The CannTrust story may have shocked the uninitiated, but it hit almost every bogeyman the legitimizing industry has both feared and suffered from, particularly of late.
Here, generally, is the issue. Especially in Europe (even more especially in places like Germany, the UK and other emerging markets), budding cannapreneurs need each other. A distributor in Germany, for example, cannot get their final (federal) licenses allowing them to do business without establishing a relationship with an existing producer. That producer also needs relationships with established distributors to get their licenses.
In a fraught world, where all parties are evolving rapidly (and this also includes the “Big Boys” from Canada and several U.S. states including California), supply chain logistics, and even contract agreements if not licensing beyond that requires a level of honesty, integrity and transparency the industry, largely has not achieved yet.
That said, there are also parties, if not individuals and companies determined to set themselves on the straight and narrow – and play by the emerging “rules” – and then there are also clearly companies which, well, do not.
Being out of compliance, at any step of the chain, including when your product is sold via government agencies, is already a recipe for disaster.What this brave new world of cannabis requires, however, and from everyone – from grower, to manufacturer, packager, distributor and service delivery – is that all ecosystem partners must be in compliance.
Ensuring that can be a full time job. But what it also means is that to have a fully compliant product, every party in the chain bears responsibility for upholding standards that so far have proved hard to reach for many.
The time has come, in other words, where that is no longer an option.
The First Step Is Certification…
In a world where every member of the diverse cannabis ecosystem requires certification, determining what, and from whom is the first hurdle – both for buyer and seller. If one has GMP-certified product, that is awesome. But there are also treaties in the room that only allow some GMP certifications to be considered equal to others. If you are in Lesotho right now, for example, far from Europe, your biggest concern is not just looking to the EU but figuring out a way to export your crop into your neighbouring (and surrounding) country – namely South Africa.
This example, while seemingly far away, in fact, is the biggest bugbear in determining who can sell to whom even within Europe (let alone countries just outside and far beyond the region).
Determining cert presence, if not validity, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. And depending on who you are, that path alone is not a one time dalliance with authorities, but multiple certifications that must all also be kept current.
But It is Not The Only One…
The second hurdle, of course, is also checking the verity of everyone you do business with. For a producer, this includes making sure that processing, packaging, and even transportation are in compliance. In Canada, of course, this has been short circuited by the ability of producers to ship directly to patients.
In Europe, however, this is far from the case. And that is also why the entire conversation is also getting not only much more granular, but expensive. Pharmaceutical regulations are actually what guide the rules of the road here.
Walking floors, and checking, in person, may or not be mandated by international treaties at this point. However, most of the young producers on the ground here are implementing policies of personal visits to their vendors. In Massachusetts of late, this is also on the drawing board. Albeit on a “state” level, the reality is that both federal, state and more local training is a watchword, if not a must, now on the roadmap.
Being out of compliance, at any step of the chain, including when your product is sold via government agencies, is already a recipe for disaster.
And while that obviously is a challenge, companies must step up to the plate internally to commit to the same. It is too dangerous to ignore such steps. Including the easy to reach ones, like staff background checks and decent cybersecurity safeguards. The former has blown several enterprising cannadudes out of the driver’s seat already in Europe over the last few years. The latter is an emerging threat in a region that is also home to GDPR regulation (and growing fines).
For that very reason, certainly on the ground in Germany if not across Europe and in those countries and companies that wish to supply the same, supply chain verification, that is constant, consistent and verifiable, is the path for the industry both as of now and in the immediate future.
The cannabis industry is on the road to legitimacy, no matter the bumps, globally. No matter what, and no matter what happens next, that is a good thing. Issues like supply chain transparency, privacy, consumer and patient safety, and of course energy and water use have long been in the room just about everywhere.
Cleantech Is Cannatech
The modern cannabis industry was birthed and given significant shape in deserts (Israel, California, Nevada). In California, as of 2014, producers were warned, yet again, that they could not avail themselves of federally overseen aquifers of groundwater. The legitimizing industry trucked in what it needed.
On the medical discussion, in Europe, in particular, such issues are now in the room. All medical cannabis must be grown indoors. No exceptions.
That means low energy, high efficiency production is on the rise, not the wane.
What Does GMP Mean?
The overall regulations and operating procedures that surround this discussion are known as “Good Manufacturing Practices,” or GMPs for short. But like all the best acronyms, what the standards are, who sets them, and where they are equivalent is still a shifting picture.
Further, GMPs, and even more particularly EU-GMPs, are specifically referred to this way to distinguish the medically bound product from other consumer protection regulations that include novel food.
That said, “GMP practices” differ widely from industry to industry. The idea behind them, however is to prevent harm from occurring to the user, including that the end product is free from contamination, and the packaging as well as manufacture has been well documented. Additional requirements include that personnel are properly trained.
And while the practice, at the pointed end of enforcement can get nerdy, detail-oriented and specific, that is precisely the point. That is also why you might catch another variant of this acronym (cGMP – or current GMP guidelines), to denote a world that is changing fast.
Contamination of the supply chain if not the carbon impact of the same, for all food and plant-based pharmaceutical products is a 21st century problem that is exploding on the scene as fast as the planet warms and cannabis legalizes.
What Do GMP Guidelines Include?
These are guidelines, not steps. As a result, from a bird’s eye view, all international and sovereign national GMP standards include a few basic principles no matter how much they may differ in the weeds. Namely:
- That manufacturing processes are clean, controlled and processes are verifiable and repeatable. Changes to any and all must also be clearly documented.
- Record keeping, accurate accounting (of product and on the financial side) must be kept, including complete batch history through manufacture and distribution to the end user. Audits are a way of life.
- Recall procedures must be in effect.
- All complaints about products must be examined.
The World Health Organization (WHO) version of GMP is what’s used by pharmaceutical regulators worldwide. The European Union’s EU-GMP standards are seen as roughly equivalent, as are those now practiced in the U.S. by the FDA. That does not mean that confusion does not reign as standards are changing (across Europe, for example, between individual countries, there is still disagreement). However similar GMPs are used in countries including Australia, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. The UK, of course, is slightly different than anyone else but still has regulations that are roughly equivalent and referred to as “The Orange Guide” (in honor of the color of the book’s cover).
You Know It When You See It
Well, not quite. Beyond GMP, there are of course, other classifications for the kind of plant or product being made, manufactured and distributed. And here, along with international treaties about who can trade with whom, also impact this discussion.
It is not correct, however, for example, to claim that what are known as GACP guidelines (good agricultural and collection practices) are equivalent to GMP. Bio, or pesticide free production (in other words) is just one of many steps in meeting much higher standards now in the room for medically bound cannabis.
What Is GMP “Like”?
All industries have “best practices.” For example, the building industry has all sorts of codes and guidelines. However, in addition to this, about a decade ago, LEED (or green building) certification began to be implemented widely. In the U.S., in particular, there was much discussion about how honest such certifications actually were. The term “greenwashing” was frequently used to describe practices that were sold as energy efficient, but in the end cost more, environmentally and otherwise, than they should.
Like LEED, GMP is not a prescribed set of steps but rather best practice guidelines and regulations meant to guide industries on producing safe products – from seed to sale.
How Does This Differ From WHO Guidelines on GACP for Medicinal Plants?
The World Health Organization’s GACP guidelines are highly controversial in this context, especially when it comes to cannabis. Especially because they refer specifically to plants used as medicine that are “grown in the wild.” I.e. not greenhouse. How these guidelines are interpreted by different countries, however, within the context of the interpretation of “medical cannabis” not to mention pharmaceutical GMPs, are very different.
GACP guidelines, in other words, are sometimes the first step in qualification – but certification under the same (starting with outdoor grown crops produced without pesticides for example) is not likely to pass European medical standards any time soon.
As the industry faces what is undoubtedly a watershed moment for the international cannabis vertical, a new Spanish firm steps into the market with its own EU GMP certification license. Linneo Health is also helmed by the ever eloquent and highly experienced Jose Antonio de la Puente – a tall drink of water with a conscience, a brain and an admirable mission statement.
As Cannabis Industry Journal broke in our last story, a lack of international standards in Europe have been on trial of late. The same day that the CannTrust scandal began to blow in Canada and as Danish authorities rang global alerts, the only qualified packager in Holland was issued a new EU GMP cert. That is a government decision, not a commercial one.
This also implies, at minimum, government lack of coordination and agreement on EU GMP cert even between European nations, for a nascent industry while also trying to avoid the thorny issue of patient home grow. See also the trials and travails of the erstwhile German cultivation bid and its reconstituted Frankenstein-esque bigger if younger sister. In fact, this contretemps is almost certainly involved if not indirectly to blame.
Not All Is Entirely Rosy On Cannabis Europe’s Eastern Front
Almost simultaneously to Linneo Health’s announcement, however, the news came that in Poland, authorities had suspended the pending product registration process. Will this be on hold until after the October election?
In this environment it is almost impossible to know.
Here is one thing to consider. These almost simultaneous developments in Spain and Poland and the newest announcement about further certification of the Dutch recreational system under a new pending “recreational trial” are almost directly related.
That said, even such political maneuverings are not new – and far from limited to any single company. Both Germany and Poland have been wracked by reform stuttered by short term gain and market entry strategies executed by most of the biggest players in the room. Aurora, for example, announced their first import into Poland the same day the Polish government changed the law last fall. Aurora uses Germany as its breakpoint distribution center for Europe.
A Stamp of Authenticity That Is Sorely Needed
Beyond the pharma and market entry politics, however, this Alcaliber-helmed project creates a ring of authority to the same that creates at least one cannabis brand the European medical community can see the certification for.
For now at least, certainly among the ranks of the upper echelons of the international cannabis industry, there must surely be a sigh of relief.
EU GMP certifications (in other words, the authorization to produce product bound for a medical, pharma market) do not happen overnight. On the European front, this is surely at least a step in the right direction for an industry embattled by scandals, particularly of the securities, production, certification and accounting kind right now.
In this case, however, it is also clear that no matter the egregious oversteps and potentially illegal and certainly dubious behaviour of some members of the industry, there are also clearly those within it, and at high levels, who have tried to do the right thing. And further, from the beginning of the nascent industry here as of 2015.
Who Is Alcaliber?
Alcaliber is one of the world’s largest opioid manufacturers. Unlike American counterparts, the company decided several years ago to invest in and back ideas of the opioid-to-cannabinoid therapy model. Linneo Health is a 60% subsidiary of Alcaliber and 40% owned by a Spanish family office called Torreal, S.A.
This is, as a result, one of the most important GMP licenses in Europe at the moment if not the world. It means that within a pharmaceutical environment, the first widespread research and production of plants and therapies for those suffering from both chronic pain, plus neurological and oncological conditions that cause or are related to the same, will be put on a fast track long in the offing. Certainly in Europe.
And that for one, is a positive development that will have widespread implications elsewhere. Particularly given the news that the opioid epidemic in the United States finally has a name, and culpable parties.
What Else Is Unusual About This Project?
GMP certification is a vastly misunderstood concept at the moment. It is also a highly thorny one because of a still standardizing set of agreements. The regulatory environment is in place, in other words, but there are many, many gaps, as well as shifting rules and underlying treaties.
However, on top of this, there is also an amazing lack of innovation in interpretation, in part because of many misadvised consultants who are actually seeking to “save” production costs for their clients, or because they do not know any better. Or because producers are scared of doing the wrong thing.
The new project in Spain is unusual because it is a greenhouse grow that got EU GMP cert – although look for more of this in the future. It means that with careful, standardized, pharma production, not all regulated cannabis grows, even for the medical market, have to use huge amounts of energy in repurposed post-industrial developments. It is also certainly cleaner than growing outside. And, when done right, saves huge amounts of water.
Cleantech, in other words, has finally hit the cannabis industry in Europe. As well as a pharmaceutical company invested in the cannabinoid treatment of (at least) chronic pain.
That is an overdue and hugely positive development. No matter what else can be said for shenanigans engulfing the rest of the industry at the moment.
Tilray just did something very interesting. In addition to announcing that it was shipping product to German distributor Cannamedical via its Portuguese facility, it also announced that it had begun outdoor cultivation.
Even more intriguing: the company is claiming that somehow, via its proprietary technology (apparently), this kind of crop will be legit for distribution within the EU medical system.
There is only one problem with this. Outdoor growing does not sound remotely GMP-certified.
Here is the next bit of exciting news. Tilray, apparently, is not the only large Canadian cannabis company now operating in Europe that appears to be trying to get around GMP certifications for medical market penetration. Or appear oblivious to the distinctions in the international (and certainly European market).
And things are a bit smelly on that front, not only in Denmark post CannTrust, but in truth even in Germany, the supposed “Fort Knox” of regulatory consumer and pharmaceutical standards.
In fact, at least according to insiders, there is apparently quite a bit of gray market product sloshing around in the Teutonic medical market. Even though so far, at least not publicly punished for the same, nobody has been caught. Or at least publically reprimanded.
And who is on the hot seat at least according to most of the licensed if not just pre-licensed indie producers and distributors who were contacted for this story? Sure, there are dark horse “start-up” indie violators, but they are not the only problem. Many who talked to CIJ named big public Canadian companies too. And potentially Bedrocan beyond that.
Who Is Who And What Is What?
Part of the problem, beyond any kind of deliberate flouting of regulations on the part of many companies who are at least trying to understand them, is that global standards are different. “GMP certifications” of every country, even within a region like Europe, are in fact, not uniform. That is why, for example, the new EU-US MRA agreement had to be signed first regionally and then on a state-by-state level across the EU.
Beyond Germany of course, there are other problems that are coming to the fore.In the medical cannabis space, in particular, right now, that is causing problems simply because many with pharma experience are not hip to the many risks in the cannabis industry itself. On the Canadian, Australian and American side, there is also a lot of bad advice, in particular, coming from consultants who should know better.
To be properly EU and German GMP-certified, one of the required steps is to have German inspectors walk your production floor. It is also not good enough to have “pesticide-free” or national organic certification at the crop cultivation site, and add GMP cert at time of “processing.” That piece of misadvise has been showing up not only in Canada, but Australia too. And creates a nasty reality if not expensive retooling upon entering the legitimate market in Europe, for starters.
These Issues Affect Everyone In The Industry
In an environment where ex-im is the name of the game, and even the big guys are short of product, compliance is getting granular as smaller players step up to the plate – and many if not most hopeful Canadian producers (in particular) now looking to Europe for sales are not (yet) up to speed.
A big piece of the blame also lies in the lack of proper administration at the federal and state level too – even auf Deutschland. To get a distribution license, a company must actually get three licenses, although there are plenty in the market right now who begin to describe themselves as “distributors” with less than the required certs.
The lack of coordination and communication, including which certs to accept as equivalent and from where is creating a market where those who know how to game the system are.
For example, several people who contacted CIJ, claimed that uncertified product was making its way into Germany via Central and Latin America, through Canada, picking up “GMP cert” along the way. In other words, not actually GMP-certified but labelled fraudulently to make it appear that way.
The same claims were also made by those with on-the-ground industry knowledge in South Africa (Lesotho).
Beyond Germany of course, there are other problems that are coming to the fore. As CIJ recently learned, a firm authorized by the Dutch government to provide cannabis packaging, including for exports, was not GMP certified until July 2019 – meaning that all product they shipped internationally even within Europe before that date potentially has labelling issues. Cue domestic importers. If not regulators.
Grey Market Product Is Making Its Way In Through Official Channels
For those who are taking the time to actually get through the legal registration and licensing process, it is infuriating to see others who are apparently fairly flagrantly buying market position but are in no position to fulfil such obligations. It is even more infuriating for those who intend to meet the requirements of the regulations to realize that the vast amounts spent in consulting fees was actually money paid for inaccurate information.
And the only way ultimately the industry can combat that, is by standing up, as an industry, to face and address the problem.German distributors are so aware of the problem that they are starting to offer gap analysis and specific consulting services to help their import partners actually get compliant.
Government agencies also might be aware of the problems, but they have been reluctant to talk about the same. CIJ contacted both BfArM and the local Länderauthorities to ask about the outdoor grow in Portugal and the lack of GMP cert for a Dutch packager. After multiple run-arounds, including sending this reporter on a wild rabbit chase of federal and state agencies (who all directed us back to BfArm) and an implication by the press officer at BfArM that the foreign press was not used to talking to multiple sources, CIJ was redirected back to state authorities with a few more instructions on which bureau to contact. The state bureau (in Berlin) did not return comments to questions asked by email.
Here is the bottom line that CannTrust has helped expose this summer: the entire global cannabis industry is trying hard to legitimize. Not every company is shady, and there are many who are entering it now who are playing by the rules. But those who are hoping to exploit loopholes (including “name” if not “public” companies) are also clearly in the room.
And the only way ultimately the industry can combat that, is by standing up, as an industry, to face and address the problem.
Editors Note: This is a developing story. CIJ has been contacted by the Dutch Cannabis Agency as it investigates what appears to be an intra-government debate over qualification of EU-GMP cert, acceptance of audit documents and other matters within European countries that appear to have caused much of this confusion with regards to Bedrocan and its packager Fagron. Many reputable, licensed sources within the industry spoke to us on deep background, out of concern that they too would be held liable. That said, so far, nobody can explain why the only licensed Dutch packager, was issued a new EU GMP cert document on July 9, 2019, the same day that Danish authorities halted CannTrust product entering Denmark. That is a government decision. Further it is also still unclear why rival cannabis companies would attempt to contact the cannabis media with a certain (and misguided) spin on this situation.
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?
Why the immediate association? Bruce Linton, according to news reports, was fired as CEO by his board the same day, July 3, 2019, that CannTrust received its first cease and desist notice from Health Canada.
Further, there is a remarkable similarity in not only problematic practices, but timing between the two companies. This may also indicate that Canopy’s board believed that Linton’s behaviour was uncomfortably close to executive misdeeds at CannTrust. Not to mention, this was not the first scandal that Linton had been anywhere close to around acquisition time. See the Mettrum pesticide debacle, that also broke right around the time Canopy purchased the company in late 2016 as well as the purchase of MedCann GmbH in Germany.
Reorg also appears to be underway in Europe as well. As of August, Paul Steckler has been brought in as “Managing Director Europe” and is now based in Frankfurt. Given the company’s history of “co-ceo’ing” Linton out the door, is more change to come?
What Went Down At Canopy?
Last year, Canopy announced its listing on the NYSE in May. To put this in context, this was two months after the first German cultivation bid went down to legal challenge. By August 15, 2018 with a new bid in the offing, the company had closed the second of its multi-billion dollar investments from Constellation.
Yet by late October, after Bruce Linton skipped a public markets conference in Frankfurt where many of the leading Canadian cannabis company execs showed up to lobby Jens Spahn (the health minister of Germany) about the bid if not matters relating to the Deutsche Börse, there were two ugly rumours afoot.
Video showing dead plants at Canopy’s BC facility surfaced. Worse, according to the chatter online at least, this was the second “crop failure” at the facility in British Columbia. Even more apparently damning? This all occurred during the same time period that the second round of lawsuits against the reconstituted German cultivation bid surfaced.
Canopy in turn issued a statement that this destruction was not caused by company incompetence but rather a delay in licensing procedures from Health Canada. Despite lingering questions of course, about why a company would even start cultivation in an unlicensed space, not once but apparently twice. And further, what was the real impact of the destruction on the company’s bottom line?
Seen within the context of other events, it certainly poses an interesting question, particularly, in hindsight.
Canopy, which made the finals in the first German cultivation bid, was dropped in the second round – and further, apparently right as the news hit about the BC facility. Further, no matter the real reason behind the same, Canopy clearly had an issue with accounting for crops right as Canadian recreational reform was coming online and right as the second German cultivation bid was delayed by further legal action last fall.
Has Nobody Seen This Coming?
In this case, the answer is that many people have seen the writing on the wall for some time. At least in Germany, the response in general has been caution. To put this in true international perspective, these events occurred against a backdrop of the first increase in product over the border with Holland via a first-of-its kind agreement between the German health ministry and Dutch authorities. Followed just before the CannTrust scandal hit, with the announcement that the amount would be raised a second time.
German health authorities, at least, seem doubtful that Canadian companies can provide enough regulated product. Even by import. The Deutsche Börse has put the entire public Canadian and American cannabis sector under special watch since last summer.
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.
One week after that, the Danish recipient of CannTrust’s product, also announced that they were halting distribution in Europe. By the end of August, Danish authorities were raising alarms about yet another problem – namely that they do not trust CannTrust’s assurances about delivery of pesticide-free product.
Is this coincidence or something else?
If like Danish authorities did in late August 2019, calling for a systematic overhaul of their own budding cannabis ecosystem (where both Canadian companies operate), the patterns and similarities here may prove more than that. Sit tight for at least a fall of more questions, if not investigations.
Beyond one giant cannabis conspiracy theory, in other words, the problems, behaviour and response of top executives at some of the largest companies in the business appear to be generating widespread calls – from not only regulators, but from whistle blowers and management from within the industry itself – for some serious, regulatory and even internal company overhauls. Internationally.
And further on a fairly existential basis.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CIJ reached out to Canopy Growth’s European HQ for comment by email. None was returned.
Correction: This article has been updated to show that the Danish recipient of Canntrust’s product announced they were halting distribution one week after Bruce Linton’s firing, not one day.
Chances are if you follow the European cannabis scene, particularly out of Germany, that you might have heard of a firm called Farmako. They have certainly, in the three quarters or so they have been in business, been given a lot of “good press.” They certainly worked hard to get into the headlines.
The problem is that no matter how scintillating initial claims were to many members of the media if not industry beyond, the bloom was quickly off the rose in the same circles. Since at least March, these grumbles have earned the company increasingly bad press. Industry insider complaints and background knowledge also began appearing in places like Manager (a top German business magazine), Vice and Business Insider Germany. Behind the headlines and insider quotes, however, quite a few people are admitting, even if off the record, that while initially impressive enough to be believed – at least on the surface – most of Farmako’s claims have panned out so far to be just hot air. And there have been a lot of them, not only from the sourcing perspective but also from the research, scientific development and certainly tech fronts.
The rebutting, editing and confronting of which has also set off a round of really bad press.
Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Further, apparently even the embarrassing fallout (and of course resulting reorganization) is not what it seems to be. Which of course has also been described so far publicly by the Frankfurt-based company itself, and Berlin-based tech funder, Heartbeat Labs. The former of which are so far unsuccessfully walking back just about every claim made over recent months. The latter of which has a great deal of embarrassing egg on its face on the compliance front.
When reached for comment by Cannabis Industry Journal, Heartbeat Labs responded via email that they had none.
While Farmako is struggling to regain the confidence of the industry if not regulators and appears to be trying to hang on to its distribution license, the story itself is also illustrative of many of the failings of the so-far establishing cannabis industry. In Germany and elsewhere. Coming as it does within the summer of scandal involving both larger companies and start-ups, bigger questions about industry practices, in general are in the room. If not the backgrounds of those boasting about “industry experience” (or even worse when caught, “oops I have none, really”). Highly stereotypical fixes so far have also not helped.
Everyone makes mistakes in a world where everything is new and one where the regulations are constantly changing. The problem with Farmako in particular, is that there were so many.All the bragging in the English and German language press had consequences.
The Story So Far
Farmako made headlines earlier this year when they issued a press release claiming that they had inked a deal to “import 50 tonnes of cannabis from Poland.” They further claimed, when contacted by CIJ that they stood by the story. At this point, their claims were clearly about a future delivery. However, Farmako CEO Niklas Kouparanis then embellished further on Bloomburg. Kouparanis claimed that they were already distributing product from Macedonia.
The reality of course was nothing of the sort. While Farmako was distributing product it had sourced from other places, no Macedonian product had ever crossed the border. But as May rolled into June, it was clear that there was something else afoot. All the bragging in the English and German language press had consequences. The German press had a field day with the storied and very colourful past of both Farmako founders. The regulatory agency, BfArM conducted an investigation. Kouparanis was out by the beginning of July.
Producers Do Not Trust Them
Cannabis industry insiders (both producers and distributors) who contacted CIJ about this story, but wished to remain off the record, confirmed that many producers who had initially heard of the firm in both Poland and Macedonia, in particular, were distancing themselves from Farmako. But the stories were not limited to Eastern Europe. In the UK, where Farmako had used a chunk of its investment from Heartbeat Labs to also open a London office, cannabis professionals expressed scepticism of almost all of the company’s claims including not just sourcing, but on the tech and R&D side. One senior executive in the Canadian industry said on deep background that he was tired of the lies from Diemer in particular, and never wanted to speak to anyone associated with the company ever again.
And clearly all was not well within Farmako itself, no matter the constant cheery optimism, if not “shucks we didn’t know” attitude of all involved when actually confronted or questioned about their behaviour – and or statements – particularly to the press.
What Has Been The Upshot To Date?
Kouparanis may be history but Diemer remains with the company. Although Heartbeat Labs claims this has nothing to do with the subsequent company re-org and Kouparanis’ departure, insiders in the industry claim otherwise. Further, several also suggested that any attempt on the part of Farmako to enter into contracts until July was fundamentally compromised by the actions of Farmako execs themselves.
Diemer certainly, has been remarkably candid at least in review about one aspect that most in the cannabis industry who have encountered him so far agree with. He has come clean in interviews that he knows very little about the legitimate cannabis industry. Perhaps that is also why he has continued to claim that there is no crisis at the company.
Both statements of course also raise questions about why he is still there.
The company is still in business although apparently finding it very difficult to source product.The appointment of a new CEO, Geschäftsfüherinen– a female and first head of any kind of cannaspecialist distribution company auf Deutsch, Katrin Eckmans is also interesting. Eckmans makes her apparent cannabis industry debute with a professional background that includes ex-im at Frankfurt airport, after the quick departure of Kouparanis. Particularly given that he co-founded the company with Diemer after leaving a year long stint at Cannamedical (the second indie cannabis specialty distributor in Germany, established in 2017 by David Henn). And she is apparently being hired for both complementary experience and her gender (which while refreshing in a still male dominated industry is widely also regarded as at this point fairly easy-to-spot window dressing conveniently proffered to regain confidence of investors if not customers in a gender-friendly twist when a company or organization hits an existential crisis).
Calling in even a highly competent if inexperienced in the cannabis niche woman, in other words, even in this industry, does not necessarily “fix” things. This goes from company culture to critical relationships within the industry (upon which distributors like Farmako depend on at this point).
For now, at least, Farmako, and its financier in Berlin appear to have deflected criticism of their efforts although those who have had interactions with the staff are placing bets on when the doors in both Germany and the UK will shutter.
Farmako’s detractors may yet also lose such wagers. The company is still in business although apparently finding it very difficult to source product. Not, in this case because they cannot find it – but rather because producers are flat out refusing to work with them.
In the meantime, particularly other German canna specialty distributors are taking a lesson from this story. If Farmako survives, in other words, it will do so by overtaking the competition that has sprung up all around them – which is not only unburdened by the baggage, but is also determined not to make the same mistakes.
For those who have been watching, Luxembourg has played an inordinately influential role on the entire cannabis discussion in Europe for the past year.
This summer, the country announced that it had plans to implement recreational use (for residents only) within two years.
Last summer, the country not only changed its medical use policy as the Deutsche Börse tried to halt the clearances of cannabis trades made in Germany (Luxembourg is the place where the stock trades clear), but set a five-year mandate and timeframe as well.
This new announcement certainly is an attempt to signal at any rate, that the government is not going to run out the clock. But, realistically, with the extra six months already in front of the start date necessary to enshrine the legislation, plus whatever complications arise after that, Luxembourg could initiate its market on January 1, 2022.
Or, as is more likely, it could not. Including rolling delays caused by everything from EU objection and internal logistical hurdles of other kinds to lack of access to product.
Will Luxembourg “be the next Canada?” Probably not either. However it is also worth noting that legislators and lawmakers from Luxembourg have drawn recent inspiration via numerous fact finding trips to Canada of late.
It is also worth remembering that even Canada’s great, green, “well-oiled” cannabis machine delayed its recreational market start by months last year. And that was a scenario already a generation in the making.
Further, as some would argue this summer, certainly post CannTrust, the relative “speed” with which Canada embraced its recreational market is again being criticized for not only being precipitous but a direct cause of problems in financial compliance and tracking.
The lack of regulatory muster, in other words, that even allowed a CannTrust to happen, will not fly in Europe. Certainly not in a country where regulations, including that of the European kind, are decided upon (the other center of EU regmaking is of course Brussels).
For that reason, no matter how exciting the news to an industry fighting an uphill battle on medical efficacy, there is plenty of room to temper enthusiasm.
Luxembourg is not going to be “just like” anywhere seen so far. The needle has moved. And the conversation is morphing if not moving on.
One of the most intriguing aspects of all of this, of course, is how insurers will treat the entire discussion.
Holland Round 2?
Here is what Luxembourg also won’t be. A new tourist mecca for out of towners. At least according to the current discussion. How the government will prevent that, is of course unclear. The same grey areas exist in the law behind Barcelona’s social clubs. The Dutch have tried for most of this decade to discourage this – and have largely failed.
What it very well might be, however, is a catalyst for change. A before and after moment if you will.
Luxembourg, whatever it ends up being, in other words, is well timed, if nothing else, to be a reference point if not conversation starter about real reform.
Including of course, medical impact, if not, beyond that, efficacy.
Here is where Luxembourg might in fact, be much closer to the Dutch experiment than any other place. Despite the fact the country has had a coffee shop culture for over 30 years, and Dutch medical cannabis is exported to countries all over the world, here is what is missing in Holland: Medical health insurance coverage for patients. In fact, Dutch insurers, en masse, stopped reimbursing the drug as soon as Germany changed its insurance rules in March 2017.
If that is on the agenda for Luxembourg, in other words, no matter how exciting a timeline for recreational is anywhere in Europe, this will be a pyrrhic victory indeed.
There have been many significant developments this summer in Europe that will shape the debate about reform and the legal cannabis market that trails it, for at least the next year. Here is Cannabis Industry Journal’sroundup of our biggest events and trends over the summer so far.
Medical Sales Across Europe Are Slow
In Germany, it is easy to maintain a fairly ballpark understanding of patient count. Find the number of prescriptions issued in the trade press and divide by four. Everywhere else, however, the true realization of what is going on across Europe is slowly starting to hit everyone outside producers wanting to know what is going on.Establishing territorial footprint has been what the race in Europe has been all about since mid 2016 for the Canadian LPs so far.
This is going to start to hit stock prices soon beyond the wobbles already evident in the market thanks to this summer’s breaking industry scandals (CannTrust, lawsuits in every direction) to lack of financial performance for investors (Bruce Linton’s firing from Canopy). It is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone that just because a public Canadian company issues a press release about a (cultivation, import, export or processing) “event” does not mean anything other than a slew of social media telling everyone about it. The frustration with “forward looking” statements has hit European investors big time, from the retail to the institutional kind.
Despite a lot of press releases in other words, which clearly show market penetration, there is not much else going on from the sales perspective when it comes to growing those first numbers. Establishing territorial footprint has been what the race in Europe has been all about since mid 2016 for the Canadian LPs so far.
However, from an industry, if not investor and of course, patient perspective, patient numbers are what really count. And unlike Canada, where patients remain the biggest existential threat to the industry, the same industry may not sign them up or ship to them directly in Europe. For several reasons.
Germany is still the only country in Europe with a significant patient count, and while growing, slowly, is still a group where 2/3 of patients obtain dronabinol. It should shock nobody that the most accurate patient count right now in the UK is hovering somewhere under 20. For the whole country, 9 months after the law changed. While the peculiarities of Brexit are also in the room, this is so far, compared to U.S. state markets, Canada, Israel and Germany before it, pathetic.
The Industry Says It Supports Patients…But Does It?
There are several levels to this debate which start with the still appallingly high level of price gouging in the room. 2019 and certainly this summer is a time when the Canadian companies are clearly learning that European governments negotiate for drugs in bulk. Even (and especially in the near future) this one. See the difference between the EU and the US.
The level of industry promotion vs patient access recently reached a new nadir this summer when it emerged that despite a great deal of interest, more people showed up (by far) to the week-long cannabis industry conference (European Cannabis Week in London in June) than there are legitimate patients in the UK right now.
That is about to change, but so far, industry support for trials has not materialized. When the various trials now being planned do get going, look for new battles over a couple of issues, starting with patient access to and control of their medical data.
Novel Food: The Regulation That Keeps On Giving
The issues involved in this discussion are complex, certainly by North American standards. This of course starts with the fact that there is no such regulation on the continent. But also rapidly bleeds into puncturing the amount of hot air entrepreneurialism there is in the room.
The CBD market in Europe that everyone got so excited about in investor releases, in other words, is basically dead for the time being. Yes, there are a few smart niche players weaving around the regs, but it is a full-time job.
Here is the reality: Since Christmas last year when Austria put the kabosh on all products containing the cannabinoid CBD, several major countries have weighed in on the issue. It is not going away. And it is here to stay, even after recreational.
Political Advocacy Is Stirring In Europe
Whether it is the vagaries of Brexit, the discussion across the continent about how the EU will work together, right wing populist screeds about “too much regulation” or national elections, cannabis is in the room from now until the end of at least 2021 as one of the hottest global political issues under the sun. That includes of course, a discussion about global climate change, sourcing, pricing and resource use so far unaddressed but rapidly looming.
Further, patients are still having a voice – whether it is making sure that their children obtain imported CBD, or that they can obtain their own THC prescriptions without going bankrupt or having to solicit in the black market.
Cultivation Bids Looming?
One of the surest signs yet that the German authorities at any rate, are in no mood to solve the cultivation issues still on the ground and the bid itself, is that the government just renegotiated, for the second time since last fall, the amount of medical cannabis to come over the Dutch-German border. Who is going to go next? With the Italian hybrid now done and dusted, Poland is likely to be next. And when that happens, expect a raft of similar initiatives across Europe. But probably not until then.
And in the meantime? Distributors are looking for product. The demand is clearly there. But across Europe this summer there is a clear sense that the hype machine that has been the industry’s mouthpiece is at minimum overenthusiastic about the bottom-line details behind it all.
More than a few cannabis “education companies” – mostly from Canada and the U.S. but some with Israeli ties, plus German and British efforts have targeted Europe as the next logical expansion plan in their global roadmap.
These include most recently Cannvas Medtech Inc., and several initiatives funded by Canopy Growth, including teaching children about the drug. It also includes training programs for frontline staff, launched by Organigram (although in this case it appears to be geared towards “brand education.”)
There are also doctor training programs launching in the UK.
In Germany, there are several efforts underway, helmed by both doctors and cannabis advocates generally, in several cities around the country.
But how effective is all of this “education” in both preventing illegal use, and promoting legitimate sales?
Education Is Desperately Needed, But So Is Channel Penetration
Nobody is arguing that “education,” as well as trials and more information for payers and doctors are not required. The problem is that some education is more effective than other campaigns. And most of the talk in most places is more a discussion of the need for further regulatory reform, more trials and more investigation.
That has to get paid for somewhere.
That, at least in Europe is also tricky, as both early educational movers Weedmaps and Leafly have both found out, especially in medical only markets in the EU. Why? There are also highly limited opportunities for advertising either a drug, or to doctors.
Different Regulatory Environments Cause Bigger Issues
Even in Canada and the United States, there is an ecosystem of supplying the demand that has very much grown up customized by the strange paths to reform if not the first mover discussion.
That is not going to be the case in Europe, which in effect creates a brand-new ecosystem to educate, with new players, and every ecosystem participant group has a different kind of educational needs.
Here is one example of where this shows up. So far, in most countries, doctors are still highly resistant to prescribing the drug. Nurses, on the other hand, in both the United States and Canada at least, have proven to be a much more reliable source of converts for the cannabis cause. That approach of course is not possible in places like Germany where only doctors may issue prescriptions, including of the cannabis (and narcotic) kind.
The pharmacy discussion is also very much in the room – and this is not “just like” approaching a “dispensary” from North America. They are regulated chemists. Which causes a whole new set of issues and a serious need for new kinds of educational materials.
In Germany, for example, pharmacists are being recruited and trained by not only staff recruiters specializing in the same, but also sent on special training courses funded by the big Canadian companies (Tilray being the noticeable one recently). The brick and mortar vs. online discussion is also a big topic across Europe. Notably, where it is allowed and where it is, as in Deutschland, verboten.
And, of course, the big green giant in the room everywhere in Europe, in particular, is payer/insurance approvals, which are based on a kind of education called proven medical efficacy.
And that, so far, is in markedly short supply.
In the UK, it is so far the main reason that NHS patients (for example) cannot access coverage for the drug to treat conditions like chronic pain.
In the meantime, the most widespread “education” that is going on, is still mostly at the patient level. Especially when patients sue their insurers, or lobby doctors to prescribe.
The cannabis industry may be maturing, in other words, to be able to answer these questions – but there is also clearly a long way to go.