Publicly listed Australian firm MGC Pharma has now entered Poland. The company just announced a commercial wholesale agreement with a local NGO called Cannabis House Association. CHA is also pairing with the Forensic Laboratory of the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Lodz. The plan is to support a large-scale research project in Poland.
This is a first of its kind situation in Europe, even more interesting that it is happening here (as opposed to say Germany). The idea is to examine the societal, financial, medical and public health ramifications of the use of cannabis.
There are approximately 15,000 pharmacies in Poland, most of which are authorized to dispense cannabis. Indeed, estimates of how many Polish patients there are ranges from between 300,000 – 600,000. Numbers could also be well higher.
Poland does not represent the only European landing of late for MGC. Indeed, the company also began importing cannabis into Ireland – as of December, 2019.
Poland is in an interesting position in the cannabis debate right now. Policy tends to follow Germany on many issues. However much the situation is different here than Germany, there are also obvious similarities – starting with the reluctance of authorities to encourage anything but imports into the medical market.
However, while the situation facing patients is not exactly analogous to Germany (it is more like Ireland or the UK right now), the country is clearly moving into a strategic position in the global cannabis economy.
Poland is also clearly at least beginning to implement reform that appears to track its larger neighbor next door.
A Short History of Polish Cannabis Reform
For the past few years, ever since 2017 in fact, when Poland “legalized” medical use, patients have been stuck with few options. Indeed, the only real access route to obtaining the plant or cannabinoid medicines legally is literally crossing the border, in person, in a place like Holland or Germany. Obtaining the drug in another country and then making the border crossings to get it home is not an attractive situation for anyone. This option, obviously is prohibitive for almost everyone. And dangerous for caretakers and patients alike, and clearly not sustainable.
Like Germany, in other words, Poland appears to be moving cautiously to implement the idea of cannabis reform starting with imports first. Even though there is a burgeoning local hemp industry in the country with hopes to not only to supply domestic patients, but also to export over the border into higher wage economies. See Germany, for starters.
Starting in 2018, Canadian companies began to enter the market. Aurora and Canopy Growth in particular, targeted Poland aggressively. But they are far from the only companies eyeing the country as a lucrative market. Macedonian, Czech and Israeli firms are all eyeing the ground.
Developing Market Issues
Poland is however on the front lines of this debate in a way that its richer European neighbors are not. With an exchange rate that is roughly 4 zloty to 1 euro, expensive cannabis imports will be even further out of reach for patients than they are in say Germany.
Further, there is an active and enthusiastic burgeoning domestic cannabis economy on the ground already – although locally, capital is scarce.
MGC’s experiment, in other words, represents a first step not only in business development for their own products, but a potential opening of a national acceptance about the use of this drug – not to mention who pays for the same – and where it is produced.
In the aftermath of COVID-19 hitting Europe, German ministers (for one) are already suggesting that the country secure its pharmaceutical supply chain by producing more drugs in the country rather than relying on supply chains that reach to Asia for more conventional products.
It is likely that this conversation will also begin to expand to cannabis, not only in Germany of course, but also Poland.
In the meantime, MGC Pharma has managed to go where no other private cannabis company has gone in Europe so far – and in a way that will pay off not only for them, but the entire cannabis conversation.
It is obviously not just at conferences but now on the ground in Germany and across Europe that Americans are heading to the industry here. And it is not just the “new” cultivation guys at Demecan in Berlin (currently hiring), or in Guernsey, but in truth, throughout the industry.
Wish you were here? Here is the broad skinny to actually getting (and keeping) a job in the industry in Europe.
Get A Job Before You Come
By far, the easiest and safest way to come to a new country, like Germany (or the UK for that matter) is to have pre-arranged employment. That is also beginning to happen, as large companies set up grow and manufacturing facilities throughout Europe. That said, these are hard to come by (there are many Germans and other natives vying for the same jobs). However so far, certain kinds of experience in the U.S. (or Canada) beats anything that has gotten going here so far from the cultivation side and many other aspects of the biz.
But – and this is a big one – you have to have the kind of experience that counts. Regulated industry participation is a must on your CV if this is your preferred route of travel. Pharmacists in particular, could have a fascinating career path here not open in the United States at all yet. So will doctors – but that certification has to be earned here to practice.
It is also far easier to deal with the paperwork that is required than it used to be ironically – in that there are new qualifications being set out for the same in both the UK and Germany at the moment. Understanding them, however is another matter, and interpretation at the immigration office is not something you want to sign yourself up for. In any language.
However, immigration law is just the beginning on the regulation front. Regulations across the cannabis industry are also changing fast – and not just under the heading “cannabis.”
Nothing, really is “easy” about being an expat. You have to want to do this.
There are now starting to be numerous European job postings in the industry on Linked In. It is a great place to start. Having B1 Deutsch (third level, very hard to pass, intensive German language certification) is usually a must for employment (not to mention getting around in the country).
Disclosure: This journalist failed A1 German in Germany (introductory level) twice. Starting from scratch is not recommended, because the rest of your class (usually with previous German training) will kick your butt in numbers bingo by the end of the first week. Learning – including punctuation and spelling 50 new vocabulary words a week is pretty standard. And that is before the grammar. All taught in German too! Four hours a day, five days a week.
Yes, your class will laugh at you, even if they think you are otherwise cool as a North American.
It also helps if you have taken at least one German language course (as in college semester level) before you come. Otherwise you will hit unbelievably intimidating compound words that take up a great deal of space on a page and four different tenses that even native Germans do not really understand by the end of the second week (and it is mind-blowing). You learn to appreciate Mark Twain’s humour about the dratted language very quickly, not to mention that the umlaut is really the only thing you have any freedom of expression with.
Be prepared to sign up for language courses when you land with the local VHS (Volkshochschule) – which is sort of like German community college for anything you want to take classes in. It is also the cheapest deal on language courses around. The private ones are pricey.
That said, master the lingo, even passably, and Germans are super pleased about the same. No matter how badly you mangle the language, they are just happy to hear you try.
Student Visas and the Educational Path
By far, the easiest path to starting your journey overseas, is luck. The second one however, is actually one way to go if you are prepared to work yourself to the bone, and do it while learning German intensively. Plus get a university level or graduate degree along the way.
If Cannabis Europe is your dream job and vocation, you will make it happen. Just don’t expect it to be easy, or just like anywhere else.Go first as a language student. That gets you two years, fairly easily, as long as you have €8k in your bank account at all times, and do not work at a German job. That is verboten. However, as an American, particularly in Germany, you still have the right to come here and learn.
There is also about to be a fairly ground-breaking immigration law that comes into effect as of March in Germany that allows highly skilled foreigners to earn their way to citizenship. There is a list of requirements that go along with this, of course. The path to being able to stay includes getting a higher German degree or special German training. Expect pretty much the same thing from post-Brexit Britain too – just in the same language.
You also have to have health insurance and a lot of other things taken care of. It is not a sudden move or jump. For all the amazing things that come with this, also be prepared to think about looking in the mirror at least a few times and thinking “am I stupid, what on earth have I done?”
Then there is location. A Kreuzburg address may impress the folks back home, but those are not cheap these days, and extremely hard to come by. Rent, in general, and not just in Berlin, is beginning to be a real issue in every German city. Finding an accommodation that you can afford in “starting out” circumstances – is not easy right now anywhere.
But it’s not just about rent or the buzz you might have heard. Don’t just put Berlin on the map (or even Munich, also a growing professional scene). Both cities are far from the center of the cannabis scene in Europe, much less Germany although there is a lot going on all the time there. Dortmund, and the Ruhrgebeit in the former “Rust Belt” of Germany are much cheaper, full of students, and popping with cannabis reform all over. Cologne is also a very interesting city right now. So are Bremen and Stuttgart.
The Differences Are Large Besides the Language
No matter what you think you can expect, the only thing you can rely on is that just about everything will not be the same. Yes, German beer fests and bratwurst are comfortingly familiar to be accepted easily. But when it comes to really immersing yourself in a country well enough to think of it as “home”, let alone understanding the vagaries of this business in particular? Just about everything is different. This ain’t Kansas, (or Colorado, for that matter) Dorothy.
Bottom line? If Cannabis Europe is your dream job and vocation, you will make it happen. Just don’t expect it to be easy, or just like anywhere else.
There is a strange, if yet so far undetected, regulatory hum in the air right now in Europe that will begin to increasingly occupy those who are in the certified industry here or looking to get in.
And no, it’s not imminent “recreational,” although it will also have vast impact on the same.
A little understood regulatory structure (so far at least within the cannabis industry) called EU-BIO is now firmly in the room.
What that is and how it will impact the industry is already starting to show up in a few places (see the new announcement by the Swiss that their recreational trial will be organic). This is of course before any dates have even been decided upon for said trial (although others have been set up in the country for about a year).
Beyond this, there are vast implications for every part of the industry, THC or CBD, medical or “lifestyle” focused.
What is EU BIO?
All food in the European Union is regulated on a “federal” level much like in the United States. The difference in Europe however, is that every European “state” or country (like Germany, Spain or Holland) also then has their own regulatory structure which is also equal to the federal standards of the U.S. – including via treaty on both the pharmaceutical and “consumer” side. In general, as a result, regulations, including in all things cannabis space related, are much stricter in Europe.
What this also means, generally, is that all food, cosmetic and human-use lebensmittel (to use the German word for everyday consumer goods like food, cosmetics and lifestyle products) must pass through regulatory agencies that are very much like the USDA and FDA in every country and on a regional European level before being approved on a national sovereign one. Where those are, and who handles what, however, is a patchwork of agencies across the continent. There is no homogenization, in other words, for an organic producer looking for the right agency to get certification from in Germany and Austria.
The distinctive green logo that is omnipresent in particularly German grocery stores also comes with a few high standards of its own. Namely that the logo must appear on all pre-packaged EU food products claiming to be organic within the EU and all member states as well as all imports. Even more importantly, the logo cannot be placed on “transition” projects – namely those which are hoping to fulfil the regulatory standards but are not there yet.
To complicate matters even further, of course all product that ends up as EU GMP must begin life as an organic product. Forget pesticides – radiated product is a hot topic right now as well as its certification in the German medical market.
And that also means, by definition, that all cannabis production in Europe as well as products hoping to be sold via relatively normal channels, must also meet these certifications.
The only other option of course, is what is called “Novel Food.” And even here, thanks to changes in EU BIO on the table for the next couple of years, those who hope to gain access via this kind of labelling, still need to pay attention to organic production. No matter where you are. Or what you want to sell.
Are All “Organics” Made Equal?
Just as in the medical industry and GMP, the strictures of “certified organic” are supposed to be fairly straightforward, but are interpreted by different countries and regions.
Generally speaking, however, national or even regional “organics” are not exactly the same. For example, Canadian “organic” is not the same as EU-BIO, starting with the fact that the plants in question are not necessarily of European origin (see the same logic here as behind Novel Food). In other words, there is no automatic equality, starting with the source of the seed. But there are also other issues in the room including processing.
That said, being organic is going to be the watchword of the industry. And in this, a bit surprisingly, the US will also have a lasting impact. Why? Because many countries want to export to the US (far from cannabis) and are required to adopt similar agricultural standards (see Latin America for starters).
Bottom line: it is better to be “green”, through and through, no matter where you are, or where you are from, in the global industry going forward. By the end of 2021, certified organic supply, at every level of the industry, won’t be a “choice” anymore.
Germany, for all of the other developments going on right now (globally) is still chugging forward, in integrating medical cannabis. It is slow going – but certainly going.
In terms of overall numbers, there is certainly an interesting story to tell. The import of medical cannabis grade flowers also more than doubled last year over 2018.
But does the “average” German patient have easier access even with more product in the market?
Answer: There are certainly more Germans with more cannabis prescriptions. See the increase in imports and the numbers from the statutory health insurers.
But even though these are clearly positive signs, it has not necessarily gotten much easier so far. That said, it is about to get quite a bit cheaper.
The Mainstreaming of the German and EU Cannabis Market
National pride aside, the German government is in fact the entity which got this whole ball of wax rolling here, and it is they who still determine the pace of regulated change. The cultivation of medical cannabis is now fully underway in the country, with Demecan still in the most interesting position. Aurora has just gotten another certification and is back on the ground in pharmacies.
But many issues remain.
On the ground, pharmacists cannot get enough product on a reliable basis. Patients are still caught in the never-ending merry-go-round of chasing down willing doctors, battling insurance companies for reimbursement and trying to have a good relationship with their local pharmacist. If, of course, they can afford both the drug itself, along with its outlying costs and frustrations to access, and their health insurance company plays ball.
Even then, chances are, the most seriously ill patients are still relying on “other” sources. A reference wholesale price (of €2.30 a gram set by the German government last year) is likely to stabilize the market if not pricing. For everyone – not just those on public healthcare.
The plant is becoming commoditized, even if slower than most people in the industry long to see.
On top of that, while certification is currently gaining steam in the industry, especially in Europe, there are many problems and issues remaining – on everything from processing of the flower to registration of products made from it. And in both the medical and recreational market.
Overall, in other words, markers are all good. But the process is going to be (very) slow if steady for the next several years.
Don’t Expect Continual Explosive Growth
Dronabinol is still at least a third of the public healthcare market. The majority of patients who receive the drug still fit the same overall treatment profile (chronic pain). And doctors are still highly reluctant to consider it as a more standard practice.
But the most important conversation, by far, is still basic legalization and regulation beyond that. That too will change. Not to mention the recreational discussion now absolutely on the table. Four years of a medical market only continue to open doors, not close them. And elsewhere, across the continent, reform is generating new producers from not only southern Europe but just about everywhere else on the globe where cannabis is becoming legit.
For the next year, however, as all of these issues continue to be debated, and at both a national and increasingly local level, don’t expect “explosive” anything.
Those who have established themselves are dug in. It is going to be trench warfare from now on out, barring a major surprise, for the next few years.
What Is Likely To Change The Equation?
CBD battles are absolutely strategic manoeuvres through the intricacies of this regulatory shift (legalization of the plant). This alone, particularly for the next few years, is likely to also move the conversation forward – and not just on the medical front.
It is also patently obvious that governments (starting with Italy) are beginning to again consider the topic of limited home grow and recreational reform.
But the most important conversation, by far, is still basic legalization and regulation beyond that. And until that happens, nothing will be “normal” about a market that is clearly being allowed to grow, in a market which is being carefully tended and managed.
“Explosive” in other words, is far from the agenda of anyone in authority who is making the decisions. And that includes regulated market growth and numbers for the next 48 months at least.
The Italian Supreme Court seemed to take a page from both Israel and Thailand last year (who announced exports and reform legislation on Christmas Day 2018). In the dying days of 2019, on December 19, the court ruled in what is basically a landmark decision for not only the country but the continent, that small-scale domestic cultivation of cannabis (both of the CBD and THC kind) is legal.
Even more intriguingly, the ruling was ignored for several days in Italy before being picked up by news agencies. This in turn has apparently set off a much wider and predictable debate about the use of the plant in the country – either for medical and or recreational purposes. Many are doubtful that any legislation will pass formalizing the inevitable in the near future (one attempt has already been killed), but one can never know these days. This is an issue that perennially takes countries and politicians by surprise as populations warm quickly to the concept of medical reform.
That said, so far efforts to formalize the ruling into law have been slapped down by the center right Forza Italia Party. Further, if a right or center right coalition comes to power in Italy as widely expected, it is likely to try to overturn the court ruling legislatively which has been described at least in such circles as an “absurd verdict.”
It is important also to understand this distinction if not label and how it translates both internationally and domestically.
In Canada, reform was championed by economic liberals (who are basically centrist, globalists if not free traders) and libertarians more than any other label. However initially, reform was driven not by political campaigns but rather a national challenge to prevailing cultivation law at the supreme court. This then became the legal basis for reform legislation of both the medical and recreational kind.
In the U.S., cannabis reform is frequently championed by states’ rights advocates, who are from a European perspective, extreme right wing. Right down to opposing the federal imposition of not only civil rights but other kinds of regulatory law. Including in this space. This also includes absolute hostility to anything resembling “national” if not “single payer” federal healthcare.
The two issues obviously overlap, intersect and create many strange juxtapositions if not outright contradictions and paradoxes. And many strange bedfellows.
This disconnect of course is also what has held back a united front on passing federal reform no matter how much this has allowed recreational to now spread to 11 American states as of January 1 this year. As a result, for now and certainly for several years after the next presidential election, barring a surprise realignment of politics in the U.S., there is unlikely to be any progress on federal reform. But in the U.S., cannabis legalization is a “purple” issue. Trump, for example, still opposes any national change – although if the election is tight, look for a lot of promises from both sides.
Across the Atlantic however, what Italy’s new judicial stance on the subject means for the first time, is that there is potential for a real fight on the ground from a political grass-roots front in a socially conservative European state. This is also intriguing for another reason. Italy’s health ministry also just cancelled one of Aurora’s cultivation licenses. For all the naysayers on the significance of this development, this should not be discounted.
Kind of like a Canada or Mexico moment for the continent indeed.
Not to mention what this discussion does for the CBD discussion. Both in Italy and elsewhere.
Look Homeward Deutsch Angel
Advocates across the continent if not the UK, are of course, also watching closely. Germany in particular, tried to avoid this exact discussion three years ago, but it is unlikely that advocates at least, will let this continental victory rest. Starting with the fact that this is a debate that was firmly shut off in 2017 with the passage of the medical cannabis insurance coverage law to widespread patient frustration and huge patient issues with access ever since. Even though, in fact, Guenther Weiglein, the German patient who brought the suit, took it as far as he could legally. His right to domestic cultivation, along with the few patients who managed to avail themselves of the same right before the law changed, are no longer allowed to do so.
So of course, beyond charging the debate in Italy, this development will also increase pressure in Germany (for starters) as well as other European countries to reconsider what so far at least has been verbotten and largely because of Germany’s lead so far.
Even in places like Holland, Denmark, Portugal, Spain and Greece, the domestic cultivation discussion has been off the table. Luxembourg, and just outside the EU, Switzerland, has not raised this prospect.
That may well change in all of these countries plus others as the clock now starts to tick down to the end of 2021.
Regardless, early predictions about the pace of change as well as the size of the markets have largely been wrong.
So, for all the intriguing possibilities, this is not a slam dunk, but certainly a strong charge down the court in the right direction.
2019 opened with a strange vibe in the air on the cannabis front. Israel and Thailand set the stage with dramatic reform announcements last Christmas. And as the calendar counts down to 2020, the larger players all seem to be licking their wounds (if not stock prices).
But cannabis reform is not just about profits on the public markets. What has gone down and where and ultimately, has the year lived up to its promise?
Reform Marched On In Several Countries
At this point, reform is certainly “too big to fail.” There will be no going back anywhere no matter the laggards still in the room.
From the perspective of opening patient access (and markets beyond that), There were several big stories on the medical front this year – and – in a real first for the EU – of not only the medical, but recreational kind as well.
Germany of course is going, relatively speaking, like “gangbusters” on the medical front although supply, quality and supply chain issues are still in the room. Even more so now because the German government has also announced, for the first time, a public reference wholesale price per gram of floss. That alone is big news, although expect that too to drop (see Aurora’s pricing for Italy, for starters).
In the UK, the NHS finally got down to brass tacks and negotiated a bulk discount for GW Pharmaceuticals cannabis drugs for a very narrow band of patients (mostly child epileptics and MS patients). A tiny minority of the estimated 1.4 million daily British “medical” users including those suffering from chronic pain can afford imports. The rest is all black, or in the case of CBD, gray market.
In France, the country finally got on the reform bandwagon with a “medical trial.” This means that all the major countries in the region are finally on board with some kind of reform. That too is a meaningful move.
Poland is also opening – a good sign for the remaining conservative countries in Europe still on the fence.
And in a real first (although do not get too excited just yet), on the “recreational” front, it is not just Holland that is in the room any more. Both Denmark and Luxembourg announced that they were opening this conversation. In Denmark and Holland’s case, this is in the form of “trials” in places where operational grey markets have already been established. In Holland, this is of course, regulating the “coffee shop” trade in large cities like Amsterdam. In Denmark, the new “trial” will be on the grounds of a revived hippy experiment called Christiana, that morphed predictably into the control of gangs over the last generation.
Luxembourg, however, seems intent on setting the benchmark if not timeline and is moving aggressively in one direction. As a result, as of this year, the strategic “heart” of Europe is now on the schedule to go full monty by 2022. That said, it is a country of about half a million people. Further, no matter the inevitably hype on the way, don’t expect the country to turn into a big cannabis hub- nor encourage pot tourism even from neighboring Europeans.
The end of 2021 is the time to watch for all things recreational. In the meantime, including next year, look for increasing “experiments” in other places. Particularly of the Swiss variety (where both recreational and medical products are sold via pharmacies.)
THC Is Being Accepted As Having Medical Efficacy
No matter the controversy in the room, and the strange inclinations of the British NICE to try to undo forty years of medical knowledge about the impact of THC on chronic pain, medical cannabis and specifically medical cannabis with THC has made its global medical debut as of this year.
That said, the push is on to “pharmacize” the product.
Flower (floss) is in the room, in other words, but the future is looking towards oils and distillates – at least for the medical market long term. And a lot of that will also come increasingly to this market from places like Portugal, Spain, Greece and other European markets now moving into the cultivation space seriously.
Then again, there is still a lot of road to travel. Wags who predicted that German health insurers would never pay for floss cannabis just five years ago were wrong.
CBD Is Not All Its Cracked Up To Be
For all those who sang “Free the CBD” this year, Europe has taken a rather conservative and concerted push back. From Austria to Italy and Sweden to Poland, the path to market for any product containing CBD has been a tough one this year.
That said, perhaps it is a call for more standardization- no matter how painful that might be economically. At a presentation given at this year’s IACM medical conference in Berlin, a medical researcher revealed the results of a study he had conducted on the accuracy of labelling of these products in several European countries. The industry has not standardized, labelling is all over the place in terms of accuracy – and the claims about “medical efficacy” are hard to swallow for substandard over-the-counter product.
If the CBD-based part of the industry is to thrive here, it will have to find a way to establish and certify itself. That appears to be going on in Italy right now. It also impacts every cultivator from Portugal and Spain to Eastern Europe looking at the possibilities right now.
However, with labelling and other EU cross currents in the room, this route to the industry has been fraught this year with all the cross winds and those are not likely to dissipate next year or indeed for the next several.
The Cannabis Winds Of Trade Are In The Air
While it may be a bit ironic, given that international trade has pretty much always been a hallmark of the development of the modern cannabis industry, next year will undoubtedly be the year of “International Cannabis Trade.”
No matter the problems “back home,” as of this year, a German-based manufacturer of GMP-certified product got fully underway (see ICC/Wayland’s success this year). That, along with the final decision on the first German cultivation bid, has clearly shaped a market that is still changing. And that change is driven by the admission, even by authorities, that there is not enough legal cannabis grown in the country.
That means that the strength of the German market will continue to drive policy (see the recent announcements on wholesale pricing) as well as demand that will be met across the continent.
Along the way, cannabis reform is also being driven locally. And that means, no matter the trials and tribulations of the Canadian part of the sector, which perhaps can be considered aptly warned for getting a bit too big for its britches, and no matter how faulting, the winds of reform are still afloat. Just perhaps, on the cards for next year and those to come, blowing from many more points on the globe.
One of the surest ways to understand that you are entering not just another country, but what is called an “emerging market” is when you travel from Germany to Poland by train.
There is only one “intercity” option from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff – a far cry from the modern, internet-connected, fast ICE trains that go West. This line is run by the Poles. By the time you reach Warsaw five hours later, however, it is clear at least some parts of this country are booming. The skyscraper construction in the center of town rivals London and Berlin.
Like every emerging market, there are vast disparities in wealth and income, if not opportunity here. And into this discussion, now is coming the entire cannabis discussion. Visiting, as an American, in particular, one is reminded of a city that could be East Berlin 15 years ago.
As a cannabis journalist, it feels, from this perspective, like every American state in the 1990’s. Reform is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But not quite realized yet, except for a few elites. Beyond such realities which are common in the world of cannabis, how very, well, Iron Curtain.
The difference of course, these days, is that the conversation next door in Germany, as well as other places, is finally forcing the Polish government to face reality. But it is clear, from interviews with activists and patients in particular, as well as the nascent newcomers from abroad testing the cannabis waters, that this fight is not going to be easy on the ground.
Then again, when and where has it ever been?
As always, real reform and market opening is driven by the sheer numbers of sick people who brave arrest to gain access to the plant. Some do it for themselves. Many do it for their children (of all ages). An elderly, boomer couple who talked to Cannabis Industry Journal about their ordeal also see it as a form of justified struggle. And Poles are no strangers to that, far from the cannabis kind.
That ethic is much in the room among the nascent industry that is also struggling to find respect. The Polish side of the discussion is looking at hemp. And growing THC illicitly, just like elsewhere.
But the budding movement here is highly organized, including on the business end, with hundreds of thousands of members. How this translates into a legal industry (besides media and hemp products) is of course, still up for grabs.
That is very much in the minds of those who brave the struggle daily. The patient collective in Warsaw is also highly organized – providing free and non-profit product to those most in need. It is an impressive operation. And further one that is increasingly distrustful of foreigners seeking “market share.” If not the already floating “suits.” Just knowing how to speak Polish, as the activists are, at least realizing, is not a guarantee that they will not be dealing with cannasharks only interested in their contacts and mailing lists. Patients over profits is a phrase you hear a lot here. This has nothing to do with not wanting to support a legit, safe industry. But when you are poor, you find ways to improvise. Including getting your medication.
The Foreign Companies…
Aurora and Canopy Growth are already in the room and there are other Canadians lining up to follow. However, these two are the only ones so far who have been able to get their products registered locally and even then, availability is still in the offing.
These are also highly expensive products. And do not begin to compete with producers now eying the Polish market from North Macedonia and the rest of Eastern Europe.
The foreign companies, in other words, are already broadly falling into two camps. North American curiosity seekers (at this point), and companies, mostly from the East and South, who are looking to Poland to be the “next Germany.” Especially because their product is so price and geographically convenient.
A Battle For Poland’s Emerging Market
It is clear that at least the Canadian companies are already lining up against more home grown and patient interests. Just as what happened in Germany and the rest of Europe so far. And not even on purpose, but more on matters of price.
Like other pre-commoditized markets, the Polish industry is still trying to be (relatively) equal and fair, as much as there is a huge amount of positioning already just below the surface. Everyone is tired of struggling. Dreams of cannabis riches are enticing just about everywhere.
Of course, add to that, patients are dying here, and that always sets the tone – especially when only the richest and lucky few can afford to access the drug through legitimate channels. Face pain, unpleasantness or death or buy in the black market? For the Polish industry on the forefront of the debate, in other words, the stakes are high, the government is moving glacially, and those on the ground are organizing to meet the winds of change.
Foment for another kind of Green Perostroika? Perhaps.
There will, almost certainly as a result of these forces, be a call for a Polish bid – and further one that allows for local producers to enter the medical market.
But the bottom line is that this strange, and exciting and certainly new market is going to be as volatile, and wild west as any in Europe for the immediate future. Expect interesting things, if not more of the same.
This year, there were two firsts in a convention already looking to the future with digitalization – itself a huge issue in not only the European medical space, but Germany in particular. There is a national obsession with privacy auf Deutschland that does not exist anywhere else.
Beyond digitalization, however, medical cannabis was also a major theme this year. Many of the largest producers and distributors showed up in force. So did the smaller, newer ones. There are now 19 licensed importers in the country – and quite a few of them showed up in Dusseldorf last week.
Beyond that, the expo also saw the birth of the VCA – the Verband der Cannabis versorgende Apotheken e.V (German Cannabis Pharmacists Association). This is a group of pharmacists who are on the front lines of the medical cannabis revolution on its most complicated, expensive and paper-laden end, determined to make their voices heard.
According to Tobias Loder, the owner of Luxe 99 Apotheke in Cologne and one of the organizers of the VCA, “There is huge interest in our association.”
For those of American extraction, at least, there has yet to be such a conference anywhere in the U.S. simply because of the lack of acceptance at the federal level of cannabis as medicine. In Canada, and elsewhere, national pharmacy chains are already getting into the action.
Germany, however, remains the strange, and as a result, most interesting exception.
In Düsseldorf this year, despite added traffic and a great deal of excitement, cannabis as medicine was, as the press attendant said as he handed out the Cannabis Industry Journal press pass, “par for the course” and “no big deal.” Even though of course, the generation of all the interest and intrigue.
The drug is, while still highly stigmatized, on its way to legitimacy here. And in a decidedly normal, Deutsch weg (way).
The Inside Skinny On What Is Changing For German Pharmacists
As revealed during the Denton’s medical cannabis conference in Berlin in late September (about a day before the news hit the expo floor in fact), things are indeed changing at the last mile of the regulated cannabis path. Why?
Within the next thirty days, doctors will be able to prescribe up to 100 grams of floss (dried cannabis flower) or cannabis oil by the gram per patient prescription. That means that patients can indeed go to the doctor every three months – and that there are in fact more regular users in the system. This is also an indication that the supply chain is also beginning to normalize – although there is a huge demand so far unmet by supply. And as a result, while two of the three bid winners are now getting down to cultivation, imports are still the name of the game.
On this front, things are also changing. Cannabis just came into the country from Portugal. Other countries lining up to import include not only Canadian producers, but those from Spain, Malta, Greece, Australia, South Africa, Columbia and of course, Israel.
This is also a step towards international normalization on the pharma side. Schedule II narcotics in the American system are dispensed every 90 days.
The rules about pharmacy mark-ups are also in flux. One of the reasons, for example, that medical cannabis has been so expensive is that, up until now, at least, pharmacists were required to mark up such product 100%. That is also changing. In fact, the Federal Union of German Associations of Pharmacists (ABDA) and the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Funds (GKV Spitzenenverand) have had to agree on a new surcharge that is expected to see significant and immediate savings of a projected 25 million euros.
It is not a casual argument or discussion. One of the reasons that the German pharmacy vertical has remained so strong and resistant to buyouts and consolidations is that by law, owners are limited to no more than three (and in so far one case discovered by CIJ in Bavaria) four brick and mortar pharmacies. The reduction in this preparation surcharge means that pharmacies will have to find ways to become more efficient. That is also a concern for the VCA, who, among other things, are looking to reduce their own overhead costs while gearing up to serve more patients.
Digitalization, innovation and more, in other words, is on the table. And German pharmacists, for one, are not only on the front line – but stepping up to the challenge.
In early September, Polish authorities halted medical cannabis product registrations.
It is still unclear what this was caused by. However, in conversations with the Dutch Cannabis Agency, Cannabis Industry Journal learned the Dutch government ran into significant problems with Polish acceptance of documents in the February 2019 timeframe. Further, CIJ has also learned that several other Canadian companies had apparently been trying to target Bedrocan products in Poland with this knowledge.
Even before authorities halted the registration process, it is clear that the often cut-throat game-playing seen in Germany frequently over the last few years, has also clearly entered the room just a bit east.
Is Cannabis Really Coming to Poland?
There is a national election in late October in Poland. There is a great deal on the line.
Including, of course, not just the dreams of Polish entrepreneurial hopefuls, but all of the largest cannabis companies on the planet. Poland has been a strategic and often unheralded market for most of them over the last 18 months. Aurora in fact, even announced its first import into the country last fall when the government announced a loosening of restrictions. And as the last country to enter into the EU-US MRA Agreement, with a conservative approach to cannabis at least in government, the country is ostensibly a big blue ocean for all things canna reform.
However, since most of the big companies use Germany as their product breakpoint, the news of a product registration delay nationally means that companies already in the room with EU-recognized product just got a big break.
Even if it is only short selling as much as they can into the market until product registration finally occurs.
A new kind of German-Canadian canna blitzkrieg of Poland is about to get underway this fall – certainly of the cannabis kind, although anyone with already registered EU product (see Germany for starters) has a big competitive leg up.
Cannapolitics Are In Play Across Europe
If this is the temperature in the room already, look for more machinations over the apparently pending Polish bid – although perhaps by that point, reform will have progressed far enough in Europe to prevent the same kind of local market hijacking by those with a public company and a will to dominate the market.
That said, expect backlash too, now from frustrated advocacy patient groups tired of more government blather about widespread reform that is clearly not mapped to come their way any time soon.
Here is the inconvenient and certainly unsolved reality in the room that so far has remained unsolved.
There is zero way that even the largest companies in the room can provide enough product, local producers are on the rise, and there is clearly a building “green-vest” kind of uprising in the burgeoning industry itself. EU local and national sovereign producers are getting into the game and in a big way.
The reality is that this plant provides relief to pain of several kinds – from patients to locally starved municipal and state budgets.
Recreational Is On The Longer Term Horizon – But Major Hurdles Remain
While the largest companies have clearly been in the room shaping reform policy and in ways that are not necessarily in the best interests of the overall industry itself, let alone patients, there is the real potential for backlash right now. Particularly in Europe which has heard all the wonder stories about the economics if not other impacts of cannabis reform.
Europeans – even in the industry here – who venture to American state markets in particular, but also Canadian outlets – are very much in envy. However, most also realize that the market here will evolve differently.
That is why there are now starting to be all kinds of trials on the map – and of the recreational and medical kind.
The culture is in the middle of a massive, cannabis shift. The early market entry created by the political and economic clout of the early movers was important.
But as the world turns ever more green, local politics, and even more importantly, sovereign cannabis production and even export is increasingly a political issue in the room.
As Europe swooned under record-breaking heat this summer, the cannabis industry also found itself in a rather existential hot seat.
The complete meltdown at CannTrust has yet to reach a conclusion. Yes, a few jobs have been lost. However, a greater question is in the room as criminal investigatory and financial regulatory agencies on both sides of the US-Canada border (plus in Europe) are getting involved.
As events have shown, there is a great, big, green elephant in the room that is now commanding attention. Beyond CannTrust, how widespread were these problematic practices? And who so far has watched, participated, if not profited, and so far, said nothing?
Who, What, Where?
The first name in the room? Canopy Growth.
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
By the turn of 2019, Canopy had announced its expansion into the UK (after entering the Danish market itself early last year) and New York state.
Yet less than two weeks later, Canopy announced not new cultivation facilities in Europe, but plans to buy Bionorica, the established German manufacturer of dronabinol – the widely despised (at least by those who have only this option) synthetic that is in fact, prescribed to two thirds of Germany’s roughly 50,000 cannabis patients.
By August 2019, right after the Canopy Acreage deal was approved by shareholders, Canopy announced it had lost just over $1 billion in the last three months.
Or, to put this in perspective, 20% of the total investment from Constellation about one year ago.
What Happened At CannTrust And How Do Events Line Up?
The current scandal is not the first at CannTrust either. In November 2017, CannTrust was warned by Health Canada for changing its process for creating cannabis oil without submitting the required paperwork. By March of last year however, the company was able to successfully list on the Toronto stock exchange.
Peter Aceto arrived at CannTrust as the new CEO on October 1 last year along with new board member John Kaken at the end of the month. Several days later the company also announced that it too, like other major cannabis companies including Canopy, was talking to “beverage companies.” It was around this time that illegal growing at CannTrust apparently commenced. Six weeks later, the company announces its intent to also list on the NYSE. Two days later, both the CEO and chair of the board were notified of the grow and chose not to stop it.
Apparently, their decision was even unchanged after the video and resulting online outrage about the same over the destroyed crops at the Canopy facility in BC surfaced online.
On May 10, just over a week after the Bioronica purchase in Germany, the first inklings of a scandal began to hit CannTrust in Canada. A whisteblower inside the company quit after sending a mass email to all employees about his concerns. Four days later, the company announced the successful completion of their next round of financing, and further that they had raised 25.5 million more than they hoped.
Six weeks later, on June 14, Health Canada received its warning about discrepancies at CannTrust. The question is, why did it take so long?
Where Does This Get Interesting?
The strange thing about the comparisons between CannTrust and Canopy, beyond similarities of specific events and failings, is of course their timing. That also seems to have been apparent at least to board members at Canopy – if not a cause for alarm amongst shareholders themselves. One week after Health Canada received its complaint about CannTrust, shareholders voted to approve the Canopy-Acreage merger, on June 21.
Yet eight days after that, as Health Canada issued an order to cease distribution to CannTrust, the Canopy board fired Bruce Linton.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
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