideal growth partner that is committed to supporting our commercial efforts, as well as ongoing clinical and research programs.”
THC as of February of 2019, certainly in the recreational sense, was not much seen in either Switzerland or much of Europe. Even in Holland, the coffee shops were getting more regulated along with the supply chain for them. In Spain, the cannabis clubs thrived in a grey area. But outside of these two very narrow exceptions, the biggest, most valuable part of the cannabis market (medical and THC) was just as fraught with similar kinds of issues. And those were occurring not in Spain, Holland or even Switzerland, but just across the border, in Germany.
In fact, the real news on the industry side in Europe, as it had been for the past few years, was not the consumer CBD market, however intriguing and potentially valuable it was in the foreseeable future, but the medical, and “other” cannabinoid universe that included THC. And the real triggering event for the beginning of the European march towards reform was certainly influenced by what happened both in the United States and Canada as much as Israel. Where it landed first and most definitively was not Holland, circa 2014, or even Switzerland or Spain soon thereafter, but rather Deutschland.
The Canadian market without a doubt, also created an impetus for European reform to begin to roll right as German legislators changed the laws about medical cannabis in 2017. But even this was a cannabis industry looking to foreign markets that they presumably knew were developing (if not had a direct hand in doing so, including in Berlin, come tender-writing time).
Divorced from inside knowledge about moving international affairs, why did Germany – certainly as opposed to its certainly more “liberal” DACH trading partner Switzerland- suddenly turn up in the summer of 2016 as the “next” hot thing for Canadian cannabis companies?
The answer is in part political, certainly economic, and absolutely strategic.
Germany is in the EU, unlike Switzerland, and is a G7 country.6 It also was, by 2016, certainly much closer to legalizing federally authorized and insurer-reimbursed medical use cannabis. This was because sick patients had by this time successfully sued the government for access (including home grow). And the government, citing concerns about the black market and unregulated cannabis production (see Canada) wanted another option.
Not to mention was a market, certainly in 2016, helped with a little CETA inspired “juice.”
The international trade treaty between Canada and the EU (if not the other big treaty, the pharmaceutically focused Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) with the U.S.) has been in the back of the room throughout the entire cannabis discussion during the expansion of the Canadian industry across Europe. It is still unclear at this writing if the juxtaposition of CETA and the start of the Canadian cannabis trade had anything to do with lengthening the process of the German cultivation bid – but given how political the plant had also become, this was at this point more than a reasonable assumption to make.
As a result so far at least, since the beginning of the real German cannabis market in 2016 (namely the beginning of an import market from not just Holland but Canada) and Europe beyond that, Canadian companies have played an outsize role (starting with bankrolling operations in the first place). The growth of the Canadian market as well as developments within it absolutely spawned if not sparked the change if not beginning of the changeover within Europe by starting, of all places, with Germany.
But again, why Germany? And why the coalescence of the industry as well as other Euro hot spots outside its borders since then?
There are several explanations for this.
One is absolutely timing and strategic positioning.
Germany had, since 2015, begun the slow process of dealing with the medical cannabis issue on a federal basis, informed if not greatly influenced not only by what was happening in events abroad in Canada and the U.S. but also Israel. At home, there was also pressure to begin to address the issue. Albeit highly uncomfortably and at least in the eyes of the majority of centrist legislators, as far at a distance as possible.
Namely, patient lawsuits against insurers began to turn in favor of patients. Technically, between the turn of the century and 2016, patients could buy cannabis in pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription in Germany. But it was hugely expensive and beyond that a cumbersome process. Only 800 patients in fact, by 2017 had both managed to find doctors willing to prescribe the drug and could afford the €1,500 (about $1,700) a month to pay for it.
Everyone else, despite nobody’s willingness to admit it, found their supplies in the grey (non-profit patient collective) or black (street and largely criminally connected) market.
Günther Weiglein, a patient from Wurzburg, a small town in Bavaria, changed all of that.
In 2015, he won his court case against his insurer, claiming that even though he qualified as a patient, he could not afford the cannabis for sale in pharmacies. With that, he and a few patients temporarily won the right to grow their own (with permission).
Weiglein is the epitome of the German “everyman.” Blond, stocky and in his fifties, he has suffered chronic pain since a devastating motorcycle crash more than two decades ago. He has also taken to the cannabis cause with a dedication and singularity of purpose that sets him apart even from most other patient activists (in Germany or elsewhere). He is fiercely independent. And not afraid of expressing his desire for a “freedom” that has not yet come.
However, in 2015, there seemed to be several intriguing possibilities.
Indeed, at the time, it seemed possible, in fact, that Germany seemed poised to tilt in the direction of Canada – namely that patient home grow would be enshrined as a kind of constitutional right.
However, it did not turn out that way. Desperate to stem the pan European black market, which is far more directly connected to terrorism of the religious extremist and Mafia kind in these waters and to avoid a situation where Berlin became the next Amsterdam, the German parliament decided on a strange compromise.
On one level, it seems so predictably orderly and German. If cannabis is a medicine, then Germans should be able to access the same through national health insurance.
In fact, however, the process has been one that is tortured and has been ever since, not to mention compounded the difficulties of just about everyone connected to the market. From patients to producers.
“In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly.”Here is why. The government decided that, as of passage of a new law which took effect in March 2017, the German government would regulate the industry via BfArM, the German equivalent of the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and issue formal federal cultivation licenses.
This makes sense from a regulatory perspective too. Cannabis can be used as a medical drug. Even if its definition as a “narcotic” – even on the medical side – leaves a lot to be desired.
This is especially true on the CBD part of the equation. It is even more particularly relevant for those who use THC regularly for not only chronic pain, but as an anti-convulsive or anti-inflammatory agent.
However unlike Canada, the German federal government also chose to revoke patient grow rights while mandating that insurers cover the cost of the drug if prescribed by a doctor. In practice also spawning a specialty distributor market that is still forming.
All very nice in theory. In this abstract world, these rules make sense for a pharmacized plant if not drug beyond that. This is the route all other medicines in Germany take to get into the market if not prescribed in the first place.
In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly. Indeed, while understandable for many reasons from stemming the black market to setting standards, this rapid switch from patient or collective grown cannabis to requiring patients to interact with both a doctor and a pharmacy (beyond the insurer) with no other alternative also creates its own serious problems. For everyone along the supply chain. But most seriously and problematically for both patients and doctors.
On December 16, 2020, Aphria Inc. (TSX: APHA and Nasdaq: APHA) announced a merger with Tilray, Inc. (Nasdaq: TLRY), creating the world’s largest cannabis company. The two Canadian companies combined have an equity value of $3.9 billion.
Following the news of the merger, Tilray’s stock rose more than 21% the same day. Once the reverse-merger is finalized, Aphria shareholders will own 62% of the outstanding Tilray shares. That is a premium of 23% based on share price at market close on the 15th. Based on the past twelve months of reports, the two companies’ revenue totals more than $685 million.
Both of the companies have had international expansion strategies in place well beyond the Canadian market, with an eye focused on the European and United States markets. In Germany, Aphria already has a well-established footprint for distribution and Tilray owns a production facility in Portugal.
About two weeks ago, Aphria closed on their $300 million acquisition of Sweetwater Brewing Company, one of the largest independent craft brewers in the United States. Sweetwater is well known for their 420 Extra Pale Ale, their cannabis-curious lifestyle brands and their music festivals.
Once the Aphria/Tilray merger is finalized, the company will have offices in New York, Seattle, Toronto, Leamington, Vancouver Island, Portugal and in Germany. The new combined company will do business under the Tilray name with shares trading on NASDAQ under ticker symbol “TLRY”.
Aphria’s current chairman and CEO, Irwin Simon, will be the chairman and CEO of the combined company, Tilray. “We are bringing together two world-class companies that share a culture of innovation, brand development and cultivation to enhance our Canadian, U.S., and international scale as we pursue opportunities for accelerated growth with the strength and flexibility of our balance sheet and access to capital,” says Simon. “Our highly complementary businesses create a combined company with a leading branded product portfolio, including the most comprehensive Cannabis 2.0 product offerings for patients and consumers, along with significant synergies across our operations in Canada, Europe and the United States. Our business combination with Tilray aligns with our strategic focus and emphasis on our highest return priorities as we strive to generate value for all stakeholders.”
As a strange year heads to a final, painful finish, there have been some major (and some less so) changes afoot in the global world of cannabis regulation. These developments have also undoubtedly been influenced by recent events, such as the recent elections in the United States, state votes for adult use reform in the U.S. and the overall global temperature towards reform. And while all are broadly positive, they have not actually accomplished very much altogether.
Here is a brief overview of the same.
The UN Vote On Cannabis Despite a wide celebration in the cannabis press, along with proclamations of an unprecedented victory by large Canadian companies who are more interested in keeping their stock prices high than anything else, the December 2 vote on cannabis was actually fairly indecisive.
Following the WHO recommendations to reschedule cannabis, the UN voted in favor of the symbolic move. Despite removing cannabinoids from Schedule IV globally, a regulatory label designed for highly addictive, prescription drugs (like Valium), the actual results on the ground for the average company and patient will be inconclusive.
The first issue is that the UN did not remove cannabinoids themselves, or the plant, from Schedule I designation. This essentially means that countries and regions will be on the front lines to create more local, sovereign policies. This is not likely to change for at least the next several years (more likely decade) as the globe comes to terms with not just a reality post-COVID-19, but one which is very much pro-cannabis.
In the meantime, however, the ruling will make it easier for research to be conducted, for patient access (for the long term), and more difficult for insurers to turn down in jurisdictions where the supposed “danger” of cannabis has been used as an excuse to deny coverage. See Germany as a perfect example of the same.
It is also a boon for the CBD business, no matter where it is. Between this decision and the recent victory in Europe about whether CBD is a narcotic or not (see below), this is another nail in the coffin for those who want to use semantic excuses to restrain the obvious global desire for cannabinoids, with or without THC.
That said, the vote is significant in that it is a test of the current trends and views towards big issues within the overall discussion, beginning with decriminalization and a reform of current criminal and social justice issues inherent in the same. The Biden Administration, while plagued with a multitude of issues, beginning with the pandemic and its immediate aftershocks, will not be able to push both off the radar. Given the intersection of minority rights’ issues, the growing legality of the drug and acceptance thereof, as well as the growing non-partisan position on cannabis use of both the medical and adult use kind, and the economy, expect issues like banking to also have a hope of reform in the next several years.
Cannabis may be taking a back seat to COVID, in other words, but as the legalization of the industry is bound up, inextricably, in economic issues now front and center for every economy, it will be in the headlines a great deal. This makes it an unavoidable issue for the majority of the next four years and on a federal level.
Prognosis in other words? It’s a good next federal step that is safe, but far from enough.
The European Commission (EC) Has Finally Seen The Light On CBD
This combined with the UN rescheduling, will actually be the huge boost the CBD industry has been waiting for here, with one big and still major overhanging caveat – namely whether the plant is a “novel” one or not. It is unlikely as the situation continues to cook, that Cannabis Sativa L, when it hits a court of law, will ever be actually found as such. It has inhabited the region and been used by its residents for thousands of years.
However, beyond this, important regulatory guidance will need to fall somewhere on the matter of processing and extraction. It is in fact in the processing and extraction part of the debate that this discussion about Novel Food actually means something, beyond the political jockeying and hay made so far.
Beyond this of course, the marketing of CBD now allowed by this decision, will absolutely move the topic of cannabinoids front and center in the overall public sphere. That linked with sovereign experiments on adult use markets of the THC kind (see Holland, Luxembourg and Denmark as well as Portugal and Spain right after that), is far from a null sum game.
Legal Challenges Of Note
Against this changing regulatory schemata, court cases and legal decisions remain very important as they also add flavor to how regulations are interpreted and followed. The most important court case in Europe right now is the one now waiting to be decided in the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg regarding the human rights implications of accessing the plant.
Beyond that, in Germany, recent case law at a regional social benefits court (LSG) has begun to establish that the cannabis discussion is ultimately between doctors and their patients. While this still does not solve the problem of doctor reluctance to prescribe the drug, barriers are indeed coming down thanks to legal challenges.
Bottom line, the industry has been handed a nice whiff of confidence, but there is a still high and thorny bramble remaining to get through – and it will not happen overnight, or indeed even over the next several years.
The United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs, based in Vienna, Austria, voted to remove cannabis for medical use from its Schedule IV status, the strictest drug classification where dangerous drugs like heroin are listed.
Dirk Heitepriem, vice president at Canopy Growth, told the New York Times the vote is a huge step forward. “We hope this will empower more countries to create frameworks which allow patients in need to get access to treatment,” says Heitepriem.
The much-delayed vote was close, with 27 in favor and 25 against, and Ukraine abstaining, but support from the United States was pivotal in getting it passed. Still though, the vote is largely symbolic – it doesn’t necessarily clear the way for countries to start legalizing cannabis and governments can still classify cannabis how they see fit.
The vote does, however, provide an important foot-in-the-door moment for cannabis advocates and businesses around the world. The commission’s decision to remove cannabis from Schedule IV means that the UN recognizes cannabis as an effective medicine, opening the door to future progress on the international level and possibly opening research opportunities along the way.
There is an ineffable logic to the pace of reform these days. Nowhere is that clearer in both the success of voter reform measures in the United States (along with timelines for implementation baked into the language of the same) and developments internationally. No matter that New Zealand decided to take a recent punt on the issue, there are other forces moving elsewhere that have the potential to be far more consequential – and in the short term.
Israel Announced Its Intent To Create A Recreational Market in 2021
There is little news anywhere as consequential as that of the oldest medical market finally succumbing to the inevitable. Namely, Israel has announced that it will allow an adult use market to begin operations probably by the third quarter of 2021. That said, don’t hold anyone to a deadline in the days of COVID-19, which will just as surely have not passed by then.
However, this development means that the entire conversation has moved up a notch – because the Israelis have so much research on the plant at this point.
For this reason, the tiny country is likely to have an outsized impact on the entire discussion – along with conveniently timed medical exports to the world.
Luxembourg Will Initiate Its Recreational Market Shortly Thereafter
It is likely not insignificant that the Israelis announced their intent to begin an adult use market just ahead of the long-announced Luxembourg flip – now on the agenda of the Green Party domestically for several years.
The strategic location of Luxembourg in both the European market as well as the much larger financial one now interested in the vertical cannot be understated. Indeed, the country has already played an outsized role in the development of the medical market here due to the contretemps over the clearing of stock trades in the German market as of 2018.
The double whammy of good news from both markets will also create a buzz internationally that is sure to drive other conversations forward – even if it is to study how both countries approach the issue. And, more to a point, how they differ from Canada, including regulation of their equity markets.
Combined with a more regulated market in Holland and presumably continued “experimentation” in Denmark, and by the end of next year, adult use reform will have hit the continent and in no small way.
Does This Mean The Sudden Potential of Adult Use Everywhere?
As 2020 has shown, in spades, just about anything can and frequently does happen. However, do not expect many more countries to move into the recreational column for the next several years.
Whatever the UN does or does not do about cannabis at the next meeting of the WHO, cannabis the plant remains a Schedule I drug internationally. This means that, for example, import and export of the same across borders, even in Europe, is likely to be problematic and for some time to come – let alone its international travel across say, the Atlantic.
Further from the law enforcement and financial security (namely money laundering) perspective, there are big issues that have to be dealt with finally, internationally, that so far have not – and under the guise of “medical reform.”
For that reason, in other words, do not expect Germany, much less France or even the UK to suddenly switch gears. And remember that both Luxembourg and Israel are small countries.
Bottom line? Adult use reform is here to stay, and will increasingly show up on the map. But the more “blanket” reform, still driving the entire discussion, is broadly, and globally, medical.
I have heard everything from “No one in their right mind would spend the energy in Europe when the U.S. has the most developed infrastructure in the world and $13 billion in sales” to “Is it even legal there?”. And yes, when you come from the West Coast cannabis world, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else but the West Coast of the U.S.A.
Europe has taken an infrastructural leap forward by starting off the pharmaceutical, medical and GMP supplements path. As an American-European from the West Coast cannabis world, remembering how the U.S. started/progressed, remaining patient and stretching the grey matter crossing the thresholds of pharmaceutical manufacturing, is serious.
Costs to Do Business
Which country you choose to begin operations in decides if cannabis is more or less expensive cap-x and opp-x to the U.S. And don’t forget the Euro conversion. Clearly, working near main cities like Berlin and Geneva will be expensive both for land and competition for talented staff. I chose Portugal, which greatly reminds me in terms of geography to a mini-California on the coast of Europe. Portugal also boasts the most progressive cannabis rules and is home to large cannabis producers like Tilray and Clever Leaves paving the way in the EU market. Greece is also one of our top locations, due to being cannabis friendly and another coastal country with great talent and reasonable costs to live and operate.
All of Europe is buzzing with cannabis. Somai Pharmaceuticals tracks over 387 star-ups in cannabis around Europe, South America, Australia and Asia. The excitement when Colorado first announced cannabis legalization in 2014 is the same feeling in Europe now. Most groups are collaborative yet guarded at the same time with the uncertainty of how EU cannabis plays out. Patient demand exists, and similar government wills are at play, but all in the direct backyard of big pharma.
Right now you see huge companies that will always exist and small companies that will always be a part of competition. It’s likely that Europe will shake out to be 30% large to medium company mix and 70% medium to small companies. So, the feeling of room for everyone exists there. This is not surprising considering the legal market in the world is $17B in sales while the illegal market is estimated at ten times that market. And new demographics from around the world are opening up to cannabis for pain relief, sleep and other ailments for new age groups.
Brand New Infrastructure
Conforming to standard guidelines like pharmaceutical manufacturing, GMP supplement manufacturing and GACP farming is just plain normal. U.S. state-by-state expansions really missed the boat on this, and state rules without federal guidelines aren’t good for businesses left guessing or consumers. Eventually, with federal legalization, some infrastructure rebuilding will be needed to conform to standard procedures. I am unsure if the systems are even capable of handling tens of thousands of operating facilities with or without regulation, but starting off at the highest level of pharmaceutical grade is a good way to build consumer and regulator confidence. Learning pharmaceutical and supplement GMP manufacturing is a precise and studied endeavor coming from the U.S. cannabis market. The US hemp industry is embracing this on a supplement level. I now curl up to online courses and formulation books.
In time, all of Europe’s 741 million population will have access to cannabis related products. With standardized processes, new infrastructures and good-old fashioned entrepreneur energy Europe will be a massive market. Sure, the early adopters will need to struggle through regulations and rule creation, but the lifestyle in Southern Europe is the envy of West Coast USA, where laid-back lifestyle and organic food is the minimum standard.
Cannabis reform is proceeding globally right now in some interesting places, and in an oddly syncopated schedule yet again.
Namely, in the last few weeks, change has been moving forward not only in the U.S., but Europe too. That this effort in the EU came literally weeks before the American presidential election where as of now, no matter who will occupy the White House, even more states move into the adult use camp is also surely no accident. Particularly given the results.
In South Dakota’s case, voters agreed to legalize both a medical and recreational market in a single election. In New Jersey, the referendum that passed authorized a market that is moving quickly to get implemented. This is equally intriguing. Namely that to the average person right now, no matter where they are, the continued delays and gridlock to get going, no matter the problems along the way, are increasingly unpopular politically. That too, is showing up at the ballot box.
Indeed, cannabis reform is now absolutely one of the most pressing and yet unaddressed issues in several countries at present. See New Zealand (where the voter mandate for adult use reform failed during their Presidential election last week).
Europe Seems To Be Following New Zealand’s Caution As Germany Delays Further Reform But…
Last week, a proposal on adult use cannabis reform failed in the German Bundestag (Parliament). With the exception of the far right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), every other political party agrees that there needs to be forward motion on the topic, but nobody seems to want to fully address it. This is no surprise. Indeed, the recent appointment of a former German minister last month to a Swiss cannabis company seems, certainly in retrospect, to presage the same. As well as the many protest votes on the topic emanating from Berlin, one way or the other.
However, in the aftermath of what is expected to be a widely influential medical case here (namely the regional approvers may not interfere with a doctor’s right to prescribe to qualified patients), it may be that the government wants more time to grow its medical program while Denmark, Holland and Luxembourg (if not Spain) figure out the logistics on the ground.
Given that France has finally committed to a national medical trial to begin no later than the second quarter of next year, and further one where it punts the majority of the cost onto the industry itself, this would create a solid “medical cannabis” bloc in Europe’s most affluent states. Not to mention the first real, nationally authorized patient trial in Europe that is not commercial.
But even this is not the whole story. While dickering about the certifications and scheduling of the plant go on now at the highest international levels, let alone federal ones domestically, hemp products are clearly entering the consumer market here – from upscale CBD stores in city centers to hemp seed oil and hemp-infused mayonnaise appearing on the shelves of German mainstream grocery stores. Not to mention hemp infused alcohol of at least the vodka, gin and rum varieties.
And then of course there is Italy.
The Italian Market May Be The Dark Horse In Europe Everyone Has Been Waiting For
Within literally the month of October, all in public view, the Italian government circled on the topic of legalizing the CBD/hemp market. As of last week, the Ministry of Health finally decided that cannabidiol sourced from hemp is not a narcotic.
Given the fact that home grow now is not illegal, and medical cannabis is technically available, it would seem that Italy is positioning its hemp market to survive if not thrive at least domestically and further thread the needle of industry continuity against fluid and further rapidly changing European and international regulation right now.
In the meantime, like Germany, however, the country is clearly angling to create an industry infrastructure – and further beyond the pharmaceutical vertical – via “other” channels before taking the final plunge. Cannabis Lite fits that bill perfectly.
What Does This Mean For 2021 And Beyond?
No matter the official denials, it is very clear that recreational cannabis reform at the American and Canadian ballot box is moving the conversation forward globally, even if at a different pace.
With the WHO now poised to weigh in on the issue, more American states signing up, an expanding medical market across the world and adult use upstarts everywhere, 2021 is absolutely sure to be a meaningful year just about everywhere on the cannabis front.
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